With the offseason here, we've been spending the past week taking a position-by-position review of the Cincinnati Bengals' 2013 season and give a sneak peek at what may lie ahead in 2014.
2014 free agents: None.
The good: As part of an overall defensive unit that ranked third in the NFL, the Bengals' tackles had much to be proud of in 2013. When you consider how much injuries, particularly the one to Pro Bowl talent Geno Atkins, affected the tackles' rotation, it's easy to see why the entire line could boast if it wanted to. Led by veteran Domata Peko, the group of tackles weathered a barrage of changes that were brought about by Atkins' midseason ACL tear at Miami. In an effort of replacing him for the rest of the season, backups Brandon Thompson and Devon Still -- who dealt with his own injuries much of the season -- played regular roles on the interior. So did ends Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt and linebacker James Harrison. In certain situations late in the year, it wasn't uncommon for the Bengals to rotate the edge rushers inside to add to their pass-rushing presence.
The bad: Quite honestly, the injuries were the only real concerning thing about the line's interior play. Still's injury problems may have been more of an issue than Atkins'. Once Atkins went down, it was clear he was done for the year. Still, however, returned from a dislocated elbow, only to be sidelined by a lower-back issue by the end of the regular season. He was healthy and active for only three games in the latter half of the year.
The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Atkins ($9 million), Peko ($4.2 million), Still ($1 million), Thompson ($705,300), Larry Black ($497,000). There's no reason to believe the Bengals' defensive tackle hierarchy this offseason will look drastically different from what's outlined here. Atkins and Peko are expected to be the starting tandem on the interior again this fall, particularly if Atkins recovers fully from ACL surgery and rehab by the start of training camp. If he doesn't, Thompson likely would get the starting reps with Peko until Atkins is healthy. It will be interesting to track contract talks concerning Peko next offseason. The 29-year-old has been a key member of the Bengals' turnaround. His contract expires after the 2014 season, though. Will Cincinnati try to lock him up long-term with Atkins and make him a lifelong Bengal? This offseason, Black will be one to watch. Placed on injured reserve during training camp in August, the Cincinnati native still has two years left on his contract. Most might remember him from HBO's "Hard Knocks," when he was filmed suffering a serious injury in practice, and being given news that his year was over. He entered training camp as a likely fringe player, but had impressed coaches leading up to the injury.
Draft priority: Moderate. Defensive end likely will end up being more of a draft priority for the Bengals this year, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't explore adding an interior lineman. Even though depth isn't a major issue, Atkins' injury this year was a bit of a wake-up call. Things got so bad for the line that it was forced to move players from other positions over in order to fill needs. While it's a luxury having versatile ends like Hunt and Gilberry, it's even better having players who are already suited to play the tackle position.