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Evaluating the Bengals Defense before OTAs

Happy Memorial Day, and welcome back to Part II of our Breakdown of the Bengals roster as they head into OTAs on Tuesday.  In Part I, we covered the offense, and if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, you can follow this link.  Without further ado, here’s our breakdown of the Bengals 2024 defense (and special teams):

DT (5)

Travis Bell

Zachary Carter

Domenique Davis

B.J. Hill – projected starter

McKinnley Jackson – projected backup

Kris Jenkins – projected backup

Devonnsha Maxwell

Sheldon Rankins – projected starter

Jay Tufele – projected backup

The Bengals defense took a massive step backwards in 2023, but after making several major offseason additions, there's plenty of reasons to expect much better play from the interior defensive line.  Sheldon Rankins is the focal point, and his ability to be a disrupter in the pass game is invaluable to a defensive line that really struggled in that capacity last year.  B.J Hill returns to man the spot opposite Rankins, and while he doesn't shine in any one area, he's a rugged defender who's been a contributor in big games.

Losing D.J. Reader to the Detroit Lions is a blow, but Kris Jenkins and McKinnley Jackson were both drafted to provide necessary depth and added beef in the run game.  However, it’s a stretch to suggest that either offsets the loss of Reader completely.  The hope is that the massive upgrade in pass defense that Rankins provides will more than make up for any deficiencies in run defense.

The addition of Rankins likely means the end of the Zachary Carter experiment.  The long, lean interior pass rusher never found a consistent role in Cincinnati, and with added competition in the form of Jenkins and Jackson, Carter probably is the odd-man out.  Jay Tufele has been an unspectacular depth piece at nose tackle, and with Reader now gone, expect Tufele to return to at least provide some experience at the position.  Travis Bell, Domenique Davis and Devonnsha Maxwell are long-shots to make the roster.  A lot hinges on Rankins continuing to be an interior sack-artist, but at the very least, the Bengals don’t have any glaring deficiencies at defensive tackle.

Grade: B

DE (5)

Justin Blazek

Jeff Gunter

Trey Hendrickson – projected starter

Sam Hubbard – projected starter

Cedric Johnson

Myles Murphy – projected backup

Joseph Ossai – projected backup

Cameron Sample – projected backup

There's a lot riding on the improvement of Myles Murphy this year.  The Bengals’ 2023 first-round pick impressed in limited time, and if he can take a second-year leap, the Bengals could field one of the best pass rushing groups in the league, especially with Rankins collapsing pockets on the inside.  Murphy is practically oozing with talent – he could be a double-digit sack guy if everything goes to plan.

Making Murphy’s life easier is the presence of Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard, who return to start at both end spots for the third straight year.  Hendrickson made a half-hearted trade request, but it appears that saga is well behind us at this point.  The 2023 Pro Bowler is one of the premier pass rushers in all of football, and his presence provides a jolt to the entire defense.  Local product Hubbard is an incredibly tough and physical player who excels in the run game.  Together, this duo makes life quite hard on opposing tackles. 

Projecting the backup spots at DE is a bit tricky this year.  Joseph Ossai has gotten plenty of opportunities, but he's failed to cash in, and most Bengals fans haven't forgotten his epic blunder in the 2022 AFC Championship Game.  Cameron Sample isn't flashy, but he's a hard-worker who can fill in at defensive tackle.  These two have tenure, but don't be surprised if someone emerges in camp and leaps one or both in the depth chart.

Behind Ossai and Sample are a trio of unproven youngsters.  Gunter probably has the edge amongst the three, as he has a year of experience in Cincinnati and still has a lot of the traits defensive coordinators look for in rotational pass rusher, but he could be supplanted by Cedric Johnson, sixth-round pick this year who brings a similar profile to the table.  Blazek has long-odds to make the roster after a productive career at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville.  With Hendrickson continuing to dominate, Hubbard hopefully recovered from a nagging deltoid issue, and Murphy’s continued development, there's a lot to like about this group, and if Murphy can finally reach his potential, the Bengals could have a fearsome pass rush on their hands. 

