Bengals should focus on front seven at combine

Here's a closer look at the positions the Cincinnati Bengals could target at the NFL combine in Indianapolis:

Positions of need: The Bengals' defense stepped up at the end of the season, but it's clear some of their veterans have reached the age that makes it necessary for the team to look for upgrades.

Nose tackle Domata Peko, 32, is a pending free agent. Although he's been a mainstay in the Bengals' locker room, they are going to have to find a younger replacement soon.

That might be Andrew Billings, who was drafted last season but didn't play because of an injury. The Bengals could re-sign Peko while eventually priming Billings to replace him.

What about the rest of the front seven? Speed, speed and more speed is needed here.

The Bengals need to upgrade their pass rush. Defensive end Michael Johnson hasn't reached double-digit sacks since the 2012 season. They also need to build around linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

Last season, they signed 35-year-old Karlos Dansby as a short-term rental, and Rey Maualuga has been in the middle for several seasons now. Both have showed signs of slowing down. The Bengals have a few potential replacements on their roster in linebackers Nick Vigil and P.J. Dawson, but if a top linebacker is available, they shouldn't hesitate to take him.

Three players the Bengals could target at the combine:

Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama: Putting Foster and Burfict together could be an explosive combination. Despite his 246-pound frame, Foster has great closing speed and is a skilled tackler. He could be an immediate upgrade to the linebacker group.

Foster will not be able to participate in combine drills after undergoing shoulder surgery. This will still be an important week for him, as teams will review his medical records and get a better assessment as to whether he will be ready to go by training camp. If Foster needs to start the season on the physically unable to perform list, that could drop him down on some draft boards.

Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford: The 6-foot-2, 275-pound Thomas not only had eight sacks and seven hurries in his last season at Stanford, he's also a player who can hold up against the run. The Bengals need a pass-rusher, but they also need someone who can eventually replace Johnson.

An NFL.com draft profile has Thomas listed as a "tweener" due to his frame, citing worries that he doesn't have the size to play outside or the weight to play inside. The combine drills won't necessarily alleviate those concerns but could give a better opportunity to assess his measurables.

Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan: Charlton is an intriguing prospect at edge rusher. He's considered somewhat of a raw prospect, as he wasn't a full-time starter until his final season. However, he had 15 sacks in his last two seasons at Michigan and 13 tackles for loss in 2016.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has called him "the best pass-rusher in the draft," and fellow draft analyst Todd McShay has him No. 11 overall on his list of top prospects.

The 6-6, 272-pound Charlton could be a player the Bengals eye to try to fix an ailing pass rush from last season. The Bengals had only 33 team sacks in 2016, with half of those coming from defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Wallace Gilberry, re-signed midseason, is not the answer here (2.5 sacks), nor is Johnson as a pure pass-rusher (3.5 sacks.) The Bengals will likely be eyeing a defensive end or two early in the draft.