The AFC North champs return most of a unit that took over in the second half of the season and the playoffs last year. Jessie Bates, who hasn’t signed his franchise-tag tender yet, is the only missing piece.
After revamping the defense in free agency in the spring of 2021, the Bengals are set to go for training camp starting Wednesday in Cincinnati. Other than Bates and Larry Ogunjobi, they haven’t lost anybody of significance on that side of the ball. You can read our training camp preview for the offense here.
The front four, led by 2021 free agent acquisition, star pass rusher Trey Hendrickson, and nose tackle D.J. Reader, is one of the roster’s strengths. With Ogunjobi now in Pittsburgh, B.J. Hill becomes the starter at the 3-tech spot, and there shouldn’t be any drop-off as the former Giant had a breakout campaign last year. Sam Hubbard remains the glue of the unit, and his versatility to play inside and outside will again give defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo many options.
As is the case in many other positions, the depth is very shaky behind the starters. There are a few young, unproven players, like second-year and former fourth-round pick Cameron Sample, Joseph Ossai, who missed his entire rookie season after suffering a meniscus injury in preseason last year, or third-round selection last April, Zachary Carter, who can play both inside and outside and could provide a spark off the bench in clear passing downs. Josh Tupou, though is probably their most reliable backup.
After going many years without a reliable group at the position, the Bengals are all set now. Logan Wilson was great last year, and his ball skills make him a rare breed at linebacker. Germaine Pratt is a solid player, and Markus Bailey and Akeem Davis-Gaither are valuable depth pieces.
They’ll probably keep five linebackers on the roster despite not playing more than two at the same time anymore, as nickel is the new base defense. Joe Bachie, a UDFA and Ohio native, played well when needed last year but tore his ACL in December, and his situation is worth monitoring.
The Bengals would like to find an upgrade over Eli Apple, their number two, but he’s an okay player to have in front of Chidobe Awuzie, who was a revelation after signing the last offseason. Mike Hilton is the other mainstay as one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league.
They did add Cam Taylor-Britt in the second draft round, and we can’t rule out Dax Hill, their first pick, playing some snaps at the position as well. Tre Flowers excelled in his role as big nickel, and with tight ends more and more involved in the passing game around the league, expect him to be an important piece again for coach Anarumo.
Bates is the x-factor. The Bengals didn’t seem to try very hard to extend him before the deadline, and the young star is not planning to play under the tag. Cincinnati appeared to draft his replacement in Hill, but they could also deploy more three-safety looks. Vonn Bell, the team’s heart, is back but is a pending free agent next off-season.
Veteran Michael Thomas is the de facto third safety, with Brandon Wilson coming off injury and more of a return specialist. Fifth-round selection and former Toledo Rocket Tycen Anderson, could find himself playing meaningful snaps early if the team decides to go with his youth instead.