STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Expectations for the Bengals heading into 2011 couldn't have been any lower. Their franchise quarterback didn't want anything to do with the franchise, their marquee wide receiver was traded away at the eve of training camp and they lost an elite cover corner in free agency. Meanwhile, other top free agents stayed away in droves, and even coach Marvin Lewis was hanging by a thread, in small part because the lockout prevented owner Mike Brown from finding someone better. Then they looked awful in the preseason - not just losing, but appearing very much overmatched. The Bengals were on the short list of teams favored to have the top draft pick in 2012.
But as we've learned time and again, the NFL is a reshuffle league. As it turned out, Chad Ochocinco was pretty near toast by the time 2011 rolled around, or at the very least was an extremely poor fit for the Patriots. Getting two draft picks for him was a coup. Losing Carson Palmer wasn't nearly as painful as anticipated, as rookie Andy Dalton turned out to be an excellent game manager. It turns out a team can play better when it has players that actually want to be there. The defense was fantastic, at least in the first half of the season when the schedule was light and the unit was healthy. When Leon Hall went down with a torn ACL, however, the Bengals' lack of depth in the secondary was exposed. They limped into the playoffs, and the Texans exposed their corners trying to cover Andre Johnson. Nonetheless, the season was a resounding success.
It will get much harder in 2012. For starters, while you don't want to read too much into schedules in the summer, the team's opponents appear to be a higher grade than last season. Last year the Bengals went 3-1 against the NFC West - this year, they get the NFC East. Last year they went 3-1 against the AFC South - this year, they draw the AFC West, which will include a December game in San Diego. Plus, they are far less likely to sneak up on anyone. But on the bright side, the core of this team is young and improving, and the franchise got another infusion of talent in the draft, with five picks through the first three rounds and eight picks in the first five rounds. A.J. Green is ready to join the league's elite wide receivers, Jermaine Gresham took the leap last year, and the Bengals upgraded in the backfield, replacing Cedric Benson with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. They reside in a tough division, though the Ravens have already had a rough offseason in terms of health. Eight to 10 wins will be the likely expectation for Cincinnati.
Benjarvus Green-Ellis, RB (Patriots)
Should be better than Cedric Benson in converting short-yardage situations.
Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama (Round 1, 17th overall)
Could step in and start right away. The Bengals are still looking for Johnathan Joseph's replacement, and Terence Newman (Cowboys) isn't what he used to be.
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers (Round 3, 83rd overall)
Cruel first-day prank turns into second-day reality; he could
Orson Charles, TE, Georgia (Round 4, 116th overall)
Once considered a first-round pick, Charles had an awful offseason.
Marvin Jones, WR, California (Round 5, 166th overall)
Jones will play a big part in special teams for the Bengals and could win the No. 2 receiver job if Sanu doesn't.
Cedric Benson, RB (FA)
The Bengals did well to pick him up off the scrap heap and not to sign a long-term deal.
Jerome Simpson, WR (Vikings)
Simpson will serve a three-game suspension to begin the season due to his marijuana arrest.
Jonathan Fanene, DE (Patriots)
Had 6.5 sacks last season as part of the Bengals' DE rotation. Combined with Frostee Rucker (Browns), the Bengals have 10.5 sacks to replace this year.
WILL THE LAW-FIRM CHARGE EXORBINANT RATES?
And this will be the last and only "Law Firm" joke we'll use when discussing BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis was very difficult to start last season despite his remarkable efficiency in the red zone, because of how heavily the Patriots emphasized the passing game. In his last eight games, he ran for six touchdowns, but reached double-digits in carries just three times, averaging 9.1 carries per game in that span. That workload should increase with the Bengals, a team not nearly as reliant on airing it out. We'll see if he has the durability to handle 250-300 carries, a total he didn't come close to approaching with the Pats.
WILL DALTON BE A FREQUENT FLIER?
Much like Matt Ryan in his rookie season, Andy Dalton was an efficient quarterback who wasn't asked to do that much. He made some big throws, mind you, but more often than not he wasn't asked to go downfield that frequently, thanks to a schedule that often allowed him to protect a lead rather than try to play catch-up. The quality of the opposing offenses facing the Bengals this coming season will mean that Dalton will be asked to do more. Is he capable of keeping up with those expectations? He'll have a few good options at his disposal, including an elite receiver in A.J. Green and a solid second-tier tight end in Jermaine Gresham. You may also see a lot of two tight end sets if rookie Orson Charles picks up the offense quickly. Charles was among the better collegiate pass-catching tight ends at Georgia, but he slipped in the draft because of a poor combine and a pre-draft DUI arrest. The Bengals may need Charles to develop quickly, as the options at the No. 2 wide receiver slot are rather unproven.
SPEAKING OF THOSE RECEIVERS, WHO EMERGES?
Jerome Simpson has gone to serve his suspension and start over with the Vikings, and Andre Caldwell latched on with Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Thus, the second and third receiver slots are wide open, and going with two tight end sets will address only part of that. Third-round draft pick Mohamed Sanu has a small lead on one of those spots, but the other will probably be tightly contested between Jordan Shipley, who is coming back from knee injury, Andrew Hawkins and fifth-round pick Marvin Jones. This job battle won't be decided before the end of training camp, and it might not remain settled well into the regular season, especially if the rookies take awhile to adjust to the pro game. Aside from BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Bengals addressed most of their weaknesses in the draft, rather than the veteran free agent market.
RISING: BenJarvus Green-Ellis finally gets a chance to be the every down back in an offense that likes to run between the tackles.
DECLINING: There's nothing wrong with Andy Dalton, but he'll face a much tougher schedule this year, facing the NFC East instead of the NFC West, and the AFC West instead of the AFC South.
SLEEPER: Rookie third-round pick Mohamed Sanu could start opposite A.J. Green, with both Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell out of town.
SUPERSLEEPER: Jordan Shipley was hurt in Week 2 last season; don't forget about him as a potential starting wideout.
Carlos Dunlap, DE
Started slowly last year, but the sacks picked up late. Could break out in his third season.
Rey Maualuga, LB
A good bet to record triple-digit tackles as the team's
Michael Johnson, DE
Johnson will be asked to do more now that Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene are elsewhere.
RotoWire Rank: 13