State of the Cincinnati Bengals – Needed Change Coming to Defensive Line

The Cincinnati Bengals are looking at changes on their defensive line after finishing near the bottom of the league in pass-rush and run-stop metrics.

CINCINNATI — The defensive line for the Cincinnati Bengals features Trey Hendrickson and a whole lot of questions.

DJ Reader is a free agent. Sam Hubbard is declining. The jury is still out on 2023 first-round pick Myles Murphy. And what in the hell happened to Joseph Ossai?

State of the Bengals Franchise | Defensive Line

Of all the position groups, the defensive line has the most uncertainty and, therefore, is the most likely to undergo substantial changes, even though 12 of the 14 players on the roster are under contract for 2024.

The Bengals were near the bottom of the league in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate and Run Stop Win Rate metrics, even while employing one of the best in the league at each discipline — Hendrickson and Reader.

The depth is the biggest concern, as defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has had to rely on his starters too much the last two seasons, and the effects of that were evident down the stretch.

Previous Position Breakdowns

Let’s take a look at each defensive lineman on the 2023 roster and what to expect in 2024, followed by an overall assessment of the group and where it could be headed.

Trey Hendrickson (Signed Through 2025)

The Bengals extended Henderson with a one-year, $21 million deal in August to prevent 2024 from being a contract year, and he remains one of the greatest, non-rookie deal values in the league.

Hendrickson’s average annual salary of $21 million ranks 11th among edge rushers, and he’s coming off a season in which he ranked second to T.J. Watt in sacks (career-high 17.5) and second to Micah Parsons in pressure percentage (11.2).

 

Imagine the numbers Hendrickson can post in the next two seasons if the Bengals can find a stronger complement on the left side of the defensive line.

Sam Hubbard (Signed Through 2025)

Hubbard had a down year in 2023 and is heading into his age-29 season. He is everything the Bengals have been about since Zac Taylor took over, but his anticipated decline is a big reason why the team drafted Myles Murphy in the first round last year instead of a difference-making tight end.

Hubbard will be a big part of the rotation in 2024, but he could be pushed by Murphy for the starting job in camp.

B.J. Hill (Signed Through 2024)

Hill arguably had the best year of his career, setting highs in interceptions (two) and pass defenses (five) while adding 4.5 sacks, the latter figure one shy of his career high. The decision to prioritize him over Larry Ogunjobi after the 2021 Super Bowl run has paid off well for the Bengals, who still have one more season of production from Hill.

MORE: Cincinnati Bengals Depth Chart 

He turns 29 in April, so the Bengals will be looking to lighten his load after having him play 71% of the snaps in 2023 and 79% in 2022. Hill averaged a 42% snap load in the three seasons prior.

DJ Reader (Unrestricted Free Agent)

The worst-case scenario for Reader, suffering a season-ending quad injury in late December, could work out in the Bengals’ favor. Had Reader made it to free agency healthy, there was little chance the Bengals could have afforded to bring him back.

Reader isn’t expected to be fully healthy until months after free agency begins in March, and there may not be any teams willing to make an offer until he can pass a physical. That should happen close to the start of training camp, and there would be mutual interest in having Reader return.

His presence is as massive in the locker room as it is on the defensive line, and there could not be a better mentor for a rookie defensive tackle the Bengals are likely to draft in the early-to-middle rounds this year.

Chance of return: 51%

Myles Murphy (Signed Through 2026)

Murphy, like so many of the other 2023 draft picks, struggled to get on the field early before earning trust and playing time in the second half of the season. He played on 28% of the snaps and finished with three sacks. Hubbard had six sacks while playing 75% of the snaps.

Defensive — and offensive — linemen tend to make a big jump in their second season after getting a feel for the speed and strength of the players they are facing, and the Bengals are counting on that to be the case with Murphy.

Cam Sample (Signed Through 2024)

The 2021 fourth-round pick has been a solid contributor both on the edge and inside and will continue to be one of the first players off the bench in the rotation.

He isn’t the biggest, strongest, or fastest defensive lineman, but Sample has earned praise from the coaches since arriving.

