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Bengals have big defensive-line decisions looming

3/27/2015

CINCINNATI -- All of a sudden, the pool of talent on the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive line has grown deep.

The team's primary offseason objective has been accomplished.

Fresh off a year in which their defensive line was arguably the weakest link of a defense that ranked 22nd in the league, the Bengals put much of their focus on shoring up the ineffective front. With a league-low 20 sacks -- one of the worst sack totals in franchise history -- the Bengals were graded by Pro Football Focus as having the worst pass rush in the NFL in 2014.

Thursday's signing of former Bengal defensive tackle Pat Sims was a prime example of how they've devoted much of their free-agency plans to bolstering the defensive line. With that signing the Bengals soon will have big decisions to make when it comes to determining who actually plays on the line.

When the offseason began, it was unclear exactly how they would address deepening the line's depth, but the Bengals still knew they needed to sign a veteran free agent with pass-rushing promise. If they could get at least one end and one tackle through free agency and the draft, they would have done exactly what they set out to do.

Along with Sims' signing this week, the Bengals also re-signed tackle Devon Still last week and brought back end Michael Johnson nearly a week prior after he spent the past year in Tampa Bay. Of their last four free-agency moves, three of them have come on the defensive line.

It means there are now 12 players competing for what's believed will be nine spots on the defensive line. That's five ends and four tackles. Another two linemen likely will make it onto the practice squad. And don't forget the probability another lineman could be on the horizon. Cincinnati could use one of its draft picks on a lineman, and could even go for a college free agent, too.

If they add only one lineman through the draft, that still means 13 players will be vying for nine spots.

So who makes the 53-man roster?

Well, there's a whole spring and summer of organized team activities (OTAs), minicamps, voluntary workouts and training camp to get through to find out. You won't find anyone around the team making any grand pronouncements about an opening-weekend roster in March.

But who are the most likely candidates to play this year?

At end, you'll certainly see Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Margus Hunt and Will Clarke. The Bengals are financially committed to Johnson and Dunlap and won't be cutting either of them, and it's clear coaches want to get Hunt and Clarke more involved. One has to imagine Wallace Gilberry factors into the mix, too, as he can get back into being more of the true third-down rusher that he was before Johnson left last year. Some of that also depends upon what the Bengals do in the draft. Sam Montgomery could be one of the practice squad players.

At tackle, Geno Atkins isn't going anywhere. Neither is backup Brandon Thompson or veteran Domata Peko (for now). The staff likes Peko's locker-room presence, but the talent around him means he could be in for a battle this summer to prove he still belongs on the field. Likely competing for the fourth and potentially final tackle position are Still, Sims and Kwame Geathers. If Montgomery will be one practice squad lineman, Geathers could be the other.