Nov 16, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes reacts after a fumble recovery against the New Orleans Saints during the fourth quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Bengals defeated the Saints 27-10. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Free agency just got very interesting for Cincinnati Bengals fans. It’s an unusual feeling, as the team often stays out of the free agent mix, but per the word of Marvin Lewis earlier in the off-season, the team is acting more aggressively. Although nothing has been determined yet, this seems like the right approach considering what the Bengals could come away with this March.
Currently, the Bengals are hosting a visit from free agent defensive tackle Nick Fairley. The team liked him during his draft process, but he was selected prior to a time the Bengals were able to. Regardless, his visit to Cincinnati represents hope that the team could add an effective defensive tackle to line up alongside Geno Atkins. Nick Fairley is a disruptor in the backfield and would take much pressure off of Atkins, who’s been double teamed consistently over the past couple of seasons. He’d also help sure up the run defense, an area where the Bengals struggled last season.
His impact would be felt by the team’s defensive ends also, most notably Carlos Dunlap. Being more one on one matchups on the outside would help Dunlap continue to burgeon while developing players such as Margus Hunt and Will Clarke would have an easier time finding their own success.
Both the linebackers and members of the secondary would also benefit from Fairley’s skill set. A downhill player such as Rey Maualuga would find running lanes free of blockers and hence, they opportunity to get deep into the backfield to make plays. This while playmakers such as Vontaze Burfict would be freer to roam and locate the ball unhindered. And though the secondary played well in 2014, they were often asked to cover receiving option far to long. Fairley would help solve that issue. Fairley’s presence could single-handedly change the outlook of this unit in 2015.
While the Bengals are hosting Nick Fairley, it just so happens that former defensive end Michael Johnson was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bengals have a strong affection for their former player and have already expressed an interest in his return. Having the opportunity to formulate a reunion with such a player would complete this team’s defensive line, and all but assure it’s dominance in 2015.
Michael Johnson would presumably start for the Bengals from day one. He’s well aware of the Bengals’ defensive scheme, so he should have little time acclimating once more. As a strong run defender, he’d ensure the team’s protection against the run from the right side of the line, something that is especially important when facing strong running attacks across the AFC North.
More than this, the Bengals would be able to put fellow linemen in a better position to succeed. Veteran Wallace Gilberry could return to a reserve role where he flourished in the past. Gilberry produced 14 sacks in his two seasons as a reserve in Cincinnati. Last year, in a starting capacity, he only produced 1.5 sacks. Clearly he’s a better role player than starter.
As for reserve Will Clarke and Margus Hunt, the team took them on as project players. Margus Hunt should be ready to contribute heading into his third year in the league, but Will Clarke, in only his second year, would have the opportunity to work his way into a niche of his own. Their depth would potentially be incredible.
With this depth, Paul Guenther and Jay Hayes would enjoy incredible flexibility along the defensive line once more. Wallace Gilberry has proved effective in a rotation, and sometimes at defensive tackle. Having the opportunity to employ him there would be only beneficial. This while the team has used Margus Hunt in such a capacity, and could continue to do so if necessary. Upon drafting Clarke, Paul Guenther expressed his belief that he could put on enough muscle to possibly become a defensive end/tackle hybrid. It’s easy to see that depth could not only ensure this line’s success, but also against just about any injury that could present itself.
Acquiring both Nick Fairley and Michael Johnson is admittedly a long shot. Fairley may be visiting Cincinnati, but isn’t short on suitors. Until he signs the dotted line, nothing can be assumed on his front. Meanwhile, Johnson will face a similar situation, as there will surely be several teams inquiring about his interest. With Mike Zimmer in Minnesota, Johnson could certainly end up there.
Nonetheless, the Bengals are in the mix and have the attention of both players. This is half the battle. If they are able sell both on the idea of playing in the Queen City, fans will enjoy potentially one of the league’s most potent lines, if not it’s best.
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