With the team’s announcement that outside linebacker Manny Lawson will return to the Bengals in 2012, Cincinnati has secured all of its first-team defensive players for 2012. Only Lawson and Reggie Nelson hit the open market, but both reached agreements to return to Cincinnati next season.
Much has been made about the San Francisco 49ers returning all of their defensive starters for next season, but the Bengals aren’t far behind — if they trail at all. Though Frostee Rucker, who started 11 games last year, is now a member of the Cleveland Browns, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the Manny Lawson signing allows Cincinnati to return all 11 of is first-team defensive players.
Ask Bengaldom who Cincinnati’s top ends were a year ago and Rucker probably would have finished fourth or fifth behind Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Robert Geathers and possibly Jonathan Fanene. His start count was more about matchups and expecting runs to start games (Rucker was a solid run-stopping end in the Bengals rotation) than about an overall skillset.
With the thought of Cincinnati bringing essentially its entire defense back in 2012, here’s a look at where they stand:
Defensive Line: Ends Robert Geathers, Michael Johnson and Carolos Dunlap return to the rotation and will be joined by free agent pick-ups Derrick Harvey and Jamaal Anderson. Harvey and Anderson will be asked to shoulder much of the load handled by Rucker and Jonathan Fanene — who I believe is the team’s biggest loss in free agency, though not a major blow.
Inside, Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and Pat Sims are all back and will be joined in camp by Nick Hayden, who appeared in two games a season ago. Peko is emerging as one of the league’s better defensive tackles while Atkins put together a Pro Bowl season in 2012. Sims has done well as a run stuffer and more beef may be on the way with the 6-foot-2, 295-pound Amobi Okoye coming to visit the team sometime next week.
Linebacker: Thomas Howard, Rey Maualuga and Manny Lawson all return and could start Week 1. Keith Rivers, a 2008 first-round selection that hasn’t lived up to his No. 9 pick status, is also in the fold and hopefully becomes a larger contributor in 2012.
Young guns Roddrick Muckelroy and Dontay Moch return from injuries and will provide depth and athleticism, especially on special teams. Rounding out the current roster are DeQuin Evans, Micah Johnson and Vincent Rey, who will also have chances to make the team as reserves and special teamers. They will see their chances greatly decrease if free agents Brandon Johnson and Dan Skuta return for the 2012 season.
Defensive Backs: Starting corners Leon Hall (currently rehabbing a torn Achillies) and Nate Clements, as well as top reserve Adam Jones are all under contract. Free agent addition Jason Allen figures to be the No. 2 or No. 3 corner depending on Hall’s status at the start of the season, completing a group that, if healthy, is stronger than last year’s corps. Rico Murray and Brandon Ghee are also under contract. The addition of Allen and re-signing of Jones probably spells the end of Kelly Jennings’ brief stint in Cincinnati.
At safety, both Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson return and are expected to start. Taylor Mays and Robert Sands are also under contract and offer great speed and athleticism to go with their 6-foot-3 and 6-foor-4 inch builds. Gibril Wilson, whose numbers tailed at the end of 2011, and special-teams ace Jeromy Miles remain free agents.
Overall: Defensive ends Rucker and Jonathan Fanene were losses in the defensive line rotation, but the defense will return all of its components that played better than half of 2011 snaps.
The worst-case scenario for the Bengals is that Hall’s injury lingers into the early parts of the season and the free agent defensive linemen don’t replace what walked away in free agency. At best, Hall comes back, Allen gives the secondary a boost, and the rotation up front keeps improving.
It’s more likely to be somewhere in the middle, but with all of 2011’s key components again in place, the unit will be at least as good, probably a bit better on paper as we approach the 2012 season. Mike Zimmer — probably the most important piece on that side of the ball for Cincinnati – returns as defensive coordinator, further raising the expectations on this unit.
With the NFL Draft and the remainder of free agency ahead, it looks like the Bengals defense, which finished inside the league’s top 10 a year ago, is likely to look much better on paper in 2012.
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