If There Can Only Be One: Johnathan Joseph Should Be Re-signed Over Cedric Benson

As a proud student in the School of Obvious Stuff, after many hours of research using bunsen burners and beakers full of bubbly blue stuff, this writer concludes that the Cincinnati Bengals have several decisions to make during the offseason. And that’s after electing to re-sign Marvin Lewis and reportedly picking up Chad Ochocinco’s option year; as some would argue, old dogs from an old school that produced two playoff games and three losing seasons. Yet, aside from Lewis returning, the big decisions remain.

Of the players with expiring contracts, who will the Bengals re-sign? Will those players even want to return? What position will the team draft? Will they draft based on need (a theory I’m a student of) or will they draft the best player available? They’ve done both, so dictation based on history’s influences provide no hints.

The debate rages with variables transforming into modified questions with answers that are preceded with the most common of conjunctions. Nothing is certain; everything is questioned. This is the life of a Bengals fan observing an offseason after only winning four games during the most recent season. This is the life of a Bengals fan projecting the actions of a man that does the unreasonable, the questionable and the unexpected.

With all of that said, one argument rose recently between this illustrious student of awesome and his comrade in arms, Jason Garrison. After hurling grenades, exhausting .223 remington rounds that fits in our rifle of Who Dey, the two writers decided to battle in a war of words, debating one of the top issues this offseason. Between Johnathan Joseph and Cedric Benson, which player should be signed? Jason picked Cedric Benson. Yours truly, the immaculate one, picked Johnathan Joseph. And here are my reasons.

PRODUCTION IS VALUE ENOUGH

One could argue that Adam Jones or Morgan Trent could squeeze in as an eventual replacement if Johnathan Joseph has indeed played his final game of the season. While they are serviceable, they’re also not Johnathan Joseph. A large reason for Cincinnati’s playoff push last season was the combination of a powerful rushing offense (Benson) and great defensive work. Much of that defensive work came from Joseph, who only allowed three touchdowns, was among the league leaders in interceptions (six), passes defended (13) and opposing quarterback rating when thrown to (64.9). Additionally, Joseph’s 62 tackles was only ten tackles away from Nick Harper and Ronde Barber for most tackles by a cornerback in the NFL. You simply cannot pull names out of a hat for a physical cornerback that plays the pass as well as he does.

Even though injury slowed his contribution this season, his production is still very high, only allowing three touchdowns in 2010 and an opposing quarterback rating of 79.2. Additionally with an injury-plagued season, Joseph is one of the least thrown-to cornerbacks in the league (4.25 passes/game) and his 10.4 yards/receiving allowed to opposing receivers is better than Aaron Ross, Devin McCourty, Ronde Barber, Cortland Finnegan, Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson and Darrelle Revis, who is allowing 16.9 yards/receiving to opposing receivers this season.

SAVE THE DRAFT FOR OTHER POSITIONS OF NEED

After Nick Fairley’s BCS Championship performance that won the game’s MVP award, it makes you think. If the Bengals let Joseph go, they lose a premiere cornerback and will be forced to draft another cornerback. Even if it made sense that you’d be content with Adam Jones filling the role, keep in mind that next year the contracts of Leon Hall and Jones will expire. That would leave Brandon Ghee and Morgan Trent as your projected starters if the team is unable to sign any of those three cornerbacks.

Realistically, you have to draft a cornerback to replace Joseph if you want to replace his level of production; ideally a talented defensive back in the early rounds of the NFL draft. And there's no assurances even that will happen, with the draft being as predictable as a pregnant woman's mood swings. Scout Inc rates two cornerbacks, LSU’s Patrick Peterson and Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara, as the draft’s top eight players. Sure you could go that route and based on what draft experts say -- the same people that have the job security of local meteorologists -- they are fine players. You could also bank that Jones will give the Bengals a “thanks for giving me a chance so I’ll return” courtesy. And that’s after you put faith in that the neck injury he suffered against Atlanta isn’t something more lasting that will limit his productivity during the 2011 season.

By re-signing Joseph, you temporarily push aside the need about Leon Hall when his contract expires after the 2011 season. And then, you can weigh the option as to whether or not to draft a cornerback in next year's draft. This frees the organization to draft guys like Da’Quan Bowers, Nick Fairley, Marcus Dareus, Robert Quinn or other monsters of the defensive front, whoever will be available. Sign Joseph and find yourself an opposing pass rusher to benefit Carlos Dunlap, or girth in the middle of the defensive line to close the gaps of widening rushing lanes. With Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins already blossoming into their roles, this team could put together a really good defensive front, along with having what many consider as the best cornerback duo in the NFL.

