It must be frustrating to be a Bengals fan. They entered the off-season off of back-to-back post-season appearances and among the most cap space in the NFL, yet not only did they do nothing to really improve their roster, they also didn’t lock up any of their young talent long term, with the exception of right tackle Andre Smith. Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, and Carlos Dunlap are all very talented young defensive linemen and a big part of the reason why this team had the 8th best scoring defense in the NFL, allowing 20.0 points per game, and all 3 are set to hit free agency next off-season and they don’t appear close on extensions with any of them as once again Owner/GM Mike Brown has tightened the purse strings.
This wouldn’t be as big of a concern if it wasn’t something that had been a habitual problem of the team in the past or if they didn’t have a very talented young team that needed to be locked up. They’ve done an excellent job of drafting over the past few years, turning the team around for a mediocre veteran team to an exciting young team, but that will all be for naught if they can’t keep them long term. Atkins, Johnson, and Dunlap aren’t the only ones. What happens when AJ Green and Andy Dalton need to be locked up? It’s a concern.
As for the 2013 version of the Cincinnati Bengals, not much has changed. They still have a good defense and a decent young quarterback who has shown a startling inability to beat playoff teams. 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 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 against future playoff teams, Dalton was 250 of 445 (56.2%) for 2934 yards (6.6 YPA), 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. In the other 22 games, he’s 420 of 679 (61.9%) for 4518 yards (6.7 YPA), 35 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions. This is a concern considering the Bengals have to face 7 teams who made the playoffs in 2012, along with Pittsburgh (twice), Chicago, and what should be an improved Detroit team.
Even on a strong defense, they still have holes at safety, linebacker, and lack depth at defensive end, all areas they could have addressed in free agency, but didn’t. They retained Robert Geathers to rotate with Dunlap and Johnson even though he offers absolutely nothing as a pass rusher and doesn’t do enough as a run stopper to make up for it. They retained Rey Maualuga at middle linebacker even though he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ worst middle linebacker in the league last year. And at strong safety, it looks like it will be an uninspiring battle between career backup Taylor Mays and 3rd round pick rookie Shawn Williams. Their 20 million dollars in remaining cap space is burning a hole in Mike Brown’s pocket right now.
I discussed Andy Dalton’s inability to beat playoff teams in the introduction. He’s really an average quarterback as he beats the teams he’s supposed to, but no one else. 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?”
One thing I liked about the Bengals’ off-season was that they did attempt to add more playmakers around Dalton, spending both their first two draft picks on offensive skill position players. Their 2nd round pick was Giovani Bernard out of North Carolina, who was the first running back off the board. Bernard is not a full package back at just 5-8 202, but we’ve seen plenty of backs go in the 2nd round or later with similar billings and go on to be to very good running backs, including Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew. It’s unclear how much he can contribute as a rookie, however, as neither of those backs were every down guys until after their 1st season, once they had more time in an NFL weight room.
At the very least, he makes a lot of sense as a complement to incumbent starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis because he does everything well that BJGE doesn’t. There is absolutely nothing flashy about Green-Ellis’ game. On 788 career carries, he has just 3 rushes for longer than 34 yards, but also just 3 fumbles. He also doesn’t contribute anything in the passing game with just 48 career catches.
He’s good in short yardage, but he doesn’t do much other than run through holes that are blocked. He averaged just 2.1 yards per carry after contact last season after doing the same in 2011, both among the worst in the league, and he also was under 4 yards per carry for the 2nd straight season. All in all, he was ProFootballFocus’ 55th ranked running back out of 59 eligible and the need for another running back was obvious. Bernard might be raw, but he can serve as an explosive complement and contribute in the passing game, catching 92 passes in just 2 seasons at North Carolina. He’s got much more talented than BJGE, who I don’t consider to be a starting caliber running back, so he should eventually take over as the starter and feature back, but he may take a year or two.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Before taking Bernard in the 2nd round, the Bengals spent their first round pick on Tyler Eifert, to give Andy Dalton someone else to throw to. The fit might have seemed weird considering the Bengals just used a 1st round pick on a tight end in Jermaine Gresham in 2010, but Gresham hasn’t been nearly as good as the two-time Pro Bowlers’ stats have suggested. He was actually ProFootballFocus’ worst rated tight end last season because of his propensity for drops (8) and penalties (9) and his shoddy run blocking. He also had 2 more big drops in their playoff loss to Houston, when he caught just 2 passes for 7 yards on 7 targets.
