The starting gun for the Cincinnati Bengals 2007 season will sound at 3pm, this Friday -- players report Thursday, first practice Friday. So I wanted to use this week to lead into training camp with topics like position battles, off season review and positional breakdowns -- that includes the projected regular season roster. Let's get to it.
We heard this off-season that Deltha O'Neal was really unhappy after the Bengals failed to "reward" him from a Pro-Bowl, 10-interception season, in 2005. Add nagging injuries and a team-imposed suspension in 2006, O'Neal's stock tumbled. Reports surfaced that O'Neal's head wasn't into the game. That initiates the pre-training camp question: Will O'Neal return to 2005 form or will he replay 2006?
That answer will project Leon Hall's role. If O'Neal returns to 2005 form, then Hall would be the nickleback. If he returns to 2006 form, he could fall as far as 4th on the depth chart. Especially after coaches have expressed their impression about Keiwan Ratliff's improvements.
Rudi Johnson had his first disappointing season in 2006 -- like other Bengals players. The offensive line lost Rich Braham, Levi Jones and Bobbie Williams for a string of games that destabilized a once powerful unit. I think it would be narrow-minded to believe that Johnson's regression was solely on him. However, historically, running backs regress more quickly than any other position -- especially workhorses (see Jamal Lewis). So it wouldn't be far from the possibility that Johnson could lose his starting job before the end of the season.
But that's not the battle I'm speaking of. Who's the backup? Normally, Chris Perry would be the obvious backup and third down back. However, the word normally is questionable. Normally, Perry is on Injured Reserve and normally, Perry doesn't play much. Kenny Watson is serviceable, but, in my opinion, is easily replaceable. His biggest contribution is his ability to block for Carson Palmer on passing downs.
Enter, Kenny Irons. Irons, in a way, has thrown a wrench at running back. Historically, Irons hasn't been much of a receiving back. I'm not sure of his blocking abilities. However, he can run. He can give Rudi Johnson the much needed rest that wasn't available to him last season.
This has zero to do with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. This has everything to do with supplementing Chris Henry's absence. I've maintained that Henry is the best #3 receiver in the NFL. I believe he could be #1 for some teams and the #2 receiver for most teams. His half-season suspension will give other receivers a chance to prove themselves. I suspect that Tab Perry, 6-3, 220 lbs., has the upper hand. He's played some H-back scoring his lone career touchdown on a shovel pass. Antonio Chatman, an accomplished receiver in Green Bay, will also have a chance after an injury plagued 2006. However, I question if the team will keep Chatman around.
"The Bengals' coaching staff, by the way, is starting to wonder if fourth-year safety Madieu Williams is ever going to regain the form of his 2004 rookie season. The Bengals felt they had a potentially special player in Williams a few years ago, but he's looked pretty ordinary of late."
- Len Pasquarelli, May 18, ESPN.com
"The Bengals' coaches are increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress from veteran Madieu Williams."
- Len Pasquarelli, June 29, ESPN.com
Dexter Jackson will turn 30 this summer and he's failed to play a full season since 2003 -- missed four games in 2006. Rookies Marvin White and Chinedum Ndukwe are hard hitting safeties that have reportedly impressed the coaching staff this summer. I doubt either will supplement the starters (Williams, Jackson), but I wouldn't be surprised that the rookies give the veterans some serious competition -- especially the disappointing reports on Williams.
This is the most difficult position to project with the massive variable that's presented. Ahmad Brooks is expected to start. However, with rookie of the year finalist, Odell Thurman, expected to be reinstated, the competition at middle linebacker could be fierce. I doubt Lewis will start Thurman at middle linebacker immediately simply because he was out of the game for a full season. And depending on how much Thurman worked during the off-season, it could be a tale of two tales.
Honorable mention. Defensive tackle.
I didn't put defensive tackle in my position battles simply because I think that's mostly set. Domata Peko and John Thornton will likely start with free agent acquisitions Kendrick Allen and Michael Myers rotating. Rookie Matt Toeaina will help solidify the rush defense.
