State of the Franchise
Though they took a different path to get there, the 2012 Bengals finished exactly as the 2011 version did; with a road playoff loss at Houston, wondering what might have been but for a few plays along the way. By many standards, it was a good season, given where they were following a dismal 4-12 campaign back in 2010. A dispassionate response would be that two consecutive playoff years is an unqualified success. But outside of a few select franchises in the NFL, the window of opportunity to compete and advance in the playoffs is pretty small. That window is even smaller when you share a division with the Ravens and the Steelers. So to see the Ravens win it all, while the Bengals fell short in the same place had to be a pretty bitter pill to swallow.
Itís one thing to acknowledge the urgency of the situation, but how can the Bengals act on it and improve so that they can win playoff games? It has to start on the offensive side of the ball. Though the Bengals averaged 24.4 points per game, good for 12th in the NFL, all but two of the squads ahead of them were fellow playoff teams. More importantly, in a number of games, it was the offense that let them down when they lost, highlighted by QB Andy Daltonís poor game against the Texans in the playoffs. Dalton missed wide-open receiever A.J. Green in the end zone late in that game, a microcosm of his problems during the season, in which he really struggled with the deep ball, with a 52.9 quarterback rating on passes of 20 yards or longer. The Bengals have dedicated much of their offseason work towards improving Dalton in those situations, both with his technique and by adding personnel that can help him achieve better results. The latter was addressed primarily by drafting TE Tyler Eifert in the first round. Heíll often line up in the slot and hit a number of seam patterns, opening the edges better for Green.
The Bengals virtually ignored the free agent market, choosing instead to lock up their own free agents (DE Michael Johnson, OT Andre Smith, CB Adam Jones and LB Rey Maualuga at the top of that list) and pound the draft. By most accounts, they did well in that respect, and they preserved their ability to sign stalwarts Green and DT Geno Atkins, whose deals come due next year. Their top free agent from outside the organization is LB James Harrison, who left the Steelers in the hopes of proving he has another big year left in him.
The schedule appears to be challenging, as befitting a team returning from the playoffs. The Bengals get three prime-time games, including both games against the Steelers. The NFC North and AFC East teams are on the docket this year, after the team faced the NFC East and AFC West slates last year. Health early in the season will be key, as the Bengals donít get their bye until Week 12.
Giovani Bernard - RB, North Carolina
(Round 2, 37th overall)
Wonít be the first rookie taken in your fantasy leagues, but he provides the team with a change-of-pace option with good long-term potential.
Tyler Eifert - TE, Notre Dame
(Round 1, 21st overall)
A value-based selection for the Bengals, but they can be creative in how they use him.
James Harrison - LB, Steelers
The prototype Bengalsí free agent signee; no longer in his prime, but eager to prove he has something left in the tank.
Margus Hunt - DE, SMU
(Round 2, 53rd overall)
Once again, the Bengals didnít draft according to need, but rather to get their best available player with Hunt, who will serve as a pass rushing specialist.
Shawn Williams - S, Georgia
(Round 3, 84th overall)
A strong run-stopper, who helps address the weakest part of the teamís defense.
Josh Johnson - QB, Browns
Will compete with fellow newcomer John Skelton to be Andy Daltonís top backup.
Bruce Gradkowski - QB, Steelers
Moves on to Pittsburgh to back up Ben Roethlisberger.
Josh Brown - K, Giants
Filled in for Mike Nugent late in the season, but the Bengals re-signed Nugent.
JAMES BROOKS AND ICKEY WOODS
The Bengalsí running attack was somewhat predictable and plodding in 2012. BenJarvus Green-Ellis did what he usually does; protect the football, convert short-yardage situations and average less than 4.0 yards per carry. He actually lost his first two fumbles as a pro last season, but for the most part he was reliable but not spectacular, averaging 72.9 yards per game. He was a limited participant in the passing game, catching 22 balls for just 104 yards. Enter rookie Giovani Bernard, the Bengalsí second-round pick, who was the first running back taken at No. 37 overall. He ran for 1,228 yards at UNC and caught an additional 47 passes for 490 yards in 2012. Bernardís size (5-9, 208 pounds) make it less likely that the Bengals will ever make him their lone back, but donít be surprised if he comes close to splitting the carries with Green-Ellis. The Bengals once got great mileage from James Brooks in his prime, limiting his workload to around 200 carries per season. Between Bernard and Green-Ellis, they hope to recreate some of the magic that Brooks and Ickey Woods conjured in their top seasons.
THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY
It was a small surprise that the Bengals selected Tyler Eifert in the first round, given that they already had the services of Jermaine Gresham and Orson Charles, and then added another tight end in Alex Smith via free agency. But then again, the team didnít have a particular glaring need and didnít want to pass up who they perceived to be the best player available in the draft. Eifertís presence should enable the Bengals to follow the lead of other teams in the league Ė most notably the Patriots Ė who use two good receiving tight ends in the same formation. Eifert could ultimately spend a lot of time lining up in the slot, attacking opposing teamsí linebackers and safeties. This doesnít necessarily hurt Gresham. The Bengals still love his blocking skills, so itís more likely heíll be used in a more traditional manner as a tight end than Eifert, but it also has the effect of taking away much of the attention from him. The other big variable in this passing game equation is WR Mohamed Sanu, who was just starting to hit his stride in his rookie season when a foot injury suffered in practice ended his year. He had started his last two games prior to the injury and had scored four touchdowns over his last three games overall. Heís not guaranteed to begin the year as the starter, but heís our best guess over Andrew Hawkins. All of this serves to take some of the pressure off of A.J. Green, who is Andy Daltonís first, second and third option in many instances.
Rising: Jermaine Gresham might actually benefit from the addition of Tyler Eifert and continue to improve his numbers across the board.
Declining: Andy Dalton was the weak link for the Bengals in the playoffs: Can he take advantage of the talent added by the team in the draft?
Sleeper: Mohamed Sanu caught four touchdowns in a span of three weeks before injuring his foot last season and enters 2013 with a clear shot to start.
Supersleeper: Sixth-round WR Cobi Hamilton will be a boom or bust player; heís capable of hitting on some big plays, if given the opportunity.
Michael Johnson - DE
Netted 11.5 sacks last season, leading the Bengals to designate him as their franchise player.
Geno Atkins - DT
A rare defensive tackle that gets a lot of sacks, with a combined 20 over the last two seasons.
Vontaze Burfict - LB
Went from going undrafted to starting linebacker and the teamís leading tackler last season. This year heíll start from Day 1.
RotoWire Rank: 7