AFC North Positional Rankings: Defensive Line

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Nov 6, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback

Brian Hoyer

(6) is sacked by Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (97) in the first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

1. Cincinnati Bengals

DE: Carlos Dunlap

NT: Domata Peko

DT: Geno Atkins

DE: Michael Johnson

Last season was a down year for Cincinnati’s defensive line; the entire Bengals defense only managed to sack 20 quarterbacks all season, worst in the league and less than J.J. Watt‘s and Justin Houston‘s individual sack totals on the season.

But with the offseason addition of Michael Johnson from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati’s line now features all four starters from the team’s dominant 2012 and 2013 seasons in which the defensive line caused absolute chaos for opposing teams and was arguably the best defensive line in football.

While it’s hard to anoint Cincinnati’s D-line as the best in the AFC North despite a horrendous 2014 season, the same could be said about any other team’s line in the division. 2014 was a bad season for AFC North defensive lines, but with Michael Johnson back in the fold, Cincinnati’s line figures to drastically improve.

Nov 6, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (97) against the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium. The Browns won 24-3. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

For the Bengals’ defense, it all starts with the best defensive lineman in the AFC North, defensive tackle Geno Atkins. The three-time Pro Bowler changed the game at defensive tackle, proving that undersized linemen can still be effective in the run game and can dominate opposing linemen in the passing game. At just 27 years old, Atkins has 32 career sacks in just five seasons, averaging over six per season. And that even includes his rookie season in which he only started one game, his 2013 season in which he missed about half the season after tearing his ACL and his 2014 season in which he was still recovering from the 2013 injury.

And now that he’s healthy again, Geno Atkins looks like a dominant player once again. Coaches have raved about how scary he is and opposing players have as well. Weston Richburg, the Giants’ center, told a New Jersey reporter that although Atkins measures in at about the same height, “he’s a way superior talent.” Giants coach Tom Coughlin and offensive linemen Justin Pugh also sang his praise in the same article, noting his dominance on a couple of practice plays. Bengals beat writer Geoff Hobson called Geno “the best player on the field either side of the ball” during training camp; if Atkins can return to form, the Bengals defense will almost certainly be dominant.

Nose tackle Domata Peko needs to be replaced as a starter. He brings veteran leadership to a team that needs it, but the team has better options; here’s to hoping that Cincinnati utilizes at least one of those options.

Brandon Thompson is an excellent run-stopper who compliments Geno Atkins well and is an under-the-radar potential starter. Devon Still looks to be in better shape after eating healthier and losing weight that he claims to have gained from the stress of his 2014 season in which his daughter Leah was undergoing chemotherapy. Marcus Hardison had a great first outing in the Bengals’s preseason clash with the New York Giants and is versatile enough to play at end or tackle.

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But the Bengals’ most likely option to replace Peko is

Pat Sims

. Sims, like Hardison, had an excellent showing in the Bengals’ bout with the Giants, Sims’ first time donning the stripes since he was a Bengal from 2008-2012. He’s not much of a pass-rusher, but Sims is a great run-stopper; and with players like Atkins, Dunlap and Johnson on the line, all Cincinnati’s nose tackle needs to do is to stop the run. Sims has only started all 16 games of a season one time in his career, but even if he doesn’t start all 16 games, he’s a great player who fits in Cincinnati’s system well.

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At defensive end, Carlos Dunlap has emerged as a borderline Pro Bowl-caliber player, accumulating 35.5 sacks in his five years pro. Dunlap is the epitome of consistency; he racked up 20 sacks in his first three seasons, despite starting just two games in those three seasons. And with 15.5 sacks in his first two years as a starter, Dunlap looks like a major breakout candidate. Even though Dunlap recorded eight sacks in 2014, his stats still didn’t show how dominant he truly is. Only twelve more players recorded more hurries than Dunlap’s 17 hurries last season, and only five of those twelve were defensive linemen. He also recorded eight stuffs in the run game, tied for 10th in the NFL. Dunlap is primed for a breakout year, you heard it here first.

And finally, lining up opposite Dunlap is Michael Johnson, who returns to Cincinnati after a year in Tampa. Johnson’s 2014 season was atrocious, but he will have another chance to prove himself when he returns to the field donning the stripes. At just 28 year old, Johnson is a year removed from a season in which he was one of the NFL’s best run-stopping defensive ends. He’s also two years removed from a season in which he recorded 11.5 sacks. It’s a bit unreasonable to expect Johnson to be an elite defensive end after such a bad season, but he should still be an upgrade over former starter Wallace Gilberry, who is better suited in a rotational role anyways. Johnson brings a run-stopping prowess that can’t be matched by many defensive ends, and because he will be playing alongside two dominant defensive linemen, Johnson could find the motivation he needs to reestablish himself as a dominant force on the defensive line.

Cincinnati’s revamped defensive line is the best in the AFC North; despite an abysmal 2014 season, the team’s three quality starters and abundance of depth in the rotation should help the line reestablish itself as one of the NFL’s best. And with Paul Guenther gaining confidence after a disappointing rookie season as the Bengals’ defensive coordinator, he should be able to find a few ways to help the defensive line become dominant once again.

Next: AFC North Positional Rankings: Offensive Line