Honorable mention II. Backup Tight End
The Bengals will, and should, start Reggie Kelly utilizing his role as a blocker at both tight end and H-back. That leaves Daniel "I'm not Ben" Coats and Tim Day to backup Kelly. However, I suspect the winning backup tight end will be the one that contributes most on Special Teams.
OFF SEASON STORIES
No question the Bengals were more quiet on the headlines front compared to last off-season. There was more crying wolf than actual fires. Thanks to more traumatic issues pushing the scope of revolutionist, Roger Goodell, away from Cincinnati, the Bengals have dropped to tired simile/metaphor comedy bits.
MARVIN LEWIS' SEAT
I made the argument last week that Lewis is not on the hot seat. I questioned if the hot seat meant conduct issues. Or simply the three out of four 8-8 seasons -- even though, 2006 was the only season they regressed. Perhaps, it's both? I do believe that if the Bengals start out of the gate slowly, then talk of Lewis' job will heat up. However, even if the Bengals have their first losing season during the Marvin Lewis era, he'll still be around. Mike Brown likes Lewis. So much that Lewis' original contract has been extended from 2008 to 2010. Brown knows what he has in Lewis.
Signing franchise players to a long term extension expired on July 14. Now that Justin Smith is playing under a one-year franchise contract, we'd expect that he's auditioning for a high priced contract -- most likely, auditioning for another team.
Remember when Palmer was a rookie? "I'm proud to be part of a new era of Bengals football," Palmer said. Since then, Palmer signed a six-year extension to his existing deal giving him the chance to make nearly $120 million. Since then, Palmer has been selected to two Pro Bowls, winning the MVP honors in 2006 -- first in Bengals history. Continuing on the 2006 storyline, Palmer became the first Bengal to throw for over 4,000 yards. He finished 2006 with a 93.9 passer rating -- the first to post back-to-back rating of 90 or more since Boomer Esiason, 88-89 (Bengals.com). He converted all five 3rd-and-1 rush attempts for first down. Palmer threw for 28 touchdowns giving him 60 for the past two seasons against 25 picks -- including a stretch without a pick on 153 pass attempts.
Here's the encouraging part. The success he enjoyed in 2006 came after a crushing injury in the playoffs, against the Steelers. He spent the better part of that off-season rehabbing and strengthening his shredded knee. He's spending the better part of this season, improving his game.
Carson Palmer was the second Heisman Trophy winner to be draft by the Bengals. Who was the first?
PROJECTING RECORDS (homer alert!)
If I were to make an educated guess on the Bengals in 2007, I'd say we'll finish either 11-5 or 12-4.
Let's project that the Bengals will split the Ravens and Steelers (2-2). The Bengals have historically stunk on west coast games. We might struggle against Seattle (2-3), but should fair well against the 49ers on Saturday Night Prime Time (3-3). I expect to sweep the Browns (5-3) and beat Buffalo (6-3), Arizona (7-3), Tennessee (8-3), St. Louis (9-3) and Miami (10-3). The New York Jets could be a challenge, but we're favorably at home (11-3). New England owned us last season and play on Monday Night (11-4). Like the Jets, Kansas City could go either way -- but not favorably at home.Musings
- We're not playing the Colts this year. Too bad. Chad Johnson is undefeated against Colts in 2007 .
- I expect Reggie McNeal and Quincy Wilson to miss the cut but possibly make the practice squad.
- Projection: I think of all the undrafted rookie free agents, that Daniel Coats and Earl Everett have the best chance with their respective units. Everett, most likely, as a special teams player.
- Eric Henderson will make the team as a linebacker.
- Levi Jones will have the last laugh against Joey Porter during week 17.