Grade: B+

LB (5)

Joe Bachie – projected backup

Aaron Casey

Akeem Davis-Gaither – projected backup

Devin Harper – projected backup

Shaka Heyward

Maema Njongmeta

Germaine Pratt – projected starter

Logan Wilson – projected starter

Linebacker is a tricky spot to evaluate in Cincinnati.  On one hand, Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt for one of the more battle-tested duos in the entire league, both having a knack for big plays in big moments.  On the other hand, last year felt forgettable at best, especially for Pratt.  Are the Bengals playing B+ money to a pair of B- linebackers?  Or was the upheaval in the secondary and injuries along the defensive line more to blame for their struggles?  My money’s on the latter.

Like how running backs are dependent on their offensive lines to create exploitable holes in the defense, so too are linebackers dependent on their defensive lines to keep them clean to chase down ball carriers.  That didn’t happen enough for the Bengals last year, so, predictably, Wilson and Pratt suffered.  It’s no guarantee of course, but with better health and some offseason reinforcements, linebacker play in Cincinnati should be more effective by default.

Behind the two returning starters, Joe Bachie and Akeem Davis-Gaither are both back for their fourth and fifth seasons, respectively, with the Orange and Black.  And…there’s not much to add.  They’re both mostly unspectacular, and mostly reliable.  That’s all you can really ask for in a backup anyway.

The remaining ‘backers are almost complete unknowns.  Aaron Casey and Maema Njongmeta are both undrafted rookies, while Devin Harper and Shaka Heyward have a combined four years of experience and four tackles between them.  Odds are, none has a prayer in making the gameday roster.  But that’s just as well, because with Wilson and Pratt, the Bengals are more than passable – so long as the defensive line does its part, of course

Grade: B

CB (6)

Jalen Davis

Allan George

Dax Hill – projected backup

Mike Hilton – projected starter

D.J. Ivey – projected backup

Josh Newton – projected backup

Lance Robinson

Cam Taylor-Britt – projected starter

D.J. Turner – projected starter

Cornerback was a mixed back for the Bengals in 2023.  Cam Taylor-Britt looked like a burgeoning star with four interceptions in eleven games before an injury ended his season early.  D.J. Turner looked completely lost at times after being pressed into action, but he also flashed the elite speed that made him so intriguing in the draft.  Chidobe Awuzie is now in Tennessee, and while he couldn’t replicate his stellar play from 2021, he was still a useful starter.  Turner’s ability to replace Awuzie will be a big storyline to monitor moving forward.

Mike Hilton, who returns for his fourth season as the Bengals slot cornerback, remains the heartbeat of this defense.  He’s a pint-sized player who finds a way to make bringing down yoked-up ball carriers look easy.  I’d argue he’s the best pound-for-pound tackler in the league.  Once he gets his angle, he pounces like a leopard and wraps up like an anaconda.  Even if he’s lost a half-step at 30, he still brings more than enough grit and know-how to get the job done.

One of the most important moves of the offseason was the decision to transition Dax Hill from starting free safety to cornerback.  The hope is the switch to Hill’s more natural position (specifically in the slot) will allow the former first-round pick to showcase his tremendous athleticism and uncanny ability to cover tight ends and some of the other mismatch nightmares the NFL has to offer.  This is a big year for the third-year defender, but if he can make the necessary adjustments to his game, he gives the Bengals a much-needed, moveable chess piece in their secondary.

It’s no surprise that the Bengals also used one of their ten draft picks to select TCU corner Josh Newton in the fifth-round to compete for a backup role, and he makes a promising group of corners just that much more crowded.  Last year’s seventh-rounder D.J. Ivey is toolsy, but is coming off a season-ending knee injury, while Jalen Davis hasn’t been much more than a special teamer throughout his career.

Allan George spent all of 2023 on the practice squad and will now have to battle undrafted rookie Lance Robinson for that honor.  Neither has much of a chance to make the active roster, especially with Hill now in the cornerback picture.  But that’s a good thing: there’s a lot of depth here.  They might still be a tad short on proven production, but the Bengals have the makings of a sticky, versatile, ascending group of corners.

Grade: B-

S (4)

Von Bell – projected starter

Geno Stone – projected starter

P.J. Jules

Michael Dowell

Daijahn Anthony

Tycen Anderson – projected backup

Jordan Battle – projected backup

No position saw more turnover this offseason than safety.  Hill is now a corner, and Nick Scott was banished to the nether-region of the NFL known as the Carolina Panthers.  In their place, the Bengals added some new blood in the form of Geno Stone, and brought back a face quite familiar to Bengals fans: the one and only Von Bell, hero of the 2021 AFC Championship Game.  The difference is substantial.

