2017 Bengals positional review: defensive line

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 8: Tyrod Taylor /

The Cincinnati Bengals defensive line continues to be one of the strongholds of the defense. Can they still improve in 2018?

The Cincinnati Bengals defensive line is the threshold of the defense with some elite talent. Guys like defensive end Carlos Dunlap and defensive tackle Geno Atkins are what really stand out on a consistent basis. The team also saw some improvement from others including some rookies in 2017 as they hauled in a total of 41 team sacks compared to their 33 from 2016.

While Carl Lawson, the Bengals fourth-round pick from the last offseason, is considered a linebacker, he played mostly a defensive end position/edge rusher for the team in 2017. Playing defensive end in college, pass rushing seems to be his strong suit. Head coach Marvin Lewis spoke about Lawson at the league meetings discussing him moving into some more linebacker roles as well come 2018.

Lawson will still likely see most of his snaps rushing from the edge but it could also mean more snaps for some of the other defensive ends. Defensive end Michael Johnson has been a player the Bengals have been high on for a while now but is getting up there in age. His contract expires after this season but there have been a lot of rumors on whether he will be a cap casualty this season.

Another draft pick from 2017, defensive end Jordan Willis who was drafted in the third-round by the Bengals, will likely see his role increase during his second season with the team. Willis was projected in most mock drafts to go in the early part of the second round last year but ended up falling to the Bengals in the third. His raw talent needed some development but he had all the looks of being a solid end at the NFL level.

An area that Willis holds over Lawson is playing against the run game. Willis does a nice job of setting the edge and getting after running backs. Like most rookies under Lewis, Willis saw a low snap count in his first year with the club. While only logging 360 snaps last season, 212 of those were on running downs. If the team decides to move on from Johnson, we could see a big increase in Willis’ play time.

For a team that struggled against the run game last season ranking 30th in yards given up per game with 127.9, it makes sense for Willis to see the field more going forward. The defensive tackle spot next to Atkins has been a spot that still needs addressing after poor play last year from that spot. Young defensive tackles Ryan Glasgow, who’s entering his second year with the team, and Andrew Billings, entering his third, are guys that could still step up into that role and possibly be an upgrade.

What changed from 2016

In my opinion, not just basing off of sack numbers which they increased in 2017, but the overall line got better in 2017. There was still a hole next to Atkins in the middle even with guys like Domata Peko and Pat Sims taking most of the snaps there in 2016. The overall line seemed more productive compared to 2016.

The main three linemen from years past of Johnson, Atkins, and Dunlap all either matched or topped their 2016 production in tackles in sacks. Then adding in Carl Lawson, while he is technically a linebacker, and the defensive line looked much better in the passing game especially.

The team took a step back against the run in 2017 moving from 12th allowing 113.2 yards per game in 2016 to the bottom of the pack. There is still work to be done in the middle and even on the edge across from Dunlap but there are players that have still yet to get a full chance to prove their worth.

How can the defensive line improve in 2018

Cincinnati has already brought in defensive tackle Chris Baker who was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason. Whether or not he will be an upgrade or just a depth guy is unknown at this point but the position needs help. Baker struggled against the run last season in Tampa Bay and looks more like a pass rusher in the middle than a run defender.

Bringing in another guy through the draft might be an option for the Bengals in the earlier rounds. However, both Glasgow and Billings have yet to see much playing time and are still hopeful to develop into better run defenders. If the team doesn’t see either of these players, both very young, they should look to add even more depth to the unit.

Lawson will still see pass rushing snaps for the Bengals but Willis should see more time as well across from Dunlap on passing downs. His little playing time last year as a rookie gave us little to see where he was in his development. A raw talent coming out of college but the talent is there and the team should look to increase his role as well. Especially in the run game when Lawson seems to struggle with it.

Cincinnati should still bring in another talented defensive end to the group with both Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap only having one year left on their current contracts. If the team cannot reach another longterm deal with Dunlap, they will need a player to fill that role moving forward but for 2018, this line looks like it can top even last year’s production in both the passing and rushing game.

Draft prospects the Bengals could target

There are a couple players that the Bengals could consider as possible prospects if they decide to address the defensive line early in the draft. Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst is a great prospect that wasn’t able to contribute at the combine due to a heart condition but looks like a promising prospect none the less. We did a film review on him that you can find here.

Hurst is a solid player with a quick burst off the snap and great hand placement to get the first contact on offensive linemen. While he’s smaller than most defensive tackles, Bengals fans should have no problem overlooking that if the rest of the talent is there as Geno Atkins is also a smaller build for a defensive tackle. He can get into the backfield and disrupt plays consistently and if he can prove to do the same at the next level, especially while playing next to Atkins, he could be a great prospect.

Another player that the Bengals have already met with is Alabama defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne and you can find his film review here. Payne finished his college career with an excellent showing the championship game against Georgia. He was consistently wreaking havoc in the backfield in both the passing and rushing game.

Next: 2017 Bengals positional review: offensive line

While Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea is still the top prospect and likely gone by the time the Bengals pick, Payne is a more versatile tackle. Vea is better against the run than Payne, even though he is still a great run stuffer, but Payne has more abilities to rush the passer as well and not just be a help against the run. Finding someone that can come in and play against both is key for the Bengals improving their line. He would look really good next to Atkins and Willis or Dunlap.