BEST OFF-SEASON ACQUISITION
I think the pair of Michael Myers and Kendrick Allen, replacing departed Shawn Smith and Sam Adams, are definite improvements. One-on-one, I don't believe either are huge difference makers. But as a unit, Allen and Myers will keep the defensive front fresh with quality rotation.
BIGGEST OFF-SEASON LOSS
Obviously, when you lose the caliber of Eric Steinbach, you lose a lot. However, his replacement, Andrew Whitworth, could make us forget that Steinbach committed treason signing with the Browns. I think the loss of veteran linebacker, Brian Simmons, was another big one. Not necessarily for his play, but presence. A hard worker and great community guy, Simmons was a guy that defied the "Bengals are criminals" file. But business is business. His earnings compared to his contribution made the Bengals think it wasn't worth the investment any longer. Kevin Kaesviharn was another big loss as one of the better roaming safeties in the league.
BIGGEST NEW BENGAL CONTRIBUTER
Of all the new players the Bengals picked up this off-season, I think Kenny Irons will be the biggest contributor. Rudi Johnson's season could very well dictate his own future. If he plays like 2004 and 2005, then Rudi's job is cemented. If not, then Irons will be the future. Regardless, Irons should have plenty of playing time giving Rudi a rest and perhaps supplementing Kenny Watson as the third down back.
OFFENSIVE LINE TURNOVER
The Bengals lost Eric Steinbach to free agency and Rich Braham to retirement. Both are great in their own right. Steinbach was a Pro Bowl alternate and Braham's blue collar work ethic was beloved by fans. Now youth will replace both. Eric Ghiaciuc, after a shaky start, stabilized as the offensive line general. Andrew Whitworth, while working at guard during last year's pre-season, was a tremendous surprise at left tackle for the oft-injured Levi Jones.
Check out these attributes.
Willie Anderson - 6'5", 340 pounds.
Bobbie Williams - 6'4", 345 pounds
Andrew Whitworth - 6'7", 340 pounds
Levi Jones - 6'5", 310 pounds
Eric Ghiaciuc - 6'4", 300 pounds
The biggest questions:
Levi Jones. First, he's still recovering from off-season surgery. Second, he's a good pass blocker, but questions keep surfacing on his run block abilities.
Eric Ghiaciuc: With Alex Stepanovich (30 starts in 3 seasons in Ari.) signing with the team, Ghiaciuc will have someone breathing down his neck. However, reading through Cardinals forums, it wasn't that big of a loss to see Stepanovich go.
Bobbie Williams and Andrew Whitworth: With two guards weighting nearly 700 pounds between them, will the Bengals be able to pull their guards on the popular and successful Power-O?
Willie Anderson: The durable one turned 33 this summer. He, like so many aging NFL stars, has dealt with nagging injuries the past few seasons that would paralyze any other man. Will time catch up to him?
SPECIAL TEAMS RECOVERY
I hate blaming one unit, or player, for losing. Mistakes throughout the game, from star players, should get equal blame. However, there's two that stand out. You can attribute losses to Denver and Pittsburgh to the Special Teams -- because they were in the position to win if these plays were successful. Against Denver, Brad St. Louis had the worst snap of his consistent snapping career, on a PAT. Against Pittsburgh, the former-automatic, Shayne Graham pushed a potential 39-yard game winning field goal wide right.
Quietly, the Darrin Simmons special teams has become an improvement from the preceding seasons. I have no reason to believe, even after the two play folly last year, that they'll regress in any way.
Well, there is no conclusion -- this is just the beginning. All signs are pointing towards improving off 2006 and, hopefully, replaying 2005. There's always a concern, with reason, that distraction could play a role again. And there's always injury that every team and fan must worry about.
The talent is there, however. If the script is read flawlessly, then the Bengals will be the best AFC North team and a top-five AFC conference team. They have the ability to win the AFC and play in the Super Bowl. However, they mustn't choke (2006), stay lost from ESPN headlines and recover from the likely devastating injury bug.
However, with all that said, I suspect this season to be the best season under Marvin Lewis.