This year, the Bengals not only had their scouts and coaches in Mobile, AL for the Senior Bowl – defensive end Wallace Gilberry took the opportunity to check out the best NFL draft prospects as well.
“They practice not too far from my house,” Wallace told me. “So I like to go over and get involved.”
As a result, when Cincinnati drafted DE Margus Hunt from SMU with the 21st pick of the second round (#53 overall), Gilberry knew exactly who – and what – the Bengals were getting.
“I saw him down in Mobile and the kid is huge,” said Gilberry with a laugh. “He looks like he is out of place he’s so big. Once I saw that we had drafted him, I was excited to get the kid in here. He probably doesn’t remember me, but I definitely remember him.”
Andy Dalton remembers Hunt too. He faced the 6’8”, 277 pound lineman with 4.6 speed in the 40-yard dash in Dalton’s final two seasons at TCU.
“He’s a freak athletically,” said Dalton. “To be so big, and so strong, and so fast – I think he is a great addition for us.”
But not exactly at a position of need.
“We knew that we didn’t have to push him in there right away,” said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. “We have a good group of defensive lineman and he can learn from them and we can look for ways to incorporate him into the defense as we get going.”
Hunt joins a position group that is arguably the most dominant in the NFL. Last year, the Bengals defensive line accounted for 40 of a franchise-record 51 sacks and all seven lineman who accounted for that total are under contract for this season.
“Why not add more weapons?” said Carlos Dunlap. “The defensive line is the strong point of our team right now and why not bring in a guy who you think can add another aspect to it.”
“You can never have too many big men,” said Domata Peko. “It’s hard to find quality defensive linemen so we’re going to welcome him with open arms to our group.”
“We’ve got a lot of different guys that are big, high-motor guys and drafting Hunt just adds to that,” Dalton told me. “I guess you can’t have too many defensive linemen in the rotation.”
Margus Hunt isn’t the only promising addition up front. Keep in mind that last year’s second round pick – Devon Still – and one of the team’s third round picks – Brandon Thompson – barely played as rookies.
“I can’t wait to see these kids get on the field,” said Gilberry. “I got to practice the whole year with Devon and Brandon and just look at them – they’re hungry, they understand the game, and they’re ready to play. I can’t wait to see what happens when they take the leash off of them.”
Hunt, Still, and Thompson give the Bengals young depth behind Geno Atkins, Robert Geathers, Michael Johnson, Peko, Gilberry, and Dunlap. The battle for playing time should be fierce.
“We’ve got a strong rotation,” Dunlap told me. “Everybody plays and everybody gets to eat.
“This year we want to raise it up another level. I don’t feel like I contributed as much as I could have last year (6 sacks), so I’m challenging myself to get up there with Mike (11.5 sacks) and Geno (12.5 sacks).”
Dunlap and Atkins are entering the final season of their four-year contracts, and the Bengals kept Johnson this year by using an $11.175 million franchise tag. By continuing to spend high draft picks on defensive lineman, the Bengals protect themselves against the possibility of losing somebody in free agency.
“You’ve got to understand where the front office is coming from too,” said Gilberry. “The only thing we can do down here is take care of ourselves and play football.”
“You can’t worry about who they are going to bring in. Hell, I could be gone tomorrow. It’s just that kind of business.”
Gilberry and Geathers don’t appear to be going anywhere after signing three-year extensions in March. The only significant contributor on the defensive line who isn’t back is run-stopper Pat Sims who signed a one-year deal with Oakland.
“Defensive line is one of the strengths of the team, so we’re really excited that they were able to keep us together and add a little more firepower to it,” said Peko.
“When I first got here, guys wanted to get out of this locker room,” said Geathers. “Now guys want to stick around and we like the direction of the team. Guys want to be a Bengal and want to retire as a Bengal.”
Andy Dalton is a long way from retirement – and happy that the only time he has to face the Bengals defensive line is at practice.
“I get to wear a different colored jersey so I don’t have to worry about these guys coming after me,” he said.
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