Doesn't that get your blood flowing? Doesn't that make you growl uncontrollably into Terry Tate tackles while in the office shouting Who Dey? No? Well, then you just not alive.

RUNNING BACKS ARE EASIER TO FIND AND BENSON ISN’T GETTING YOUNGER

Did you know that between 1997 until 2010, the Bengals have produced a 1,000-yard rusher in 11 of those 14 seasons? Even during one of those seasons (2003), Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson combined for 1,498 yards rushing. Along with Dillon, Cincinnati featured running backs like Rudi Johnson -- the team's single-season record holder who was drafted in the fourth round -- and the team's current feature back, Cedric Benson, who was signed off the streets because no team was willing to risk their pristine imagine to sign him.

Of the 20 running backs with the most yards rushing in the NFL this season, seven were either undrafted or selected later than the seventh round of the NFL Draft. Arian Foster became only the second undrafted running back to record at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage in NFL history. The other was Priest Holmes, who did it three times. You can find good feature backs anywhere in the draft, and even the hours after.

Additionally, when Benson went down with an injury in 2009, the Bengals rushing game actually improved with two separate running backs that posted 100-yard rushing performances.

Rusher Carries Yards TDs Opponent Result
Bernard Scott 21 119 0 Raiders L, 17-20
Larry Johnson 22 107 0 Browns W, 16-7
Note: During the two games that Cedric Benson missed in 2009, the Bengals rushing offense put together the best two-game stretch all season, running the ball for 387 yards.

Cedric Benson has been a great running back for the Bengals when they needed an offensive player to step up and perform, leading the team to a playoffs in 2009. However, among the league’s 48 top rushers who have run the football at least 92 times, Benson’s 3.5 yard/rush average ranks 43rd and his seven fumbles ranked second-most in the league. At this point of the argument, it shouldn't be whether the Bengals choose between both players. It's whether the Bengals should sign Benson at all.

It’s not just his fumbles that’s hurt the Bengals either; it’s when they’ve happened. Benson’s fumble against the Atlanta Falcons occurred when the Bengals were down by a touchdown with 9:46 left in the fourth quarter. The Falcons recovered and scored a touchdown, giving Atlanta a 14-point lead and the eventual win. Benson fumbled with 2:22 left in the first quarter against Indianapolis, who recovered the fumble, scoring a touchdown on the ensuing possession giving them a 17-point lead in a game that the Bengals lost by six points.  With a ten-point lead against the Buffalo Bills, Benson fumbled at the Bengals 32-yard line with 10:04 left in the third quarter. The Bills’ Drayton Florence recovered the fumble and returned it for a touchdown reducing Buffalo’s deficit to three points in a game they’d win 49-31. With 7:44 left in the second quarter, Benson fumbled the football on San Diego’s 20-yard line. The Chargers would eventually score a field goal on their ensuring position. That’s five lost fumbles that resulted in three touchdowns, a field goal and a punt. Considering he's been sure-handed in the past, we're willing to give him a break for having an aberration year with his fumbles. But not enough of a break to favor him over Joseph, if given the option.

I would be highly supportive of the Bengals if they signed Benson, as long as it’s not at the result of losing Joseph. However, it’s hard to believe that the Bengals couldn't simply find a running back from the middle rounds of the NFL draft or even an undrafted free agent to be an effective feature back. Question to yourself: Which player is more easily replaceable?

Part two of the third point: Figure that in order to retain Cedric Benson, now that his two-year “thank you for taking a chance on me” contract expires, years will become a critical point during Benson’s negotiations. Recently turned 28 years old on December 28th, if the Bengals want a shot at signing Benson, they might have to look at something in the neighborhood of a 3-4 year deal, depending on the demand from other teams. Either way, by the time Benson’s next deal ends, he could be well into his 30s.

Of the top 20 running backs in 2010, only six are older than 25 years old and the two that are older than 30 years old – Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson - share time. With Benson reaching the 300-attempts plateau in back-to-back seasons, his body is going to quickly wear down as most bruising running backs watch their bodies break down in the latter half of their 20s. According to an NFL Players Association study in 2002, the length of an average NFL career is only 3.3 years. “The shortest careers were those of running backs (2.57 years).” [1]

CONCLUSION

Simply put: In an ideal world, the Cincinnati Bengals are able to retain both players. In a less than ideal world, the Bengals will sign one player and it should be the best one of the two. Johnathan Joseph.

[1] Pro football: Inside the NFL.
New York Times, 24 March 2002, B6
Mike Freeman

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