While the offensive line was not a position of strength of the Bengals in 2011, the men across from them everyday in practice were the backbone of a strong defense that kept the Bengals in most of the games they played this year.
With multiple players reaching free agency this year, the Bengals have some big decisions to make along the D-line.
Carlos Dunlap: 12 games. 4.5 sacks, 23 tackles.
A hamstring injury suffered against the Titans limited Dunlap’s effectiveness in the second half of the season. While still not a starter, Dunlap is very effective on passing downs. Dunlap still has two years left on his rookie deal.
Robert Geathers: 14 games. 2.5 sacks, 29 tackles.
While Geathers has never come close to repeating his dominating 10.5 sack season in 2006. However, Geathers and Dunlap have made an effective tandem at LDE. Geathers has one year remaining on the 6-year deal he signed after that huge season in 2006. Could he have another “contract year” in 2012?
Michael Johnson: 16 games. 6 sacks, 42 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 INT.
Johnson is freakishly large and fast, but coaches were unsatisfied enough with him that they pulled him as the starter. With one year left on his rookie deal, MJ does not need to have a “contract year” to get a new deal. He simply needs to live up to his potential.
Frostee Rucker: 16 games. 4 sacks, 44 tackles.
Rucker has never been outstanding, but he has always been a solid contributor on the D-line. Entrusted with greater responsibility, he responded with his best season as a Bengal. Rucker is a free agent, rated a solid +3.9 by PFF.
Jonathan Fanene: 16 games. 6.5 sacks, 24 tackles.
Fanene tested free agency last season but found no takers. The Bengals brought him back on a one year deal, and he responded with his third good season. Fanene is also a free agent, rated a decent +0.2 by PFF. The Bengals like multiple role guys like him, who can play either end or tackle.
Geno Atkins: 16 games. 7.5 sacks, 47 tackles, 2 force fumbles.
Atkins selection to the ProBowl in his second year tells us all we need to know about how well Atkins has played. He has paid the groundwork for a big payday when his rookie deal is up. If the Bengals are smart, they will sign him to a big raise and extension next year (when the salary minimum takes effect), locking him up as a Bengal for another four years or so.
Domata Peko: 16 games. 2.5 sacks, 66 tackles, 1 forced fumble.
Being the run-blocking tackle isn’t a job that will grab attention or kudos, but Peko is pretty good at it. With three years left on his contract, he will be back as a starter next year.
Pat Sims: 11 games. 1 sack, 20 tackles.
Sims’ numbers and -4.1 rating from PFF belie his value to the D-line. Like Peko, he is not a pass rusher but is an effective run blocker. And in the AFC North, run blockers are a necessity. Sims is a free agent now that his rookie deal is through, but I expect the Bengals to try to re-sign him.
Nick Hayden: 2 games. 2 tackles.
As a restricted free agent who had an OK 2010 in Carolina, my guess is that the Bengals will make him a minimum offer in hopes of snagging a 6th round pick off of a team that wants to bring him in to compete for a starting job. I doubt he wears a Bengals uniform next year.
Looking to 2012
With Rucker, Fanene and Sims all unrestricted free agents, the Bengals must carefully weigh their options. The ability to rotate 8 players on the line to stay fresh as opposing offensive lines wore down was an enormous advantage that they do not want to lose.
Rucker seems happy to be a Bengal. If the Bengals offer him reasonable money, I expect to see him return. And Sims’ numbers do not represent his full value, so he may not draw interest from teams that are not all that familiar with him. So IMO, the guy with the greatest likelihood not to return is Fanene.
Fanene has had three solid years over the past four. (He landed on IR with a hamstring injury after playing in only two games in 2010.) He was looking for a payday that never came last season. The Bengals will likely make him an offer, but I am not sure that they will offer him what he wants. If another team likes him enough to outbid the Bengals (knowing full well that Mike Brown won’t get into a bidding war), I believe he will follow the money.
While continuity is precious, bringing in new blood is important as well. They must re-sign at least one of these three at a minimum. Letting all three go is too much turnover. Drafting one guy and bringing in a free agent could replace the other two. But considering that bringing in a guy from elsewhere will likely cost more than re-signing two of them (probably Rucker and Sims) is better.
Would anyone argue that they must re-sign all three? Or that Sims or Rucker ought to be the odd man out?
The Bengals ought to draft a defensive lineman, but don’t look for him to be taken in the first round, and probably not in the second either. There are currently 10-12 tackles (including University of Cincinnati product Derek Wolfe) and 10-12 ends graded good enough to go by the end of the third round. The Bengals will wait to see which of these are still available at pick #85 and take one then.