Cincinnati was quite active in free agency in 2012, signing G Travelle Wharton, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, S Jason Allen, DE Jamaal Anderson and CB Terence Newman. The Bengals also retained the services of S Reggie Nelson, DT Pat Sims and LB Manny Lawson, all key contributors in 2011.
On the other side of the coin, the Bengals lost defensive linemen Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene, two productive performers (and sometime starters) in the defensive line rotation. They also parted ways with G Bobbie Williams and S Chris Crocker in order to move younger players into the starting lineup. Likewise, Green-Ellis' arrival spelled the end of Cedric Benson's time in the Queen City, and the Bengals also waived goodbye to disappointing WRs Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell.
Results over the first four games have been decidedly mixed. Wharton was lost to injury in preseason, and Anderson lasted just two games and three tackles before landing on injured reserve himself. Allen, battling a quad injury, has yet to get on the field. Green-Ellis has appeared in all four games, but his numbers (82/286/2; 6/46 receiving) haven't blown away Benson's and his reputation for sure-handedness has gone up in smoke with two fumbles in the last two games. Of all the newcomers, senior NFL citizen Newman (20 tackles, 2 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble) has arguably been the best of the bunch. He isn't the player he once was, but his presence and play have been hugely positive in a secondary that's been devastated by injuries.
Thanks to Zeitler, Armon Binns (12/157/1) and Andrew Hawkins (15/247/2), the Bengals have not missed Williams, Simpson or Caldwell. However, the combination of cornerback injuries and unimpressive play from safeties Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles (20 combined tackles in four games) led to the return of Chris Crocker, who quickly made the decision to let him go look even stupider when he snagged the team's first pick of the year in his first game back. Sims has yet to make it back from last year's season-ending injury, and the plan to replace Rucker and Fanene hasn't gone well.
I think you can make a legitimate case that the team's 2012 free agent choices grade out as a big fat F right now, but I think that case ignores the role that injury has played so far this year. Still, there's no getting around the fact that most of their free agent calls haven't panned out. Because of the injuries and because it's still early, I'll give the front office gentleman's C for the first quarter.
Finally, the draft. The Cincinnati Bengals rarely (if ever) play in the top tiers of free agency. Instead, their strategy has always been to build through the draft, and so the Bengals rely more than some other teams on immediate contributions from their draft picks. Through four games, I suspect they have gotten less than they hoped.
The good news is G Kevin Zeitler, the Bengals' second pick in the first round. After a rough outing against Baltimore to start the year, Zeitler has improved steadily and given no reason for anyone to lament that Bobbie Williams is a Raven. The bad news is CB Dre Kirkpatrick, the Bengals' first pick in the first round, who hurt his knee in the offseason and isn't expected to play until after the bye.
Of the team's remaining eight picks, 6th-round RB Dan Herron didn't make the final cut and 5th-round defensive back Shaun Prater landed on injured reserve during the preseason. DTs Devon Still and Brandon Thompson, 2nd- and 3rd-round selections respectively, have made little impact (4 combined tackles). Third-round wide receiver Mohammed Sanu has had a big moment, but as a wildcat QB tossing a 73-yard TD bomb to A.J. Green. Fifth-round pick WR Marvin Jones' biggest moment in the first four games was drawing a pass interference flag. DB George Iloka, a fifth-round pick, managed a couple tackles against Cleveland. Finally, there's former Georgia TE Orson Charles, a fourth-round pick who has seen time due to injuries at the position. In four games, he's made one start and caught two passes for 35 yards.
Now, grading a draft class after four games is only slightly less ridiculous than grading a draft class the day after the draft. But that's what we do in the pundit business. Again, for my purposes here, I'm looking at immediate impact and so primarily at the performance of the players selected in the top three rounds: Kirkpatrick, Zeitler, Still, Sanu and Thompson. And looking at that group, there's Zeitler and four guys who have never been in my kitchen. Since it's early, and since part of that lack of impact is an unforeseeable injury to Kirkpatrick, I'll issue another gentleman's C.
Overall Grade, Q1: C+. After a 2011 filled with props for its savvy moves, the front office's 2012 choices are off to a lackluster start. Neither the free agent class nor a bumper crop of 10 draft picks have yielded many gains. On the contrary, the collapse of the defense owes a lot to their lack of contribution. However, the front office has been rescued so far by Zeitler, emergency last-minute arrival C Jeff Faine, the plucky play of sophomores Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Clint Boling, and some ballsy playcalling by Jay "Wicky Wacky" Gruden. But as the opposition toughens, they are going to need guys to get off the bench and into the game if they want to shed the "best of the bad teams" label and get into the hunt for real.