The Bengals are banged up at defensive end, but there was some positive news beginning to trickle in at the position area with the training camp debut Tuesday of third-year end Margus Hunt, who has been medically cleared following a back injury.
Hunt returned to practice on the fields at Paul Brown Stadium, but was a limited participant. Even so, the team welcomed his return after a balky back kept him out of action most of spring OTAs and all of minicamp.
The 28-year-old Estonian re-aggravated an old back injury during spring weight training. He was thought to be a candidate for a season-opening listing on the active/PUP list, but was a surprising returnee in pads Tuesday within a week of the start of training camp. He did not take part in contact drills, but participated in some individual drills. Now, begins the road to respectability and a hoped-for spot on the 53-man roster following two underwhelming seasons to begin his NFL stay.
Though he didn't begin his football playing career until college at SMU, Hunt is just in time for training camp. Starting right end Michael Johnson is out at least a month with an MCL sprain in his right knee. Johnson's backup, Wallace Gilberry, returned to practice Tuesday after nursing a sore hamstring. Left edge rusher Carlos Dunlap has been the lone bright spot among the ends. He had back-to-back sacks Monday while lining up across starting right tackle Andre Smith.
The Bengals have been waiting on Hunt, a second-round draft pick in 2013, and defensive end Will Clarke, a third-round pick the next year. They fit Dunlap and Johnson's size mold, but can't get on the field.
Hunt, a 6-foot-8, 290-pound former track and field weight man, has played 22 games for the Bengals and totaled 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a pass defensed. When healthy, he's very athletic for his size. Clarke, 6-6, 291, has played in seven games with three tackles and a fumble recovery, but he did it 20 pounds lighter. Coaches told him to add weight in the offseason, while hoping to retain his athleticism in the process.
Dunlap is listed at 6-6, 280. Johnson is 6-7, 280. Combined with healthy, robust and productive versions of Clarke and Hunt, the Bengals possess the makings of a pass-swatting, backfield-penetrating group of edge rushers who have the potential to make life miserable for offensive fronts who also have to contend with defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
It's not clear when Hunt will become a full camp participant. The Bengals are off Wednesday. They practice Thursday from 3-5 p.m. Friday's session is 6-8 p.m.