Hill, for all of his positives, was a wreck at safety.  Stone was the opposite.  After three seasons on the bench with the Ravens, he broke out with a league-leading seven interceptions despite only starting eleven games.  The Ravens loss is the Bengals gain.  Stone is a turnover-machine and the centerfield-erasing presence the Bengals have been missing since Jessie Bates III departed.  Bell, of course, is a welcome addition after watching Scott be practically invisible for the entire season.

The Bengals also have some quality depth in Jordan Battle, the second-year safety who was a positively refreshing sight in a categorically bad Bengals secondary last year.  In the midst of all the chaos, Battle shone as a rookie, making some plays in coverage while demonstrating sturdy tackling near the line of scrimmage.  Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is known for his exotic pre-snap looks, and with Battle as a third-safety and Hill as potential tight-end-stopper, he should have plenty of ammo to use against the NFL’s top quarterbacks.

The Bengals continued to add to their safeties in the draft by adding Daijahn Anthony in the seventh round to compete for a backup role with Tycen Anderson, a former fifth-round pick who’s suffered a pair of season-ending injuries already in his young career.  Undrafted rookies P.J. Jules and Michael Dowell will also get their shot to prove themselves.  It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much the Bengals have improved their safety play, but it will be noticeable on the field.  After a disaster-year, the Bengals are moving in the right direction, but there’s too much projection to confidently call this unit “good.”.

Grade: C+

ST (3)

Cal Adomitis – projected starter

Austin McNamara

Evan McPherson – projected starter

Brad Robbins – projected starter

For kicks, we’ll talk about the returner here too.  But first, we have to start with their weapon-of-a-kicker Evan McPherson.  He’s nineteen for nineteen in the postseason.  Need I say more?  McPherson has all the power and accuracy you could ask for, and the Bengals don’t look so foolish anymore for spending a 2021 fifth-round pick on a special teamer.

That said, the Bengals did add punter Brad Robbins in the sixth round in 2023, and boy howdy, does that look like a miss.  Brought on to replace the erratic Drue Chrisman, Robbins was…well, erratic.  That could be forgiven if he had a howitzer attached to his leg.  He doesn’t; Chrisman has arguably a stronger leg than Robbins.  The punter competition between Robbins and undrafted rookie Austin McNamara will be one to watch – as much as a punter competition is watchable in the first place.

Cal Adomitis is back too, and given most Bengals fans probably didn’t know his name, that’s a good thing.  He’s a steady, anonymous long snapper.  No muss, no fuss.  That’s the way it should be.

At kick and punt returner, the Bengals will likely turn to Trayveon Henderson and Charlie Jones, respectively, with Chris Evans in a reserve role.  Jones did manage to return a punt for a touchdown in his second game as a pro (the only touchdown the Bengals managed to score against the Ravens that week), but for the most part, there’s not much to get excited about here.  The Bengals special teams are mostly average, but they get a slight bump just from how special McPherson can be.

Grade: B-

Final Thoughts:

The grades for the offense and the defense as a whole aren’t as high as I expected (or wanted) them to be, but I don’t necessarily think that’s problematic.  There are a lot of unknowns, but loads of potential too.  Yes, projections are difficult and looks can be deceiving, but the ingredients for a massive team rebound in 2024 are all there.

Trent Brown should be better than Jonah Williams at right tackle, and Amarius Mims is a better swing tackle than anyone they’ve had in years.  The offensive line might not be outstanding, but it should be improved, much like the safety position.  It’s hard to be worse at safety than the Bengals were last year, and they won’t be thanks to the moves they made. Anarumo is still one of the best defensive coordinators in the game, and the defense as a whole will take a leap forward thanks to the additions and another year of maturation.

Above all, though, the Bengals have Joe Burrow back from injury.  His presence cannot be overstated.  He gives his teammates the same confidence in their ability to win that Patrick Mahomes gives the Chiefs or Josh Allen gives the Bills.  Jake Browning’s relief appearance was commendable, but he’s not Burrow – not in the slightest.  Burrow gives the Bengals a chance to beat anybody.  This year, his roster should also carry its weight too.

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