The expectations are high for Bengals DE Carlos Dunlap. As a rookie he broke the franchise rookie sack mark (9.5), now the Cincinnati staff hopes to unleash the dominant pass-rushing end every Super Bowl team needs.
Yet, entering his third season, Dunlap remains an enigma.
An inability to shed the pass-rush specialist title and avoid ill-timed injuries kept him on the outside of the conversation for best defensive ends in football. Sure, there was the six-game stretch with 8.5 sacks at the conclusion of his rookie year, but it came after playing sparingly the first eight games of the season.
Last season, he was among the most disruptive defensive ends in football the first half of 2011. He racked up 24 hurries, though only three sacks, over the first eight games. Then he suffered a hamstring injury and never returned to his healthy form.
To put his first-half numbers in perspective, if Dunlap would have duplicated the first half in the second half of the season he would have finished third in the NFL in QB hurries. Tack on his 10 QB hits over the first eight weeks and double that to a full season he would have led the league in the category.
What makes a disruptive pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end? If it's the combination of sacks, QB hits and QB hurries, Dunlap would have finished with 74 extrapolating out his healthy first half. Here's how that would have stacked up among all 4-3 ends (all numbers via ProFootballFocus.com).
Player, Team Sacks+QB hits+QB hurries
Chris Long, STL 83
Carlos Dunlap, CIN 74
Julius Peppers, CHI 70
Trent Cole, PHI 67
Jason Babin, PHI 67
Jared Allen, MIN 66
Chris Clemons, SEA 66
Terrell Suggs, BAL 57
Jason Pierre-Paul, NYG 56
John Abraham, ATL 55
This is where the frustration sets in for Dunlap. When healthy, his production mirrors the best in the game. He never missed a game due to injury during his three seasons with the Gators. Still, staying healthy and showing enough ability in stopping the run to increase his reps on first and second down keep him from rising to an elite level.
"In order to be considered amongst the best -- which is my personal goal as far as being an athlete in anything -- you have to compete and do what the best have done," said Dunlap, who only started one game and took less than 50 percent of the available snaps. "I haven't done that yet. I have to break 10 (sacks) and compete and stay up there with whoever has the highest number and I want to be the highest number."
In an effort to avoid injuries and improve his play, Dunlap altered his diet, added offseason training and picked the brains of league veterans trying to eliminate the injuries. The motivation and training tweaks resulted in the maturity of a player dogged by the immature label since arriving out of Florida. For defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, finding maturity will be the difference for Dunlap.
"Carlos needed to grow up," Zimmer said. "That was his No. 1 thing. He is a tremendous athlete, probably the best athlete we have defensively. I think he's finally turning the page. When he does, and if he does, then there's going to be a lot of tackles in the league who are going to be sweating. Until then, he might be seven good plays and three bad plays."
Follow Paul Dehner Jr. on Twitter for real-time updates from Bengals training camp at @CBSSportsNFLCIN