Andy Dalton gets a lot of credit for the Bengals’ recent success. After all, a mere 2nd round pick rookie in 2011, Dalton took over a Bengals team that was 4-12 in 2010 and took them to the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1981-1982. However, he doesn’t deserve nearly as much credit as this defense. Dalton has led this offense to 22.9 points per game in his first 2 seasons combined, which is an improvement over the 20.1 they scored in 2010, but not significantly. Meanwhile, their defense has gone from allowing 24.7 points per game in 2010 to allowing 20.1 points per game over the last 2 seasons, boasting a top-10 scoring defense in each year (while the offense has ranked 18th and 12th).
This year, they actually had one of the worst defenses in the league through the first 8 games, a 3-5 start that included a home loss to Miami. However, they went 7-1 the rest of the way up until the playoffs, thanks to the #1 ranked scoring defense in the 2nd half of the season. This defense is led by Geno Atkins, who played well all season and might be the defensive player of the year if not for JJ Watt. In the 2nd half, players like Carlos Dunlap, Reggie Nelson, and Michael Johnson stepped up, while talented cornerback Leon Hall got healthy and veterans Adam Jones and Terence Newman had surprisingly very good seasons in the secondary.
However, for the 2nd straight year it was one and done in the postseason for the Bengals. They have a talented roster, but Andy Dalton may be the limiting factor, at least when you talk about them as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. He definitely doesn’t deserve the credit for the Bengals’ turnaround that the media is giving him. Dalton is now 0-2 in the post-season in his career and is a loss away from a full Matt Ryan. Unlike with Matt Ryan, I think that 0-2 post-season record is legitimate. Unlike Ryan, who twice lost to eventual Super Bowl Champions, Dalton lost both times to a Houston team that was bounced in the next round.
Andy Dalton also doesn’t possess quite the same regular season success as Ryan, whose Falcons teams have averaged around 11 wins per season in his career, a record Dalton has never even accomplished. Ryan also has led 4 top-10 offenses in his first 5 years in the NFL, something Dalton has never even accomplished either. Ryan may be more experienced than Dalton, but even Ryan’s rookie year, where he led the Falcons to be 10th in scoring and win 11 games, is better than either of Dalton’s first two years in the NFL.
Dalton also possesses a terrible record against quality opponents in his career. If you count the game against the Ravens’ backups week 17 of 2012 as a non-playoff team, Dalton is 18-4 against non-playoff teams in his career, but just 1-11 against playoff teams, including those two post-season early exits. That one win was against the early season Redskins, who lost left tackle Trent Williams in that game. In those 12 games, Dalton is 250 of 445 (56.2%) for 2934 yards (6.6 YPA), 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions against playoff teams. In the other 22 games, he’s 420 of 679 (61.9%) for 4518 yards (6.7 YPA), 35 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions.
You can say it is way too early in Dalton’s career to put him under this kind of a microscope, but remember, this has never been a kid with a huge ceiling. He doesn’t have amazing physical gifts and you have to wonder how much better he’s going to get. Obviously I’m not saying bench him or anything, but the media gives him way too much credit. He’s an overrated player. Over the next few years, the discussion around him should shift from how great he is to “can you win a Super Bowl with Andy Dalton?” As for the Bengals, they have a very talented roster around him and though they have several key free agents, they’ve got plenty of cap space (a league leading 55.1 million) to re-sign them and more if they so choose.
Rey Maualuga was awful this year. He was by far ProFootballFocus’ worst rated linebacker, getting torched in coverage with regularity and finishing among the league’s worst in terms of tackling, missing 16. He picked a bad year to do that. Normally a decent linebacker, Maualuga was in a contract year this year and might not even get another starting job this off-season. The Bengals should use this opportunity to upgrade the middle of their linebacking corps. They may be moving Vontaze Burfict there so he can play his natural position, but that would open up another need at outside linebacker (more on that later).
The Bengals had one of the most efficient pass rushes in the NFL this season, but it was almost all because of three players, Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, and Carlos Dunlap. Atkins is a defensive tackle. Johnson is a free agent and Dunlap has never been trusted as more than a nickel rusher. The Bengals will probably franchise tag Johnson, but Robert Geathers, their other starting defensive end, is also a free agent. He’s not much of a pass rusher at all (he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 56th ranked pass rushing 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible), so the Bengals should use this opportunity to upgrade him and get a better player to rotate with Johnson and Dunlap at defensive end.
Back to the linebackers. Rey Maualuga isn’t their only free agent at the position. Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard are also free agents. The former is a decent two down linebacker, but nothing more, while Howard is coming off a torn ACL. Vontaze Burfict played well in Howard’s absence this year, but if he moves to middle linebacker, they could be left needing two new starters on the outside. Lawson could be brought back as the 3rd linebacker, but he’s not an every down guy and Howard can’t be trusted even if he is re-signed.
The Taylor Mays experiment didn’t last long. The Bengals were forced to move Nate Clements from cornerback to safety to play alongside Reggie Nelson and they also re-signed Chris Crocker mid-season and he saw some playing time. They can’t rely on that long term. Both Crocker and Clements are free agents and are heading into their age 33 and 34 seasons respectively. They need a new starter next to Nelson.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a bunch of rushing yards this season, but that has more to do with the Bengals’ awesome offensive line and the sheer number of carries he got. He once again averaged less than 4 yards per carry overall this season. He can run through holes if they’re there, but he’s only a between the tackles plodder and he frequently ranks among the worst in the NFL in yards after contract per carry.
Backups Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard are both free agents and the Bengals have already talked about bringing in a compliment for Green-Ellis. If they had another explosive back in the mix, they could be among the best running teams in the NFL, given their offensive line. There will be plenty of options for them on day 2 of the NFL draft.
Andre Smith is a free agent. He was terrible in his first two years in the league and looked on his way to being a bust so, in the off-season after the 2010 season, the Bengals declined an option on his contract for 2013 and 2014, shortening his rookie deal from 6 years to 4 years. This year, he was arguably the best right tackle in the NFL. In hindsight, they may have made a mistake not exercising that option, but it definitely looked like the right move at the time. Besides, that move may have been the wakeup call he needed to get things right as he’s played very well over the past 2 years.
There’s definitely a buyer beware tag on him. Not only has he never played on the blind side, but once he gets a bunch of guaranteed money, he may revert to sloth mode like his first two years. He’s always had talent, but there was a lot made about his lack of effort and hustle before the draft. He was also recently arrested for bringing a gun into an airport. The Bengals will reportedly use the franchise tag on Michael Johnson, rather than him. If the Bengals choose not the re-sign him, they may be able to get by with Anthony Collins, a swing tackle who has impressed in limited action in the past, at right tackle, but they’d need some competition for him.
The Bengals used two different kickers this year because of injuries, Josh Brown and Mike Nugent, but both are free agents this off-season. Nugent was their franchise tagged player a year ago and Josh Brown hit 11 of 12 in his absence this year, so either one is fine, but they need to re-sign one or replace them both.
Punter Kevin Huber is also a free agent.
Kick returner Brandon Tate is also a free agent.
And so is punt returner Adam Jones.