Dec 22, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Margus Hunt (99) and defensive end Will Clarke (93) take the field prior to the game against the Denver Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 37-28. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
This past season the Bengals pass rush was pretty abysmal. Because of this, opposing quarterbacks sat in the pocket comfortably and enjoyed copious amounts of time to pick apart the Bengals’ defense. This has left many fans justifiably clamoring for improvement along the defensive line. More specifically, many fans and pundits have called for the Bengals to draft a defensive end, as most often these are the players that are associated with producing a pass rush. But if the Bengals were to draft a defensive end in the first round, this would likely be a rare misstep for a team that has drafted well in recent years.
During the past two drafts, the Bengals have selected two defensive ends with relatively high selections. In 2012, the team selected Margus Hunt with one of their two second round selections. In 2013, it was Will Clarke who was selected, but this time with a third round pick.
It’s due to last year’s struggle to apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks that fans have grown impatient with these two young players. Nonetheless, there’s a reason patience is regarded as a virtue, and though success isn’t guaranteed for either of these players–it rarely ever is for any player–giving up on either at this point in time would be a misstep for fans.
Upon being drafted, the Bengals knew Margus Hunt was a “project player.” Coming to America for college, Hunt had barely heard of football, much less played it, upon his arrival at Southern Methodist University. He possesses incredible size and displays such impressive athletic ability that former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer famously compared the young player to J.J. Watt. Yet despite such a comparison, no coach nor Bengals official has ever veered from the understanding that Hunt would require much time and coaching if he were to ever have a shot to reach his potential.
Hunt made some obvious improvements from Year One to Two, but was hampered this past season by an ankle injury for a stretch of four games in the middle of the season; it undeniably effected his development. But regardless of whether he made strides or not, the point here is Margus Hunt must be seen through a prism of his own. Most fans like to see players make substantial improvements heading into their second year of action. This while most would also acknowledge the very real existence of the sophomore slump.
Understanding this, one must re-evaluate their expectations when it comes to such a raw college prospect. Is it unfair to say that Margus Hunt should be awarded an extra year–meaning two–to develop considering his lack of football experience prior to his arrival in Cincinnati? I understand fans impatience considering both last year’s struggles and the Bengals vexing penchant for sticking with some players far past their welcome, but Margus Hunt is undeniably a special case and must be treated like one.
Will Clarke came to the Bengals with the “project” tag also. The Bengals invested their third-round selection in him understanding that he possessed great size and even the ability to put on “good weight,” but also understanding that he would require coaching as he was another raw prospect, though not nearly to the level of Hunt.
So at the risk of sounding repetitive, considering 2015 will be Clarke’s second NFL season, is it really time to already move on from him? We’ve yet to see Clarke in 2015, so we really have no way of understanding whether or not he’s made improvements from where he was a year ago.
When heading into the 2015 draft, the Bengals must consider their defensive line personnel. At defensive end they currently possess a stud in Carlos Dunlap, a solid end in Wallace Gilberry, who proved in 2014 that he’s best in a rotation, and two young players in Hunt and Clarke.
Meanwhile at defensive tackle, things are looking much less promising. Geno Atkins should only get better in 2015 after using much of this past season playing himself into shape following surgery, but he may be the only “sure thing” amongst this group. Brandon Thompson is by far the second best player, but will largely be employed during running situations. Domata Peko may very well remain with the team in 2015 (according to Geoff Hobson), but should be relegated to a reserve role as his skills have noticeably diminished over the past two seasons. Finally, Devon Still hasn’t lived up to his second round billing for several justifiable reasons, but nonetheless can’t be accounted as a productive piece going forward.
Considering the personnel, it seems obvious the team should prioritize finding a defensive tackle (or two) during this year’s draft: one early and one later in the draft. Finding a dominant force to employ next to Geno Atkins would give the Bengals potentially three dominant linemen. More importantly to this conversation though, would be the impact it would have on the young defensive ends. Having another space eating tackle that could demand double teams would allow these young “project” ends to burgeon. They’d face less blockers and be presented with more auspicious circumstances. This could lead to improved play and confidence simultaneously, which would be a huge help to the Bengals’ pass rushing prospects going forward.
Acquiring a dominant defensive end is the “sexy” idea for this off-season. But doing so means essentially moving on from either Gilberry, Hunt, or Clarke at such an inopportune time as none have proven to be such a disappointment. Defensive tackle needs to be the issue going forward. Whether the Bengals acquire one (or two) via free agency or the draft is and should be up for debate. But deciding between which one of the two positional “needs” to prioritize really shouldn’t be.
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