He’s not great against the run. He’s yet to play a full season in the NFL.
Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap has received criticism about what he can’t do, but there’s no question about what he can do. And that just so happens to be the main thing defenses are looking for in today’s NFL.
Get to the quarterback.
That’s why despite his shortcomings, Cincinnati signed the 6-foot-6, 280-pound pass-rushing menace to a six-year, $40 million extension on Monday. Dunlap was entering the final year of his rookie contract. Over his first three years in the league, Dunlap recorded 20 sacks. He had six last season, including a career-high 40 tackles, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, one interception he returned for a touchdown, six stuffs and three passes defended.
Dan Marino became the first quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in a single season back in 1984, but the feat has been accomplished four times in the last two years (Drew Brees in 2011 and 2012, Tom Brady in 2011, Matthew Stafford in 2011) and another time in 2008 (Drew Brees).
The NFL has a pass-happy fever, and the only prescription is more pass-rushers. Cincinnati’s management is well aware, and Dunlap is a key cog in one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. Dunlap, fellow end Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks) and tackles Geno Atkins (12.5 sacks) and Domata Peko helped the Bengals rank sixth in total defense (319.7 yards per game) and eighth in points allowed (20.0) last season.
Dunlap distinguishes himself from the unit by being a disruptor and playmaker. In the last two years, Dunlap has 100 quarterback pressures in 726 pass-rushes. Last season, he earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week after a Week 13 win over the Chargers that saw him record two sacks that both led to fumbles, a pass deflection, four more quarterback pressures and five tackles. In addition to his pick-six last year, he also had a fumble recovery for a score in 2011.
Despite the obvious potential the 24-year-old Dunlap has shown since being drafted in the second round in 2010, he has yet to be an every-down starter. While Dunlap sees the field in obvious pass situations, he’s replaced by Robert Geathers on a regular basis when stopping the run becomes a priority.
That would be a problem if this was the NFL of 8-10 years ago. That’s not the case anymore as a rotating defensive line has become as common as a stable of running backs.
Super Bowl XLII, when the Patriots’ record-breaking aerial attack was thwarted by the Giants’ rotating group of pass-rushers, showed the benefits of a deep, pass-rushing oriented line. And teams have accepted the fact that finding a defensive end that can pressure the quarterback and stop the run on every down, like a J.J. Watt, is a large proposition. The Falcons, for instance, knew that when they signed pass-rushing specialist Osi Umenyiora to a two-year, $8.5 million deal in late March. Being in the NFC South with the Saints and their gunslinger who’s reached the aforementioned feat three times in the last five years, you don’t have a choice.
The hope for the Bengals and many defenses these days is that a successful pass-rush will at least force a short, quick pass. In those instances, Dunlap and his exceptional speed for an end (4.71 in the 40-yard dash) is still a factor. He has the ability to chase down any ball-carrier in his vicinity, especially those that are forced to the sideline. Plus, he can blow up screens before they even develop and has the athleticism to bat down passes at the line. Thus, being an undersized end doesn’t carry the same luggage of liability as it used to.
And Dunlap’s first hefty payout is evidence of that.