When predicting the team's final depth chart, there's always been a sense of certainty when figuring out the initial 53-man roster. Cincinnati rarely releases starters during their final cuts, and a majority of the players they release lack experience in the NFL. Veterans in favor of youth has always been a staple within the system; save for an arrogance of favoritism to keep players that have produced very little in the past.
Yet every so often we're surprised. In 2008 the Bengals released right tackle Willie Anderson, after the starting right tackle refused a pay-cut. Rudi Johnson was released that year as well, but not so much as a surprise as it was confirmation that productive career was finally over, largely due to his unwise decision after the 2005 season to lose weight in favor of added quickness, instead suffering a power loss between the tackles.
For the most part the Bengals have remained steadfast on their own perspectives.
Until this year.
Thanks to external shifts forcing their hand, the Bengals will finally embrace a youth movement that will likely sacrifice the 2011 season into a development process. The Bengals will start a rookie quarterback, rookie wide receiver and based on Bobbie Williams suspension, a right guard without any NFL experience. If it's Clint Boling, as we suspect, the Bengals would start three rookies on offense. If it's Williams' original backup Otis Hudson, who spent his entire rookie season last year on the practice squad, then we're talking about a guy without any regular season snaps in his career. The decision on who starts remains a mystery -- and there's still a possibility the team signs a guard through free agency with over 800 NFL players released on Saturday.
Rounding out the wide receiver roster, the Bengals will start Jerome Simpson opposite the team's rookie wide receiver A.J. Green. Simpson's resume has 13 career games and 21 career receptions -- 18 of which occurred in the final two games last season. Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham, after having successful rookie campaigns, are only entering their second seasons respectively.
Evidence that the team's philosophy on football is evolving: the Bengals released Brandon Ghee, who was the team's third-round pick in 2010. Though injuries have hurt his effectiveness, the Bengals would have typically kept him to solidify their irrelevant pride on retaining their own draft picks. Max Jean-Gilles, an offseason free agent signing, was released Saturday setting themselves up for inexperience at right guard, fully aware of Williams' four-game suspension to start the season. They went with two quarterbacks instead of three; something this team has never done under Marvin Lewis' tenure.
We're not going to suggest that Marvin Lewis acquired additional power as part of his demands to re-sign with the team in January. Yet it's hard to ignore. They signed several free agents expected to produce (Thomas Howard, Nate Clements, Manny Lawson), filling gaps on the roster with departures through free agency as well as unexpected injuries. They extended the contracts of three core players in Leon Hall, Andrew Whitworth and Kyle Cook. They're releasing ineffective players -- both veterans and former draft picks -- and establishing an offensive philosophy different after the team's firing of former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. They're trading for players to improve their secondary with Taylor Mays and Kelly Jennings. And they kept a good friggin' fullback.
Saying that this team will win over 10 games in 2011, raising a trophy above their heads to cement a championship-caliber year is a bit over-dramatic -- even for homers like us. We're still holding with our limited (to nonexistent) expectations. But there are moments in which the core of this team feels like it's finally evolving, taking that step of development that stalled for so long from 2006 through last year. Now if they can only trade Carson Palmer...