After the 2021 NFL Draft, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo called it a “pleasant surprise” that defensive end Joseph Ossai was still on the board in the third round.
The Bengals had signed two starting cornerbacks in free agency, which made edge rusher the defense’s biggest need in the draft. Most evaluators had Ossai projected as a second round pick, and he was clearly the best edge rusher on the board when the Bengals were on the clock in the third round.
Ossai immediately became a starter on the Bengals pass rush unit. But in his first preseason game, Ossai suffered a knee injury that will keep him out indefinitely. While Ossai is just a rookie, he’ll be one of the most difficult players for the Bengals to replace.
In the Bengals defensive scheme, Anarumo mixes the defensive line rotation on rushing downs and on passing downs. During the preseason opener, Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader and Larry Ogunjobi looked slated to be on the field for most first and second downs.
But in third-and-long situations and in two minute drills, Anarumo puts his best pass rushers on the field. Immediately, Ossai earned a spot in that group. And he exceeded expectations in the preseason opener by recording a sack, two quarterback hits and three tackles.
Without Ossai in that pass rushing group, Anarumo will need to make significant changes to his pass rush personnel.
Initially, the most likely first-team pass rush grouping included Ossai and Hendrickson on the edge and Hubbard and Ogunjobi at defensive tackle. Without Ossai, the Bengals have four likely options for their pass rush defensive line.
If Anarumo is looking for a one-for-one replacement for Ossai as an edge rusher, there are five other players on the Bengals with that skill set. None of them are established edge rushers in the NFL.
- Rookie defensive end Cam Sample had played more on the interior defensive line in pass rush situations during training camp. While Sample was a productive pass rusher from the inside and has lined up at defensive end on some early downs, he hasn’t shown the same burst and explosiveness as Ossai.
- Second year edge rusher Khalid Kareem held Ossai’s role on the defense at the end of the 2020 season. Kareem has missed the start of training camp and returned to practice on Sunday, so he hasn’t taken many reps with the Bengals’ current defensive linemen. Last season, he had just one sack and two quarterback hits on 259 snaps.
- Undrafted free agent Darius Hodge has transitioned from a linebacker into an edge rusher during training camp. Even though he had never been an edge rusher before this preseason, he has been one of the Bengals most productive players this summer. Hodge is still competing for a spot on the roster, but he’s the quickest and most explosive edge rusher in this group.
- The Bengals could also potentially turn to Noah Spence, a free agent the team signed on Sunday, in pass rush situations. At Ohio State, Spence was the most productive edge rusher on a team that included two future NFL stars in Joey Bosa and Ryan Shazier. But Spence’s college success hasn’t translated into the NFL – he has two sacks since the 2017 season, and he hasn’t been able to stay healthy.
- One more option for the Bengals pass rush defensive line includes a greater shakeup. Hubbard has mostly played on the interior defensive line on third downs, but Anarumo could move Hubbard to the edge and give a defensive tackle Mike Daniels, Josh Tupou or D.J. Reader more playing time.
Former Ohio State punter Drue Chrisman cleared to practice
CLEARED TO PRACTICE: Bengals rookie punter Drue Chrisman made his training camp debut on Sunday after missing the start of camp and the preseason with a hand injury.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said he hasn’t decided yet whether Chrisman will play in the preseason finale.
Cincinnati Bengals roster moves
ROSTER MOVES: Heading into the NFL’s second cut down date of training camp, the Bengals made five roster moves on Monday. Cincinnati cut defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun, quarterback Eric Dungey, center Lamont Gaillard, tight end Cheyenne O'Grady and safety Kavon Frazier.
None of the five players were expected to make the 53-man roster, and the Bengals current roster stands at 81 players.
"Now where the roster is at, a lot of it is numbers, and that's a good thing,” Taylor said. “That just shows you the depth of our team, as we continue to build this thing. And it's not, 'This guy just can't do it.' There's not a lot of those situations going on with us.”