CINCINNATI — The reality of the NFL is that teams can’t always keep all the players they want. The economics of the league’s salary cap don’t allow for it, instead forcing teams to constantly overturn rosters with a greater mixture of youth to its veteran core.
Case in point when the Bengals lost defensive end Michael Johnson to Tampa Bay in free agency this offseason. It was inevitable. It was something the Bengals had been planning for after paying Johnson more than $11 million last season as their franchise player. It’s why they chose Margus Hunt last year in the second round.
It’s why they took West Virginia defensive end Will Clarke in the third round Friday night.
Clarke physically resembles Johnson, and a lot of the other Bengals defensive ends; he’s tall (6-feet-6) and has a long arm reach. The defensive line for the Bengals has been the foundation of the overall unit’s success the last six years under former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
That’s not going to change under new coordinator Paul Guenther.
The defensive line accounted for 29Â½ of the 43 sacks the Cincinnati defense produced last season. The Bengals coaching staff also credited its defenders with 118 total pass breakups (official NFL stats gave the Bengals 96 breakups, tied with Philadelphia for the fifth most in the league). Defensive backs in coverage will get the majority of those breakups but the defensive line knocked down 25 passes, including 10 by Carlos Dunlap and nine by Johnson.
"When you’re disrupting the ball at this level, you couldn’t ask for more," said Guenther. "There’s been a lot of situations last year in our season where there might have been a guy wide open and one of our ends batted a ball down and it saved our butt. So having long guys like that, especially against little quarterbacks in our division now, we need guys to get their hands up in the air."
Guenther’s comment about "little quarterbacks" was said with a laugh and, he later clarified, meant as a comical poke at newly drafted Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel but he and defensive line coach Jay Hayes are serious about the different kinds of pressure they want to get from their ends. In the Bengals’ 27-10 playoff loss to San Diego this past January, they didn’t record a single pass deflection against Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and sacked him just one time.
The Bengals also chose Johnson in the third round in 2009. He was considered a developmental project at the time, a player with the skill set to become a dominant defensive end but someone still raw. Johnson developed into an every-down player who ended his five seasons in Cincinnati with 26Â½ sacks and 27 pass breakups, including three interceptions.
"I think there are some comparisons, but let’s compare him (Clarke) in two or three seasons," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "Michael grew into that and did a nice job here, which is what we want. We want to continue to grow great players and we’ve been fortunate enough to do that with the guys we’ve had."