The NFL Bengals of Cincinnati have undergone quite the cosmetic surgery recently. New faces can be found all over on a young squad that is filled with talent and promise. It wasn’t too long ago the big names of the Bengals’ franchise were Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco and briefly T.O., all of whom were out of the league for a time last season (if you count Ochocinco’s stint with the Patriots). Now, most of their offensive skill-position players are in their early-mid 20s and they keep adding depth to an already bolstered defensive unit that is looking more solid in every facet as the off-season plays out.
Second year quarterback Andy Dalton (age 24) and wide receiver A.J. Green (23) are both coming off of sensational rookie seasons in which they set NFL records for completions and yards for a rookie quarterback/receiver combination and enjoyed the success of Pro Bowl selections. There is much hope being placed in this tandem to build on that success as they will get the opportunity to capitalize on their first official NFL off-season together.
These young stars will be getting plenty of reps as they try to find comfort with a new starting running back. The team is looking to replace their leading rusher from 2008-2011, Cedric Benson. Newly acquired free-agent Benjarvus Green-Ellis (26) will likely be the starter going into the season. BJG (or “the Law Firm”) experienced success running the ball on a pass-happy New England offense. Tight end Jermaine Gresham (23) followed up a rookie season in which he set a franchise record for catches by a rookie TE with 52, by snagging another 50+ catches to go with 6 touchdowns. He should continue to flourish under the veteran leadership of newly added Donald Lee.
The O-Line is probably the biggest area of need for the Bengals. The offensive line struggled in getting an initial push off the block when running the ball and they still have to replace 1 of 2 starting guards who departed in free agency. Remember how the Texans exposed their flaws in the playoffs last year? Every interception thrown and sacked absorbed by Dalton happened with the Texans rushing only four or fewer men. Some moves have already been made to upgrade this unit, but most draft experts see the team drafting OG David DeCastro from Stanford. Thanks to the Carson Palmer trade the Bengals will have a couple of 1st-round selections to make some noise. Free-agent guard Jacob Bell signed with the team earlier this month. In St. Louis, Bell gave aid to RB Steven Jackson’s 2010 Pro Bowl season, and an Offensive Rookie of the Year award for QB Sam Bradford. Perhaps the signing with the biggest potential upside is former Carolina Panthers guard Travelle Wharton. I lived in North Carolina during the year in which RB DeAngelo Williams ravaged the NFL by posting a 17 TD season. I watched a willing, dynamic blocker who could pull from the guard position and get to the edge without any trouble. His footwork is great and I doubt Williams would’ve had near the success he did without the speed of Wharton. When healthy, this is one of the most underrated guards in the league. If Cincinnati can manage to pump some grit into this unit, fans could see their team win those grind-em-out games against two of the leagues top-5 defenses in Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
The defense can be described mostly by its potential, starting with the defensive line. DT Geno Atkins (24) became a full-time starter last year, tied the league in sacks by a defensive tackle and was named to his first Pro Bowl. In 2010, DE Carlos Dunlap (23) set a franchise record for most sacks by a rookie in just 12 games. Last year he was plagued by an early knee strain that kept him out of the entire pre-season and he later missed a combined 4 games due to a hamstring injury. His sack total dropped but his efforts to pressure the QB could be felt by the rest of the Bengals’ 7th ranked defense. Micheal Johnson (25) enjoyed his best professional season getting a career-high 6 sacks and his first career interception that stemmed from a bad pass forced by Dunlap’s pressure on Cleveland QB Colt McCoy. The question will be if this unit will show improvement over the 2012 season, simply because there is not a player on the D-Line over the age of 28. Fans should feel optimistic, however, that there is such young promising talent surrounded by serviceable veterans in DT Domata Peko (27) and defensive ends Robert Geathers (28) and Jamaal Anderson (26).
Linebacker is the biggest question mark for this team. Manny Lawson (27) and Thomas Howard (28) may be two of the fastest to play the position and Rey Maualuga (25) has shown the hard-nosed grit in stopping the run that Cincinnati fans love to see. Bengals fans probably won’t worry much about Maualuga’s character issues because, let’s be honest, in this city it probably won’t matter until his third or fourth arrest. Other than Dan Skuta (25) seeing some action last year there isn’t much else worth mentioning for the LB corps. One thing is for certain, they must find a way to keep running backs from getting to the edge and tearing them apart like RB Arian Foster did in their playoff loss to the Texans.
As if the quarterback position wasn’t emphasized enough, now the league is returning three 5,000+ yard passers. This in-turn is increasing the importance on having a ton of depth in the secondary. The Bengals will have to find a replacement for strong safety Chris Crocker, but they have found a gem in free safety Reggie Nelson (28). This may be the deepest group of cornerbacks in the league. Leon Hall (27) will return from a season-ending achilles tear and should be back to his shutdown form. They missed the services of Jonathan Joseph but have two veterans in Nate Clements and recently-acquired free-agent Terrance Newman. Adam Jones (28) and Jason Allen (28) will also get into the rotation.
Special teams was a steady unit for the Bengals. Kicker Mike Nugent received the franchise tag after banging 86.8% of his field goals through the up-rights. Return-man Brandon Tate caught on with his new team last year returning a 56-yard punt return for a touchdown in week 8 against the Seattle Seahawks. Punter Kevin Huber had an admirable 44.2 average on 91 punts last season, he also returns to the active roster.
The Bengals have the picks in the draft to improve where needed, and more importantly they have the look of a team on the rise. With so many players under 30 and former first-round picks the sky is the limit for a team that, with a couple more wins, could’ve put head coach Marvin Lewis back in the NFL Coach of the Year column (he won the award in 2009). Now, the expectations will be set higher for a team looking to take the torch in the tough AFC South division.