After winning the division in 2009, hopes were high in Cincinnati, especially with Terrell Owens coming in during the offseason. Unfortunately, Carson Palmer’s struggles, the ego of the T-Ocho show (it’s no coincidence Palmer had his best games when both were hurt), and injuries on defense left them at 4-12. With no sure franchise quarterbacks available with the 4th pick, the Bengals took top receiving prospect AJ Green to replace Ochocinco and Owens, and then drafted the small, but feisty Andy Dalton in the 2nd round.
It’s out with the old and in with the new in Cincinnati. Carson Palmer is retired and won’t come back until the Bengals trade him, something they are unwilling to do. Andy Dalton is seen as the future at quarterback, though Bruce Gradkowski could be the week 1 starter as a stopgap. Gradkowski is nothing but a mediocre player and while it’ll be good for Dalton to see some time on the bench (particularly since 2nd round picks frequently don’t pan out at quarterback in the NFL), they won’t win a lot of games with Gradkowski.
At receiver, Ochocinco has been traded to the Patriots and Owens was not resigned. AJ Green will be the #1 guy. He’s extremely talented, but rookie receivers tend to struggle and the lockout won’t help. Opposite him, it will be either Jerome Simpson or Andre Caldwell, two young receivers who played well down the stretch with T-Ocho out. Both showed good chemistry with Carson Palmer, though it remains to be seen if they can do the same with whoever the new quarterback is.
Jordan Shipley will once again work out of the slot. The rookie receiver caught 52 passes in that role last year and had the 6th highest catch rate in the league. Jermaine Gresham, also a rookie last season, will be the tight end. One thing all of these receivers have in common is that they are young and unproven.
Green has never played a snap in the NFL. Shipley and Gresham are both 2nd year players. Jerome Simpson had the vast majority of his career receiving yards in the last 3 weeks of last season, while Caldwell has spent 3 seasons in the league as a depth receiver. With a young quarterback, a bunch of unproven receivers, a new offensive coordinator, and a shortened offseason, expect a lot of growing pains on offense in Cincinnati.
The one thing that’s stayed the same on offense, at least at the skill positions, is Cedric Benson. It remains to be seen if that’s a good thing. Benson averaged a mere 3.5 yards per carry last year and 3.7 yards per carry for his career. He’s often injured and even more frequently arrested. He doesn’t catch passes and he turns 29 in December. However, he has had back-to-back 300 carry seasons, he has an incentive laden one year deal so he’ll give his all, and he’s a gritty runner who ranked 8th in broken tackles and 11th in yards after contact last season.
The offensive line still remains largely the same. Andrew Whitworth is largely unknown, but he’s one of the best left tackles in the league, allowing just 3 sacks last season. His 14 quarterback pressures allowed were the 3rd fewest in the league among left tackles behind perennial Pro Bowlers Joe Thomas and Jake Long. Opposite him, however, it’s a different story.
Andre Smith is penciled in as the starting right tackle, but the 6th overall pick in 2009 has had a largely disappointing career. He’s been frequently hurt and out of shape and hasn’t played well when he’s made it into the lineup. In significantly fewer snaps last season, Smith allowed as many sacks and pressures as Whitworth did lined up against tougher pass rushers on the left side. They have even mulled moving Smith inside to guard. If not Smith, it looks like it would be either intriguing young player Anthony Collins, who has looked good in limited action in his career, or Dennis Roland, who struggled mightily in 2010.
Bobbie Williams is their 2nd best lineman at right guard. He’s 35 in September, however, though guards typically have long shelf lives. At left guard, Nate Livings is marginal and could be pushed by 4th round pick Clint Boling. Kyle Cook is adequate at center, but he too could be pushed by a young player, 2nd year player Reggie Stephens.
Defensively, the Bengals should be healthier than they were last season, but the loss of cornerback Johnathan Joseph is going to be noticeable. His replacement, Nate Clements, is solid, but not what Joseph was. Between Joseph and Leon Hall, they had arguably the best cornerback duo in the league. They no longer have that.
Leon Hall, fortunately, is still there, though he’s in the final year of his contract. He had a down year in 2010, but you’d be hard pressed to find any corner not named Darrelle Revis who had a better 2009 than Hall did. Safety is a weakness of this team as both Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson are pretty mediocre. They didn’t resign Roy Williams, who arguably was their best safety last season, and they missed out on signing Donte Whitner, who it was widely assumed they would sign.
I mentioned their injuries earlier. One of the biggest injuries was to left end Antawn Odom. Odom was apparently still not in great shape because he was cut in training camp. Robert Geathers started at left end in his absence. He offers little to nothing as a pass rusher and managed just 1 sack last year. He’ll start again at left end unless Michael Johnson can live up to his billing. There was a lot of hope that the 2009 3rd round pick Johnson would live up to his amazing athleticism in the pros, but he’s managed just 5.5 sacks in 2 seasons and doesn’t make up for it in run support.
Fortunately, the polar opposite is true on the right side. Rookie 2nd round pick Carlos Dunlap had 9.5 sacks last year, with all but 1 of them coming in his final 6 games. He should break into double digits this year as a 2nd year player. He’s also solid against the run. Domata Peko is also solid against the run at defensive tackle, as is Tank Johnson. Neither offer much of a pass rush, but 2nd year player Geno Atkins does. He was a terrific nickel rusher for them last season. He only played 355 snaps, but he had 5 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 19 quarterback pressures. If he can be more consistent against the run, he could unseat Tank Johnson in the starting lineup.
Veteran linebacker Dhani Jones is gone. He didn’t have much left in the tank anyway. He led the team in tackles, but he’s 33 and slowed down towards the end of the season. With Jones gone, Rey Maualuga will move to his natural position inside at middle linebacker. He was solid for two years on the strong side, but I’m intrigued to see what the talented 2009 2nd round pick can do at his natural position.
Replacing Maualuga on the strong side is free agent acquisition Manny Lawson. Lawson was a bust, as a former first round pick of San Francisco’s, in a 3-4, but his skill set fits the 4-3 like what the Bengals run more than a 3-4. They got him cheap and I think he’ll be a really solid player for them. They also have rookie 3rd round pick Dontay Moch in the mix once he returns from a broken foot midseason.
Moch is the opposite of Lawson. I thought he fit a 3-4 better than a 4-3. He’s a good pass rusher so he’ll probably be in on nickel packages and he could be used like Brian Orakpo was as a rookie, provided he proves himself. On the weak side is Keith Rivers. Rivers has never lived up to his billing as the 9th overall pick in 2008, but he’s not a bad player either.
Overall, I think the Bengals are in for another bad season. Neither of their quarterbacks, Gradkowski nor Dalton, have great arms. I think Dalton was overrated as a 2nd round pick and would have been a mid rounder had this been a better quarterback class. It doesn’t help that both quarterbacks will be working with an inexperienced, albeit talented group of receivers. They have mediocre talent at running back and no one to carry the load should Benson go down with an injury or struggle. They will have a lot of growing pains on offense with a new coordinator, a new quarterback, and inexperienced receivers.
Defensively, they will struggle to create a consistent pass rush opposite Carlos Dunlap, while they’ll really miss Johnathan Joseph at cornerback. I think the best Bengals fans can hope for from this season is that Andy Dalton does what Colt McCoy did last year, wins them some games and gives them some hope for the future. My money is against Dalton, however, and on the Bengals having a high pick next April and potentially looking for a new signal caller (Andrew Luck? Matt Barkley?) once again.
Running backs: C
Receiving corps: C+
Offensive line: B-
Pass rush: C+
Run defense: B
Pass coverage: C
Projection: 3-13 4th in AFC North