Dalton is more of a short throw quarterback anyway so using more two tight end sets makes sense, something they did on just 304 snaps in 17 games last year thanks to the unreliability of backup tight end Orson Charles. Charles, the only other tight end on the roster to play a snap last season, only ran a route on 103 snaps last year and Eifert gives them much more ability to throw out of two-tight end sets. He can be an asset to this team, but it’s unclear how much he will be as a rookie.
Running more two-tight end sets makes a lot of sense considering the Bengals’ lack of depth at wide receiver. While AJ Green has blossomed into one of probably the top-3 wide receivers in the league before even entering the magical wide receiver 3rd year breakout year, they’ve really struggled for consistency after him on the wide receiver depth chart. Only 3 players on this team had more than 211 receiving yards last year, one being Green, one being Gresham, and the 3rd being slot receiver Andrew Hawkins.
Hawkins was a pleasant surprise for them in his first real action after going undrafted out of Toledo in 2008, but he too came up flat in their playoff loss and 548 receiving yards on 434 routes run is nothing to write home about. He’s not really a starting type receiver at 5-7 175 and is more of a scat back/slot receiver, so they’ll need someone to step up as the starter opposite Green.
One option is Mohamed Sanu. Mohamed Sanu had a very nondescript rookie year, catching 16 passes for 154 yards and 4 touchdowns as a 3rd round rookie out of Rutgers. However, he did not really play much, playing only 209 snaps, including just 116 pass snaps. He played more than 50% of his team’s snaps just 3 times, weeks 10-12, when he caught 11 passes for 98 yards and 4 touchdowns. Following that week 12 game, he missed the rest of the season with a foot injury.
However, I love his fit in Cincinnati, with Andy Dalton having a weaker arm than most franchise quarterbacks, with Jay Gruden leading a West Coast Offense as offensive coordinator, and especially with AJ Green opposite him. Before the draft, I gave Sanu a 2nd round grade and compared him to former Bengal receiver TJ Houshmanzadeh, saying that the perfect fit for him would be for him to play opposite a deep threat like Houshmanzadeh did with Chad Johnson/Ochocinco and just eat up all the underneath targets. Little did I know that Sanu would be drafted by the Bengals, who were in need of a possession receiver like him to play opposite deep threat AJ Green.
He was incredibly productive at Rutgers despite poor quarterback play. In 2011, he caught 115 passes, which was almost 50% of his team’s 256 catches. The #2 guy on his team in terms of catches had 32. However, of the 210 career catches he had at Rutgers, only 4 went for more than 20 yards. He has absolutely no speed to burn and he’s not a vertical threat at all, running a 4.67. He’s really, really good at what he does though, which is getting open short, making tough possession catches. In his 2nd year in the league, he should be able to display those abilities in 2013 and lock down the starting job opposite Green. The other option is Marvin Jones, an inexperienced 2012 5th round pick. It’s an area of concern going into the season, but it might not be at season’s end.
An underrated part of this Bengals team and a big part of the reason why Dalton has been able to have success has been this offensive line. This is good because Dalton has really struggled under pressure thus far in his career, completing 83 of 210 (39.5%) for 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. It might have looked like the offensive line wasn’t doing their job as they surrendered 45 sacks last season and another 2 in the playoffs, but that was mostly on Dalton, who took a sack on 28.7% of pressured drop backs, 3rd worst in the NFL. Overall, Dalton was pressured on just 26.1% of his drop backs, 4th best in the NFL. Their offensive line ranked 2nd in pass block efficiency and was ProFootballFocus’ 2nd highest rated pass blocking unit.
Dalton better hope this continues considering his struggles under pressure in his career. His struggles under pressure are probably tied to his struggles against tougher opponents. For the most part, he’s a fair weather quarterback, who can hit the open man against easier defenses when he’s not pressured, but when something goes wrong he has a lot of trouble succeeding in spite of it. It doesn’t make him a bad quarterback, but it doesn’t make him a good one either. Fortunately for him, this offensive line should continue to hold up, though there are a few concerns.
