Sep 13, 2014; Boulder, CO, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils defensive lineman Marcus Hardison (1) reacts after sacking Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Sefo Liufau (not pictured) during the first half at Folsom Field . Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
With the 135th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals chose to select Arizona State defensive lineman Marcus Hardison. Investing in Hardison seems hardly surprising given his elite level of versatility. While playing for the Sun Devils, despite being 6’3″, 307 pounds, Arizona State often employed him as a defensive end. Conventional wisdom says that a player of such size would play at defensive tackle, but not in Hardison’s case.
Where the Sun Devils chose to line up Hardison seemed irrelevant last year as he finished with 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. This type of versatility should prove very helpful to the Bengals in the coming season.
Hardison should be able to fill-in wherever necessary along the line, should bolster the team’s pass rush, and could prove to be an effective player against the run. But his addition to an already loaded defensive line begs the question, how will the Bengals find him a place on the roster?
The Bengals currently possess seven defensive ends: Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Margus Hunt, Will Clarke, Wallace Gilberry, Sam Montgomery, and Dezmond Johnson (undrafted free agent). These players while Cincinnati also possesses eight defensive tackles: Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Brandon Thompson, Pat Sims, Devon Still, Kwame Geathers and now, Marcus Hardison and Clemson’s DeShawn Williams (undrafted free agent). I include Hardison as a defensive tackle per the Bengals comments following his selection).
"“We think he’s a defensive tackle. In their defense they play somewhat of a hybrid 3-4, so sometimes he’d play out at end, he played inside at tackle. He showed the flexibility and the ability to learn in their defense and play a bunch of different spots. So when you’re watching the tape, it’s easy to keep track of him because he wore No. 1, but other than that, he’s going to be in different spots.”"
The Bengals typically carry nine defensive linemen: five defensive ends and four defensive tackles. Due to the versatility of several of their “defensive ends” (Hunt, Clarke, and Gilberry), this number could be divvied out in several ways though.
It seems like a given that Sam Montgomery, Kwame Geathers, Dezmond Johnson and DeShawn Williams will battle for spots on the practice squad. This takes the total number of defensive linemen down to 11. Unless Devon Still manages to give the Bengals cause to believe he will live up to his pre-draft promise–this seems highly unlikely at this point–he will likely also be released; he won’t be eligible for the practice squad having already played three seasons. The number is now down to 10.
From here, the tough questions start to materialize. There’s always the possibility the Bengals carry 10 players along the defensive line, but this possibility comes with a large caveat. Defensive linemen aren’t often productive on special teams, which makes keeping an extra player a difficult task. Can the Bengals really afford to keep only six linebackers? And whom would they cut given how young and talented that group is? Can Cincinnati only keep eight defensive backs? Again, given the talent pool and how often the Bengals utilize the nickel set, though possible, it seems unlikely.
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So if the Bengals must cut their defensive line roster down to nine, how do they do so? Dunlap, Johnson, Hunt, Clarke, and Atkins all seem like roster locks. This leaves Gilberry, Peko, Sims, and Thompson.
Brandon Thompson seems like he will end up on the 53-man roster given Marvin Lewis has already tagged him as one of the defensive players he’d like to see more of in 2015. This leaves Gilberry, Peko, and Sims, and a case can be made for each.
Wallace Gilberry would seem to be the most unlikely initially. His ultra-versatility is highly appealing to the Bengals, and with him moving back to a reserve role, it’s possible that his productivity returns as well; Gilberry at 14 sacks in the two years prior to becoming the team’s starter in 2014. But it’s the versatility that actually raises questions. If new linebacker Paul Dawson is a Vontaze Burfict clone, then Marcus Hardison is a Wallace Gilberry clone. Is it possible that if Hardison performs well enough in camp that Gilberry, at 30 and with a $2.05M cap hit, becomes expendable.
Personally, I would advocate for this and would be disappointed if this was the result post-training camp. Gilberry is far too valuable on third downs and has proven to be highly-effective as a pass rusher. After producing only 20 sacks last year, this team needs help rushing the passer and Gilberry can help their rush.
With regards to Peko and Sims, things get interesting. These two players are largely responsible for demanding the attention of multiple blockers and stopping the run. The Bengals love Domata Peko as evidenced by Paul Guenther’s comments last year.
"“I don’t know why he doesn’t get more recognition. He means so much to our defense. He’s the glue, the pillar that keeps everybody together. He’s a damn good player. No question. Bar none. We think he’s the best pure 4-3 nose tackle in the league. Point blank. Period. Look at how his teammates feel about him. They’ve voted him captain again.”"
As Guenther suggests, I love Peko as a man. He’s precisely the kind of role model you want athletes to be and undoubtedly gives his all. That said, I believe, as do many other fans, that Guenther is a bit off base when he calls him the best 4-3 nose tackle. Peko’s play has taken a turn for the worst in recent years and he often only commands a single blocker who all too often handles him. But replacing a leader is never easy, and the Bengals are justifiably loyal to their players, though something should be said for the message it sends when underperforming players are kept year after year.
Can the Bengals continue to justify an underperforming Domata Peko? Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
As for Sims, he’s the opposite in some ways. He’s proven to be very effective against the run and this continued after leaving the Bengals a couple of seasons ago. When juxtaposed to Peko, it seems he is the more effective player against the run; the primary job of these two. He also holds up better against double teams. But Sims isn’t the locker room leader that Peko is. This isn’t to say he’s a negative presence, but he’s certainly no captain, and something can be said for this being vital.
When deciding whom to move on from, if it were up to me, I would have to pick Domata Peko. The Bengals have done an excellent job of acquiring quality players and people, which has created an excellent locker room. With tough decisions like this, they must lean on those players to become leaders and essentially replace Peko in this role.
Whether one agrees with it or not, Rey Maualuga remains on the defense and is regarded as a leader. Vincent Rey is a captain of the special teams unit, so he undoubtedly possesses leadership qualities. And when do players such as Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap step up as leaders? Lewis may have already hinted this offseason that Atkins must return to his pre-injury form both on and off the field in the coming season. With regards to his relationship with the media, and his on-field play to an extent, Lewis had this to say:
"“That’s another head-nodder who went back into his shell a little bit. I think we’ll all see the return of the pre-injury Geno this year as far as how he relates to you guys and everything else he’s asked to do,” Lewis said. “I think everybody would welcome that back.”"
Atkins willingness and ability to step up as a leader, amongst others, could mitigate the loss of a player like Peko. It’s something that naturally should happen over time with players of such stature (Atkins) as players like Peko are bound to become less effective as time goes on.
The Bengals’ decision as to whom and what will make up their defensive line will be a highly challenging and emotionally difficult question for the team. Will they choose to replace a Hardison-like player in Wallace Gilberry? Will they move on from Pat Sims once again despite him likely being the most effective player against the run other than Geno Atkins (and maybe him too)? Or will they do the unthinkable and actually move on from a player who seems to have full control of the organization’s heart strings? I expect it will be one of the more difficult decisions the team may have to make come August.