Thursday, February 2, 2012

A look at the Bengals' defensive free agents

A few weeks ago, I looked at the Green Bay Packers' impending free agents in an attempt to see if there were any potential targets for the Dolphins now that Packers' offensive coordinator Joe Philbin is the new head coach in Miami.

In continuing with that theme, I thought I'd look at the impending defensive free agents of the Cincinnati Bengals. New Dolphins' defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle spent the past 11 years as a defensive assistant in Cincinnati, including the past nine as the defensive backs coach, so he should be quite familiar with the abilities of the guys below...

DE Jonathan Fanene

A seventh-round pick by the Bengals out of Utah back in 2005, Fanene has spent the past seven seasons working primarily as a backup defensive lineman in Cincinnati. He started a career-high 10 games back in 2009 and totaled six sacks, and amassed a personal-best 6.5 sacks in 16 games (two starts) this past season.

Measuring in at 6-foot-4 and about 292 pounds, Fanene has been hampered by injuries in his career and has averaged just 10 games played per season, with three seasons of four games or less. He has the versatility to play defensive tackle and a bit of defensive end, although he's a pretty one-dimensional run-stuffer and not the pass rusher from the inside his 6.5 sacks would seem to indicate.

The 29-year-old Fanene doesn't really offer much upside and solely profiles as a versatile backup. He's certainly someone that could interest the Dolphins if they lose both Kendall Langford and Paul Soliai in free agency, but it wouldn't be for anything more than a reserve role and he would have to come relatively cheap.

CB Kelly Jennings

A first-round pick of the Seahawks out of the University of Miami in 2006, Jennings has entirely failed to live up to his draft status. He's started more than seven games just twice in six seasons and has just two career interceptions, consistently struggling to be effective in coverage. The Bengals acquired him in late August for a seventh-round defensive tackle named Clint McDonald, and Jennings started just one of 13 games played for the Bengals in 2011.

There is no question Jennings has been a first-round bust, and Coyle was unable to get much production out of him during his first year in Cincinnati as Jennings allowed 31 catches for 414 yards and three touchdowns as the Bengals' No. 4 cornerback.

The Dolphins could certainly use depth at cornerback and Jennings might be able to beat out someone like Nolan Carroll for a roster spot, but his lack of production thus far is scary. Jennings would probably like to return to the place he played his college ball, but ultimately any interest on the Dolphins' part will be determined by whether or not Coyle thinks there's anything salvageable there.

OLB Brandon Johnson

Johnson spent his first two pro seasons in Arizona after being selected in the fifth round out of Louisville in 2006 before landing in Cincinnati in 2008. He saw his most significant action during that first year with the Bengals, starting nine of 16 games and recording 83 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two interceptions. Johnson has started just seven games in 48 played over the past three seasons, however, working primarily as a reserve linebacker and special-teamer.

The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Johnson no longer profiles as a starting linebacker at 28, although he has fashioned a solid career for himself as a top backup at the position. He grades out as a solid run defender but a liability in coverage. The Dolphins could have interest in him as a versatile No. 4 linebacker that has experience both inside and out, but only if he doesn't cost too much.

CB Adam Jones

A first-round pick by the Titans back in 2005, Jones was off to a nice start before numerous maturity issues and run-ins with the law derailed his career. He was traded to the Cowboys in 2008 after serving a year-long suspension for a Las Vegas shooting and also missed part of the 2008 season due to suspension. The Cowboys released Jones after one season. After sitting out the 2009 season, Jones spent the next two years in Cincinnati, starting eight of 13 games played and totaling 42 tackles, an interception, and nine pass deflections.

There's no question Jones had the talent to be a good NFL cornerback, but his lack of commitment to being a professional and the time away from the game has taken a lot of that away. He can still be effective just on sheer natural ability, but over the past few years he's tended to be a very streaky corner with very good days and very bad ones.