The first is right tackle Andre Smith. Smith was re-signed to a 3 year, 18 million dollar contract this off-season, which would seem like a bargain for ProFootballFocus’ highest rated right tackle last season. However, there’s a reason he was available for such a “bargain” and unsigned so late into free agency (up until draft day). 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.
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. However, there was definitely a buyer beware tag on him. Now that he’s gotten a paid 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 and fined by the team for missing mandatory minicamp with a personal issue, both of which aren’t good signs. His contract is only guaranteed for one season though, so they can cut him pretty easily if he regresses, and it’s very possible that having to wait so long to get signed and not getting the money he was expecting this off-season could continue to serve as a wakeup call for him.
The other more minor concern is the age of left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who is entering his age 32 season. Whitworth is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. He’s a 2006 2nd round pick who has been starting ever since. He’s been a top-12 offensive tackle on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 4 seasons, topping out at #1 in 2010 and ranking 9th in 2012. He’s a better pass protector than a run blocker and was ProFootballFocus’ top rated pass blocking offensive tackle, though he was below average in run blocking and committed 9 penalties. Overall, being much better at pass protection than run blocking is a theme for this offensive line, as they graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 27th ranked run blocking offensive line (though Gresham’s low run blocking grade is factored into this).
Along with Andre Smith, the only Cincinnati offensive lineman who graded out positively in run blocking was right guard Kevin Zeitler, though not by much. However, he was great in pass protection and committed just 4 penalties all season, so overall the rookie was ProFootballFocus’ 12th rated guard. A 2012 1st round pick and a highly rated collegiate offensive interior lineman, I see no reason why that can’t continue.
At left guard, Clint Boling was also a 1st year starter and the 2011 4th round pick did a very good job to start the season. However, a pair of disastrous games against Philadelphia and Dallas, in which he allowed 3 sacks and 5 hurries while not run blocking well, sunk his grade. Still, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 23rd ranked guard isn’t that bad, though he’ll have competition from veteran Travelle Wharton for the starting job. Wharton missed the entire 2012 season with injury after signing a 3 year, 10 million dollar deal last off-season to be a starter. He’s an average player at best and 32 years old, so Boling probably deserves to win that one. If he doesn’t win the job, Wharton’s role will be as a reserve 6th offensive lineman with his ability to play outside and inside, or the Bengals may just cut him rather than paying him 2.675 million, though there’d be no real cap reason for doing so.
The other position that’s up for grabs on the line is center, where they really struggled last year. Kyle Cook got hurt before the season started and Jeff Faine was awful in his absence, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ worst ranked center despite only playing in 8 games before going down with injury. Trevor Robinson then came on and did alright, though graded out below average, before Cook came back late in the season, playing poorly in 213 snaps. Cook is a pretty marginal starting center and hasn’t graded out positively since 2010. Heading into his age 30 season, he’ll face competition from Robinson for the starting job. Either way, center should be their weakness on the offensive line.
I mentioned the impressive young trio of Atkins, Dunlap, and Johnson in the intro. Atkins is a defensive tackle, but he gets after the quarterback better than most defensive ends, totaling 16 sacks, 13 hits, and 53 hurries on 555 pass rush snaps, a 14.8% rate. His pass rush productivity (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries *100) was 12.7, 3.3 more than 2nd place Nick Fairley, and higher than every eligible pass rusher besides Cameron Wake and Brandon Graham. That’s insane considering he plays an interior position.
He also held up against the run, leading his position in run stopping grade and grading out 3rd best among defensive linemen in that area behind JJ Watt and Muhammad Wilkerson. If not for Watt’s ridiculous season, Atkins would have had the highest single season grade on ProFootballFocus history. This wasn’t a fluke as he graded out as the #1 defensive tackle in his first year as a starter in 2011 and graded out 8th as a reserve as a rookie. There’s simply no way they can allow him to leave. It would be almost like letting JJ Watt leave.
