As Bengals fan, now is the time to focus on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now is the time to focus on buying playoff tickets, reserving your parking spot, and finding the perfect grill for your tailgate. It's the season that we watched a defense coalesce, and a new quarterback learn a new offense with new receivers and be good enough to win - in some cases, even be the the reason that the Bengals have won some football games this year.
Still, when I read the post today about doubt, I couldn't help but feel uncertain about this year and the future myself. And what better time to establish a time capsule to refer back to after the season than at the mid-way point? Let's see if I'm right at the end of the year.
The questions this year are simple:
- Will the offense continue to progress into a league average unit? Can they continue to play mistake free football and give themselves a chance to win?
- Is the defense really this good? Are the last 2 weeks indicators of flaws (poor nickel coverage, weakness against an offense designed to neutralize the blitz), or blips on the radar (we won, after all, and the defense made adjustments in both games)?
Looking forward, I have more questions. I'll go position by position after the jump (I hear the front page likes jumps, and I'm really hoping this gets published on the front page one day).
Running Back is the first position that Bengals fans should not feel good about. Cedric Benson is a mediocre runner at best - he hits the hole hard, but lacks a second gear, elusiveness, and often misses cutback lanes. It shows as he's averaging under 4 yards for the third time in four years as a Bengal. Bernard Scott is a bit of an enigma. He has the ability to make guys miss and is a nightmare in the open field, but often lacks vision or strength and is clearly not an every-down back. This offense doesn't use running backs to receive the ball very often (Brian Leonard has 17 targets, 11 catches, and 114 yards, good for 5th on the team) and Scott, despite his tools, does basically nothing once he has received the ball.
That leaves Brian Leonard - the Bengals' best back per touch. He's averaging 6.2 yards on 12 carries, 5 of which have gone for first downs, and 10.4 yards, with 7 of his 11 catches going for first downs. Still, Leonard is clearly a third down back. While he's one of the best, and a great fit on this team, he's not a starter.
After Oakland beat San Diego on Thursday, the Bengals' prospects of drafting Trent Richardson took a hit. Oakland looks primed to emerge out of the now-terrible AFC West with a playoff berth. The RB class is deep, and there will be opportunities to draft one late.
Wide Receiver is another area of need. Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell are both free agents at the end of the year, and I wouldn't be too broken up to see either go. Simpson has the second highest drop rate in the NFL on catchable passes among wide receivers, behind only DeSean Jackson. Andre Caldwell is simply not that athletic and has a hard time getting open. Jordan Shipley could be a great player, but he's going to be coming off a leg injury and has never been a true #2 type. I'm not really sure where I'd go to address this position. Most of the good talent in free agency (Wayne, Garcon, Bowe, Welker, Colston, Jackson, Wallace, Steve Johnson) is sure to be retained. The draft is relatively weak, but deep. I don't have any great ideas.
Tight End won't be a big issue. Jermaine Gresham is the future, and I hope he retires as a Bengal. Donald Lee is old and on a one year deal; he probably won't be back. Gresham and Cochart for the future? I don't think this is a big enough need to address in the draft, but with 2 TE-sets becoming more popular, I could see them taking a flier.
Lumping the offensive line together, this unit has been relatively strong this year thanks to excellent play from Andrew Whitworth, Kyle Cook, Bobbie Williams, and improved play from Andre Smith. The guard positions are both areas of concern, though, with Nate Livings playing poorly and Williams aging. If I'm the Bengals, I absolutely look to a 1st or 2nd round guard. The line is extremely thin right now, and can't afford an injury this year. Same will be true next year.
Taking a brief detour to special teams, this is another place I wouldn't expect major changes. Hope to return Mike Nugent, Kevin Huber, Brandon Tate, and Clark Harris. Cedric Peerman has been a standout in punt return blocking. Coaches love Jeromy Miles. They're young, affordable, and should all be back.
