Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire.com and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).
In the Marvin Lewis Era, the Bengals generally have had potent offenses and woeful defenses, mixed in with a slew of character problems along the way. In 2008, they switched polarities, turning into an impotent offensive club that had a decent but beleaguered defense.
Carson Palmer's injury effectively shut down an already struggling passing game - the team didn't have a single 300-yard passing day and only four games in excess of 200 yards. Palmer was done after Week 5 with an elbow injury, though the Bengals held out hope until the final weeks of the season that he might come back for some game action. Ryan Fitzpatrick did his best to manage the offense, but he got exposed pretty quickly for his inability to throw deep. As bad as the passing game was, the running game was worse. The team didn't have a 100-yard rusher until Week 9's win over Jacksonville, and then didn't repeat that feat until Week's 16 and 17. Cedric Benson, a midseason pickup off the street, ultimately led the team in rushing after Chris Perry flopped. The spate of injuries on the offensive line reached tragic-comic proportions by the end of the season, but even when that unit was remotely healthy, it struggled. Bengals quarterbacks got sacked 51 times last year, worse than all but the Lions and Niners. It all added up to a team that averaged a league-low 12.8 points and 245.4 yards per game - unwatchable football by any standard.
By contrast, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's unit improved steadily over the course of the year, ending up in the middle of the pack in most team metrics. This despite the defense losing six starters to IR by the end of the season. The one major defensive deficiency was the lack of a decent pass rush - the Bengals only forced 17 sacks, 30th in the NFL. Injuries to Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom, combined with the free agent departure of Justin Smith to the Niners led to a relatively toothless pass rush.
The Bengals three-game win streak to end the season might signal some hope, but the last two wins were against teams (Cleveland, Kansas City) that had so clearly mailed it in that they have no analytical value. Following massive disappointments the last two years, this is clearly a make-or-break season for Lewis. Anything worse than a winning season will probably end in his dismissal. He'll be trying to accomplish that with the hope that Palmer can stay healthy and upright behind a revamped offensive line, throwing to a receiving corps that traded down from T.J. Houshmandzadeh to Laveranues Coles. Though the non-divisional schedule is manageable against the NFC North and AFC West, the Bengals' outlook still remains grim.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (6) Andre Smith, OT, Alabama
Which side will he play?
2. (38) Rey Maualuga, LB, USC
Back to the well to take another USC linebacker.
3. (70) Michael Johnson, DE, Georgia Tech
Team's pass rush was among the worst in the NFL last year.
3. (98) Chase Coffman, TE, Missouri
Among the best receiving tight ends in the draft, but can he block?
4. (106) Jonathan Luigs, C, Arkansas
Part of the OL revamping, could play some at guard.
5. (142) Kevin Huber, P, Cincinnati
Already named the starter.
6. (179) Morgan Trent, CB, Michigan
Back to the well, part II - another Michigan DB.
6. (209) Bernard Scott, RB, Abilene Christian
It wouldn't be a Bengal draft without a guy with character problems.
7. (215) Fui Vakapuna, RB, BYU
Has a chance to make the team as a fullback.
7. (249) Clinton McDonald, DT, Memphis
Team has had some success finding DT's late in the draft.
7. (252) Freddie Brown, WR, Utah
By law, "Fast" must be his nickname.
Because the Bengals' running game was so anemic with Chris Perry (2.6 yards per carry, five fumbles and several drops) in the backfield, they constantly found themselves in 3rd-and-long scenarios with an inexperienced quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick behind a Swiss cheese offensive line. It was the perfect storm to set up Operation FAIL. Benson's 3.5 yards per carry and relative sure-handedness looked positively Barry Sanders-esque in comparison, but keep in mind that he still had just three 100-yard games and two touchdowns for the season. We're skeptical that he can be more than the football equivalent of an innings-eater, even with an improved offensive line, Carson Palmer behind center and no real competition in the backfield. Count on him to be no more than a bye-week starter or injury replacement.
PALMER'S WOUNDED WING
The Bengals consistently downplayed Carson Palmer's elbow injury, despite multiple outside sources correctly identifying how seriously he was hurt. For weeks on end they held out hope that he could return, when it became readily apparent he wasn't coming back. Now, after opting against surgery for a partially torn ligament and tendon in his elbow in favor of rehab, all parties are claiming that he's fully healed. Consider us skeptical of those reports. He'll come at a discount at your draft this year, and, if you choose to take a chance on him, that's fine, but make sure you're covered with a better than average second option.
WIDE RECEIVER WOES
Even if the Bengals' revamped offensive line, highlighted by first-round pick Andre Smith, does pan out, and even if Carson Palmer's elbow holds up and he's a near approximation of his pre-injury form, is the Bengals' wide receiving corps capable of producing big numbers? Chad Johnson or Ochocinco if you prefer, has seemingly spent more time trying to wrangle his way out of town than working on his game. He, more than anyone else, was hurt by Palmer's injury last year, but he's also become less durable and less reliable. From a fantasy standpoint, he once again was a secondary red zone target to T.J. Houshmandzadeh last year. Now that Houshmandzadeh is gone and Laveranues Coles is in his place, we'll see if Johnson is targeted more frequently. As for Coles, it's now the Bengals' turn to play around with the injury designations on a weekly basis. When he's on the field, he also hasn't been a frequent red zone target - his seven touchdowns last year matched a career-high. He might not do much to free up Johnson from the constant double-coverage he saw last year. The key for the Bengals might be whether a quality third receiver can emerge from the likes of Chris Henry, Andre Caldwell or Jerome Simpson.
Rising: Cedric Benson will run behind an improved line and enters the year as the clear starter - he's no superstar, but he'll have his uses.
Declining: Chris Henry is still the third receiver, but could easily be surpassed by Andre Caldwell if he doesn't produce immediately.
Sleeper: Andre Caldwell showed a glimpse of his talent in Week 17, rushing for 49 yards while catching five passes. Now if he can just stay healthy.
Supersleeper: Bernard Scott is incredibly talented (2,156 yards, 28 touchdowns in Division II last year) but incredibly troubled (five arrests).
Dhani Jones, LB
Again the top returning tackler on the team, but Maualuga could cut into his time.
Chinedum Ndukwe, S
Emerged as an all-around IDP force before a foot injury sidelined him last year.
Leon Hall, CB
The Bengals' top cover corner, he is a decent tackler for a corner, too.