Carlos Dunlap comes from the same draft class as Atkins, going in the 2nd round before Atkins went as an absolute steal in the 4th round. He’s not the same type of player Atkins is, but few are and he’s very talented in his own right. He has just 2 starts thus far in his career, but he has been a very efficient pass rusher and a strong run stopper and he has increased his snaps total in each of his first 3 years in the league from 287 to 423 to 655 last season, a close 3rd at his position on the team behind Robert Geathers. He’s going to get a chance to be a starter this year and increase his snaps total yet again. Even in limited action, he’s been ProFootballFocus’ 6th and 8th ranked 4-3 defensive end respectively in the last 2 seasons. This season, he had 5 sacks, 14 hits, and 34 hurries on 424 pass rush snaps, a 12.5% rate.
Johnson comes from the prior draft class, going in the 2nd round in 2009. He was franchised tagged this off-season, but the team has shown no urgency to get a long term deal done with them, as has been the case with 3 all of their talented defensive linemen. If all 3 are unsigned going into next off-season, I don’t see any way they retain them all. They only have one franchise tag and other teams will undoubtedly offer more money than Mike Brown. It’s a shame because they’ve done so well drafting.
Johnson was actually the lowest rated of the bunch last year. His 13 sacks stand out, but he only had 8 hits, and 34 hurries and did so on 564 pass rush snaps, a rate of 9.8%. He actually graded out slightly below average as a pass rusher, but more than made up for it with his run stopping abilities and overall was ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked 4-3 defensive end. There’s some concern with him being just a one year wonder as he had never even graded out positively in the past, so I don’t mind making him play out the franchise tag in this situation, but Dunlap and Atkins should be locked up by now.
Dunlap and Johnson rotate with Robert Geathers, who played more snaps than Dunlap last year. He was alright as a run stopper, but was absolutely awful in generating pass rush, with 4 sacks, 4 hits, and 17 hurries on 399 pass rush snaps, a 6.3% pass rush rate. He ranked 56th out of 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends as a pass rusher and 58th overall. Dunlap getting more snaps than him will be a good thing, but they really should have replaced him while they had the chance this off-season. They did use a 2nd round pick on Margus Hunt, but he’s incredibly raw and probably won’t work into the defensive end rotation as a rookie. At best, he’ll take over Wallace Gilberry’s old role, which played 353 snaps last year.
Next to Geno Atkins at defensive tackle is Domata Peko, a mediocre starting defensive tackle who hasn’t graded out positively in any of the last 5 seasons. He’s clearly the weak link on the defensive line, struggling in both run stopping and pass rush. They did use a 2nd round pick and a 3rd round pick on defensive tackles in 2012, taking Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. Both will be in the rotation in a bigger way this season and either could eventually surpass Peko and enter the starting lineup. Overall, it’s a very talented defensive line that stops the run well and gets a tremendous amount of pass rush. The Bengals graded out as ProFootballFocus 4th ranked pass rush team and I consider their defensive line one of the best in the NFL.
The linebackers are easily the weakest group on Cincinnati’s defense. Rey Maualuga is a very big part of the problem. He was ProFootballFocus’ worst ranked middle linebacker this season, struggling against the run, but really struggling in coverage. They had a great opportunity to replace him this off-season, but not only did they bring him back, he’ll be playing in the same every down role and forced to play coverage, which he is just not good at. Maualuga graded out poorly in 2011 as well so this wasn’t a fluke and even back in 2010 and earlier when he was grading out positively, he was never good in coverage.
Vontaze Burfict is the other every down linebacker and by default he’s probably their best linebacker. As an undrafted rookie last year, he was about a league average player and could be improved in his 2nd season in the league. He’s always had talent, but character issues dropped him in the draft. The Bengals would have been best off moving him inside to his natural position and finding an every down outside linebacker, replacing Maualuga on the team.
The 3rd linebacker will be former Steeler James Harrison, who will be playing in a 4-3 for the first time in his career. That’s the one main change on defense for this team as he’ll be playing in Manny Lawson’s old role. I like the fit even though he’s heading into his age 35 season and playing a new scheme. While his coverage abilities and pass rush abilities have gone downhill recently, he’s still a very good run stuffing linebacker, grading out as the 3rd highest rated 3-4 outside linebacker against the run last year and in his new two-down outside linebacker role, that will be mostly what he’ll be asked to do. He may also play a little bit on the line with his hand in the dirt rushing the passer. Age is a concern and he’ll need to stay healthy, but I do like the fit. Overall though, their linebackers are a real concern, especially in coverage.