Although Jones has stayed out of trouble over the past two years, there are obviously some teams that would never roll the dice on him and we have no way of knowing if the Dolphins are one of them. It's theoretically possibly that the Dolphins could have interest in him as a No. 3 corner, but that would largely depend on an endorsement from Coyle.

OLB Manny Lawson

Selected 22nd overall by the 49ers in 2006 to be a dominant pass rusher, Lawson primarily fizzed in San Francisco with a career-high of just 6.5 sacks (in 2009) in five seasons in the Golden State. His career has taken an unusual turn of late, as he signed with the Bengals in 2011 and worked at outside linebacker in the 4-3, which isn't a natural pass-rushing position. Starting 15 of 16 games (though only playing about half the team's snaps), Lawson surprisingly graded out best as a run defender and was Pro Football Focus' No. 11 overall 4-3 outside linebacker on the season.

Lawson is someone I wanted the Dolphins to take a look at last year, but if he came to Miami now it'd be an entirely different role than I had originally envisioned. The Bengals clearly did not view Lawson as a pass rusher in 2011, the fact that he held up so well against the run made him a viable starter anyway. The Dolphins are lacking a strong-side linebacker and Lawson is someone that could make sense for the Dolphins if the price is right.

FS Reggie Nelson

The 21st overall pick out of Florida in 2007, Nelson spent three up-and-down seasons with the Jaguars. His career started off on a high note with 63 tackles, five interceptions, and 11 pass deflections as a rookie, but he struggled with consistently in all facets of the game and was eventually traded to the Bengals prior to the 2010 season. Nelson had one of his better seasons under Coyle in 2011, holding quarterbacks to a 70.5 passer rating on passes thrown his way while setting career highs in tackles (85), sacks (two) and pass deflections (12).

Of all the Bengals' free agents listed here, Nelson is probably the one I'd most like the Dolphins to sign if the money is right. He's a bit inconsistent and struggles against the run, but he's flashed potential in coverage and Coyle has worked with him the past two years. He'd be an upgrade over Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons and could do well playing behind the Dolphins' front seven.

DE Frostee Rucker

A first-team All-Pac-10 selection at USC in 2005, Rucker was drafted by the Bengals in the third round the following year and spent his rookie season on injured reserve. Since then, Rucker has primarily been a backup defensive end, although he did start a career-high 11 games in 2011 and amassed 44 tackles and four sacks.

Although he's a bit more of a pure defensive end, the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Rucker profiles similarly to Jonathan Fanene (see above) in that he doesn't really have starter upside and is more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher. Like Fanene, Rucker may draw interest from the Dolphins for depth purposes, but he won't be the answer to start opposite Cameron Wake.

DT Pat Sims

A part-time starter for the Bengals since being taken in the third round out of Auburn in 2008, Sims has opened 23 of 52 games played over the past four seasons. His tackle totals have declined each of his four pro seasons and he opened just one game in 2012 thanks to the emergence of Pro Bowler Geno Atkins.

Like a lot of guys on this list, Sims is someone that came into this league with some upside but hasn't really lived up to it. He's still young enough to draw interest from teams that think they can develop him, so it wouldn't be surprising if the Dolphins looked at him as a potentially cheap reserve as they transition to the 4-3 scheme.

SS Gibril Wilson

Easily the biggest free agent busts of the Parcells/Ireland era, Wilson lasted just one season in Miami after signing a five-year, $27.5 million contract with $8 million guaranteed in 2009. Wilson joined the Bengals in 2010 but tore his ACL in the preseason and missed the entire year. In 2011, Wilson started just one game and totaled 33 tackles while averaging just over 13 defensive snaps per game.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, and no. As we saw in Miami in 2009, Wilson has completely lost the ability to cover in the NFL and has no business as a starter. Even if Jeff Ireland thought Wilson might help for depth purposes, I highly doubt the front office would reunite with one of its biggest mistakes. Yeremiah Bell might be a cap casualty and the Dolphins' safeties are far from settled, but Wilson is not the answer and those bad memories need to stay buried.

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