The Bengals are the only team in the NFL not to draft a defensive lineman, and use him as such, since 2003.
But there are a few reasons that could change this year. First is the fact that the team struggled against the run last year after the departure of Domata Peko in free agency. Second is the enticing idea of having an elite pass rusher in Atkins lining up against an elite run stopper and then using against defensive end Michael Johnson in a more limited and specialized role as an inside pass rusher in nickel situations.
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Regardless of whether new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin continues to employ the eight-man favored by predecessors Mike Zimmer and Paul Guenther, adding a first-rounder to compete with youngsters Andrew Billings and Ryan Glasgow would create great competition in camp and into the season.
The last thing to consider is that maybe it isn’t a philosophy to avoid first-round defensive lineman as much as it is a numbers game, where the Bengals haven’t perceived the value to be there. But that can’t be said this year, with a top-heavy class of prospects available.
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Here’s a look at the top five according to composite rankings from numerous NFL scouts:
Vita Vea, Washington (6-foot-4, 347 pounds)
His given name is Tevita Tuliakiono Tuipuloto Mosese Va’hae Faletau Vea, which makes it easy to see why he goes by Vita. Vea is a redshirt junior who won the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award and Morris Trophy (top lineman).
Dan Brugler, NFL Draft Scout: "Rare movement skills for his size…required to buy two seats on flights with his wide hips, meaty thighs and proportionate body thickness…upper body strength to snatch and dispose of objects in his path…efficient stack/shed process, bench-pressing bodies off his frame…core strength to fight off, bull-rush or anchor vs. double-teams with ease…resets at the point of attack, finding the ball carrier…strong swipe moves to rag-doll blockers and penetrate gaps…functional range to play multiple gaps and make stops up and down the line of scrimmage… didn't have the grades in high school, but never let that be a problem in college, earning Academic All-Pac 12 honors in 2017.
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Maurice Hurst, Michigan (6-foot-4, 250 pounds)
A former teammate of Bengals defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow, Hurst didn’t become a full-time starter at Michigan until his senior year, when he had five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss to earn first team All-Big 10 honors along with the team MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards. He earned an invite to the Senior Bowl but skipped it to prepare for the Combine, then left Indianapolis early with an irregular electrocardiogram.
Mike Renner, Pro Football Focus: "The prototypical 3-technique defensive tackle, Hurst offers a pass-rushing toolbox that no other interior player in this class can come close to matching. His four-year career of grades is unlike anything we've ever seen at the defensive tackle position, proving his durability and sustainability at the position."
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Da’Ron Payne, Alabama (6-foot-2, 311 pounds)
Payne was dunking a basketball in high school as a 300-pound freshman, and that athleticism was on display again in the College Football Playoff championship game when he intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown on the way to winning MVP honors. A true junior, Payne started as a sophomore for the Crimson Tide.
Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN: "Payne is a reliable presence for the Crimson Tide, and he might have had his best two games in the College Football Playoff. Georgia couldn't block him in the title game, especially in the first quarter. Payne isn't going to put up huge numbers on the stat sheet — he had only three career sacks — but he consistently beats interior offensive linemen and gets good push, and he's a solid prospect with some upside."
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Taven Bryan, Florida (6-foot-5, 291 pounds)
Bryan made his was to Florida from the state of Wyoming, where he was just a three-star recruit as an offensive tackle. The Gators acquiesced to his desire to play defense, and Bryan developed into a starter last year as a junior and decided to skip his senior season and enter the draft.
Charlie Campbell, Walter Football: "At the NFL Scouting Combine, Bryan showed his freakish athleticism and speed with a tremendous workout. That solidified his first-round standing. Bryan broke out in 2017 with 40 tackles with six tackles for a loss and four sacks. He had a dominant game against Texas A&M. In speaking with some scouting sources, Bryan has drawn comparisons to Denver Broncos defensive lineman Derek Wolfe. Some announcers have compared the 6-foot-4, 295-pounder Bryan to J.J. Watt, and in terms of style of play, Bryan is reminiscent of Watt when playing well, but Bryan is not consistently dominant to deserve a comparison to Watt."
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Harrison Phillips, Stanford (6-foot-3, 307 pounds)
In addition to starring on the football field as the Nebraska Gatorade Player of the Year his senior season in high school, Phillips won a wrestling national championship as a heavyweight with a 31-0 record and placed fifth in the discus at the state track and field meet. He had 7.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last year as redshirt junior and earned first team All-Pac 12 honors and numerous All-American accolades before declaring early for the draft.
Lance Zierlein, NFL.com: "Phillips plays a little upright and looks more like a guard than nose, but he definitely has the leverage and power to play to anchor and muddy the run game waters. Phillips has a feel for blocking schemes and is able to handle down blocks and double teams while allow linebackers to flow to the ball. As a former wrestler, he's a natural scrambler with non-traditional ways of finding the football and finding the quarterback. He has early starter potential and could find snaps on passing downs as well."