One positive for the Bengals that Leon Hall will be another year removed from his November 2011 torn Achilles. He returned in time for week 1 last season, but didn’t look like himself. He missed both week 3 and week 4 with leg issues likely related to the Achilles surgery and allowed 21 catches on 30 attempts for 252 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t intercept a pass, while deflecting 6 and committing 2 penalties. However, for the rest of the season, he allowed 23 catches on 39 attempts for 229 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 1 pass and committing 2 penalties. He was once one of the best cornerbacks in the league before getting hurt and should be able to bounce back this year.
Opposite him, however, it’s a mystery. Pacman Jones and Terence Newman explicably both submitted terrific seasons last year, Newman as a starter and Jones on the slot in the nickel. Jones was ProFootballFocus’ 11th ranked cornerback last year and Newman was the 19th ranked, which is insane considering neither were any good of late. Newman turns 35 this season and Jones turns 30 (he also got arrested again) so it remains to be seen if they can keep it up. They do have 2012 1st round pick Dre Kirkpatrick waiting in the wings, though he’s a bit of an unknown after playing 43 nondescript snaps as a rookie thanks to injury.
Along with Hall, the other big time player in their secondary is safety Reggie Nelson, ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked safety last year. He’s never been anything other than an average starter in his career, so it’ll be interesting to see if the soon-to-be 30-year-old has turned a corner and finally started capitalizing on his 1st round talent. He went in the 1st round in 2007.
Next to him, 3rd round rookie Shawn Williams will compete with career backup Taylor Mays in a battle that probably won’t have a winner. That’s an area of concern for them unless Williams can play well as a rookie. Mays doesn’t really have any upside anymore. Mike Singletary drafted him 2 rounds before anyone else would have in 2010 and then the following year as soon as Jim Harbaugh came in he shipped him to Cincinnati for a pack of peanuts. In Cincinnati, despite having the perfect defensive coordinator for his skill set in Mike Zimmer, he’s never been able to stay in the starting lineup. They had to sign Chris Crocker and convert Nate Clements’ position mid-season last year because of Mays. Overall, I do like their defensive talent, but I have some concerns and I don’t think I like it more than last year’s defense. That is also the case on offense.
Believe it or not, Marvin Lewis is actually the 2nd longest tenured Head Coach in the NFL after Bill Belichick. Despite his 79-80-1 record and 0-4 record in playoff games, he’s seemingly had 9 lives as a Head Coach, surviving every time his name comes up as someone who could be fired. The Bengals seem to have been rewarded for their patience as he’s taken them to back-to-back post-seasons and gotten himself off the hot seat. It helps that he has two terrific coordinators in Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, whose names frequently come up in Head Coaching vacancy discussions.
The Bengals have been a borderline playoff team in each of the last 2 years, going to the playoffs as the #6 seed in the AFC both times before a losing in not so close fashion to the Texans both times. I don’t expect much to be different this year. They could make the playoffs in the weaker AFC, but I think Pittsburgh will be back and Kansas City is much improved to go with Indianapolis and last year’s 4 divisional winners. I think their tough schedule might be what leaves them on the outside looking in as the 7th or 8th best team in the AFC.
In their division, I think they’ll go 3-3. Considering their issues with playoff teams in recent years, I think Baltimore takes both games unless they’re in a position to rest starters week 17 for the 2nd straight year. Pittsburgh I also have getting back into the playoffs, but I think those two teams are evenly matched enough for Cincinnati to take one and I think they’ll take both from Cleveland, considering the kind of ease with which they’ve beaten non-playoff teams of late. Outside of the division, they host Green Bay, New England, the Jets, the Colts, and the Vikings. I don’t think they’ll beat either the Packers or Patriots, but they should beat the Jets. The Colts and Vikings were both playoff teams last year, but I see both taking a step back this year so the Bengals should win at least one of those.
On the road, they go to Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, and Miami, and San Diego. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt with Buffalo, Miami, and San Diego even on the road, but both Chicago and Detroit, despite not being playoff teams last year, could easily make the playoffs this year. I think they’ll split those two and finish with a record of 9-7 overall.
Projection: 9-7 3rd in AFC North