Joseph Ossai (Signed Through 2024)

The biggest enigma of the group. Ossai was really starting to come on at the end of 2022 and had the best game of his career in the AFC Championship Game before his penalty against Patrick Mahomes in the final seconds put the Chiefs in position to kick the winning field goal.

This year, Ossai was a ghost, playing just 20% of the snaps. Anarumo was asked multiple times throughout the season, and the response was always that Ossai just needed to get healthy as he was behind strength-wise from offseason shoulder surgery.

This obviously is a huge offseason for Ossai, as he’s heading into his contract year.

Zach Carter (Signed Through 2025)

Many coaches picked Carter as a candidate for a breakout season, and he bulked up following his rookie year to prepare for the rigors of playing on the interior of the defensive line after spending most of his time in college on the edge.

MORE: Where Is the Best Landing Spot for Cincinnati Bengals Offensive Coordinator Brian Callahan?

But despite playing nearly 50% of the snaps, Carter was mostly a non-factor, finishing with 23 tackles and no sacks.

Jay Tufele (Signed Through 2024)

Tufele is a decent backup in the interior, but he still was inactive in six of 17 games and did not play a snap against Baltimore in Week 2 despite being active.

His cap hit is only $1.1 million in 2024, but he could fall victim to a numbers crunch on cutdown day if the Bengals target the position in free agency and the draft.

Josh Tupou (Unrestricted Free Agent)

One of the few players on the roster who pre-dates Taylor’s arrival, Tupou will turn 30 in May. He’s been a quality depth piece at defensive tackle, but he doesn’t feel like a fit regardless of whether the Bengals go with a run-it-back philosophy and re-sign Reader or opt for mass changes on the interior of the line.

Chance of return: 25%

Domenique Davis (Signed Through 2024)

A preseason standout in the interior who earned a game check in Week 16 at Pittsburgh, Davis still is a work in progress and figures to stick on the practice squad, barring a great performance in camp that lands him on the 53.

Jeff Gunter (Signed Through 2024)

The Bengals have been so desperate for more juice in the pass rush that you have to wonder about the future of an edge rusher like Gunter, who has barely seen the field. After playing 10 games as a rookie seventh-round pick in 2022, Gunter spent all of 2023 on the practice squad. That’s likely his ceiling in 2024 as well.

Travis Bell (Signed Through 2026)

The Bengals claimed Bell off waivers from Atlanta ahead of the Week 16 contest at Pittsburgh, but the defensive tackle was inactive for each of the final three games. A seventh-round pick of the Bears last year, Bell will try to leverage a full offseason learning the scheme to try to carve out a depth role.

Devonnsha Maxwell (Signed Through 2025)

A member of the 2023 undrafted college free agent class, Maxwell landed on injured reserve early in training camp with a knee injury. The defensive tackle will essentially be starting from scratch this offseason.

What’s Next?

Change.

What exactly that change looks like remains to be seen.

Even with an elite edge rusher in Hendrickson, the Bengals ranked 23rd in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate metric at 38%. The other three teams in the division all were in the top 10 (Cleveland second, Pittsburgh seventh, Baltimore ninth).

MORE: 2024 Free Agents by Position

Stopping the run is more important in the AFC North than in any other division, but pressuring the passer always will be important. So, the Bengals need to upgrade.

Could they pull off a stunner in free agency a la the Orlando Brown Jr. signing last year? It doesn’t seem likely with the team interested in bringing back Tee Higgins and extending Ja’Marr Chase.

But the team needs help on the edge and the interior, and it also needs to find a run-stuffing presence to replace Reader if the Bengals are unable to bring him back.

The 2024 draft class is below average for interior linemen, but there are some second- and third-round options that could be available for a team that has thrived on finding mid-round talent on the defensive line.

Chris Jones, Christian Wilkins, Justin Madubuike, and Leonard Williams are all set to hit free agency, but all will command salaries in the range of $14-20 million per year. Some more affordable options would be Grover Stewart, Daquan Jones and A’Shawn Robinson.

Will the Jones’ contract ripple through the rest of the class and help them all land bigger-than-expected deals? Or will the amount of quality options available make it more likely to find a bargain?

The Bengals will be looking for upgrades anywhere they can find them.

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