The defensive line may be an area of high turnover this offseason, which is a shame as they've played some excellent football this year. As has been widely noted, Carlos Dunlap is one of the better defensive ends on the planet. He needs to start more this year, but at least he'll be back next year. Similarly, Geno Atkins is here to stay and could be an elite pass rushing defensive tackle if he's not there already.
The questions come up around depth. Frostee Rucker, Jonathan Fanene, and Pat Sims are all free agents after this season. I can't see them all being retained, although I'd like to see Fanene come back. Depth is this unit's strength, and I expect the Bengals to draft a defensive tackle this year. Hopefully they can retain Fanene and Rucker, and that'll be all they need.
The more I look at it, the more it seems that the whole defensive side of the football will be in flux. In the linebacking corps, Dan Skuta, Brandon Johnson, and Manny Lawson will be notable question-marks next spring. Lawson hasn't been great, notching only 14 tackles this year (though 3 have been for a loss, and he's broken up 4 passes). Whether he returns is contingent upon the organization's faith in Keith Rivers. I think Johnson and Skuta come back, and we end up with Rivers, thomas Howard, and Rey Maualuga starting next year. I'd be happy with that.
In the secondary, we all love to hate Reggie Nelson. He leads the team in tackles, though, and boasts 5 passes defensed, a pick-6, and 2 forced fumbles this year. He'll probably be back, along with Chris Crocker. Drafting safeties is hard, and this organization is bad at it. Maybe Taylor Mays will finally realize his potential, but I'm honestly not holding my breath. I'd love to see the Bengals find a dominant safety this off-season.
Did you know Gibril Wilson has seen significant playing time this year? I forgot he existed, but he's been fairly reliable as a backup. I'd like to see him come back. I also forgot about Robert Sands. Maybe he'll be good.
On the corners, Hall is locked up long term and Nate Clements is here through next year. I'd like to see Adam Jones extended and a corner drafted in the first two days of the draft. We all know how bad Kelly Jennings has been; he'll luckily be gone after this year.
I like how this team shapes up for the future. Leon Hall, Kyle Cook, Andrew Whitworth, Andy Dalton, Jermaine Greshman, A.J. Green, Andre Smith, Jordan Shipley, Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Keith Rivers are all locked up through at least 2013. Big contracts to extend are Rey Maualuga, Thomas Howard, Bobbie Williams (if they can convince him to take a 1- or 2-year deal), Frostee Rucker, Jonathan Fanene, Mike Nugent, and Adam Jones. If they lock those guys down, the needs will be clear:
- A running back. Cut bait with Benson and find someone dominant in the draft. This organization has been generally bad at drafting running backs. Poor Chris Perry and Kenny Irons.
- A left guard. Bobbie's old and Livings is not good. Finding a guard will help next year and in the future, with the tackles and Kyle Cook locked up for the foreseeable future. We could be looking at an O-Line of 2005 proportions next year.
- A cornerback. Depth is suspect without Adam Jones. Nate Clements is old. Kelly Jennings is bad.
- A safety. The Bengals have simply not had a good safety since Madieu Williams, and even he was only fringy-good.
- A wide receiver. There's no true 2 for the future in my vision of the world, that has Jerome Simpson cut loose.
- Defensive line depth. Zimmer loves rotations, and his rotations on the defensive line have been the primary reason for his unit's success.
The off-season questions are all manageable through the draft and targeted free agent pick-ups. Remember, the Bengals have to use their salary cap next year (right?). That means the payroll will increase by roughly $15 million. Plenty to keep the players we need to keep (with some money coming off the books, too) and add the guys they need to add. I don't want to hear about money being tight this off-season - that'd just be indicative of poor accounting and creativity by the front office.
The future is bright. Brighter to me now that I've written it all out. Let me know why you disagree with my assessment of the future, and please help me out with the areas that I'm not sure how to address with your ideas! This could be a fun team for a few years. Let's hope they know what they're doing.