I was able to sit down (on the Internet) with Cincy Jungle writers Ryan Harper, Nick Crago and Brennen Warner to discuss the 2012 draft, players heading into their contract years and their expectations for the 2012 season.
Here's how it went.
Jason G. Since the first three rounds of the draft are largely considered the most important, and since the Bengals have four picks in the first three rounds, what is, in your opinion, the best possible scenario for the Bengals in terms of positions selected with their first four picks in order?
Jack C. G, CB, RB, S: Thats if DeCastro is there. If DeCastro is gone, but Kirkpatrick is there at 17, then I say CB, G, RB, S. Corner back and guard are the two must fill positions, so they have to go first round. 2nd round seems primed to steal a talented running back, hopefully someone with speed that can be paired with BenJarvus Green-Ellis--perhaps, Lamar Miller.
Ryan H. Well the Bengals could definitely use some help on the offensive line. They've already two players in Mike McGlynn and Nate Livings and long-time Bengal Bobbie Williams could very well be on his way out as well. The only addition they have made is Travelle Wharton. While he was a nice addition the Bengals need some more help on the offensive line. As for cornerback, sure the Bengals have six on the current roster, but how many of them are going to have an impact on the team beyond 2012? Losing J.J. was huge and they need someone who can play opposite of Leon Hall. There's a lot of running backs who have talent in this draft, but I think stealing a running back in the second round would be beneficial, someone like Lamar Miller or Doug Martin. And wide receiver, well that's obvious. The Bengals need a No. 2 since they haven't done anything to address that position this offseason. I don't know if they intend to have Armon Binns be the new No. 2, but they should at least bring in someone who can challenge him.
Brennen W. For me, it would be cornerback and guard in the first round, wide receiver in the second round, and runningback in the third. The reason I like cornerback and guard in the first is that Stephon Gilmore, Dre Kirkpatrick, and David DeCastro are all top-15 talents in this draft. Depending how things fall, they all have a very legitimate shot of falling to the Bengals at 17 and 21. That's my "best possible scenario" in the first round. In the second, I think we will be picking too late to draft a runningback like Doug Martin/David Wilson/Lamar Miller, but there are plenty of second round WR talents in this draft that could get the job done and start at WR No. 2 this year. Mohammed Sanu is my personal favorite at pick 53. Finally, given how many solid runningbacks are already on the roster, I'm fine with waiting until the third round to take a runningback like Isaiah Pead. That's my ideal draft.
Jason G. For me, I would say CB and G in the first round, based purely off team need. Then in the second round, I honestly think I would go WR. A month ago I would have said running back, but with the signing of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the fact that Bernard Scott is entering a contract year, running back isn't as big of a need in my opinion. Then in the third round, I would want them to go BPA and best case scenario, they grab a safety, defensive end or linebacker.
and speaking of Scott....
Which player entering a contract year do you believe has the most to prove to show that they have what it takes to be in the NFL?
Jack C. It's Keith Rivers. I couldn't have been higher on him coming out of USC, and the potential he showed at the start of his rookie year was great to watch. Then Hines Ward breaks his face, and we're still waiting for Rivers to recover. His wrist is a major issue and the more time he spends on the bench, the more likely it is he never gets a shot at linebacker in Cincinnati again. Rivers has a lot to prove this season if he plans on being a starting linebacker in this league. And I hate to say it, but I don't see it happening.
Ryan H. Can I go with two? For me it's a tie between Andre Smith and Keith Rivers. Both former first-round picks have had their ups and downs in the NFL. In 2012 Smith finally got his first full season under his belt. He had his moments that showed why he was a first round pick, but he also had he share of lapses. He's going to have to come out firing on all cylinders if he wants to continue as a starter in the league. As for Rivers, his biggest downfall has been his ability to stay on the field. When he plays he isn't spectacular, but at the same time he isn't a headcase. In his career he has only played in 35 out of a potential 64 games. He missed all of last season due to an injured wrist and he's fallen down the depth charts in my opinion. Either way, they both have a lot to prove next season.
Brennen W. Bernard Scott, Keith Rivers, and Rey Maualuga are the names that jump out the most to me. While two of these names are linebackers drafted in the early rounds that haven't lived up to expectations, the other is a 6th rounder who hasn't capitalized on his role as a change of pace runningback. I'll go with Bernard Scott, simply because he didn't shine in an increased role last year, and the Bengals might be drafting a RB early in the next two drafts. If they draft an early RB this year, Scott may have received the last nail on the coffin. If they don't, Scott needs to prove that he's a good and durable runningback this season, or the Bengals will be guaranteed to draft an early RB in 2013. Scott is already behind the 8-ball with BenJarvus Green-Ellis joining the team for the next 3 years, and he really needs to most of his opportunities this year if he wants to remain in the NFL.
Jason G. The two big names that stand out to me are Rey Maualuga and Andre Smith. Smith, for obvious reasons, but for Maualuga, the situation may actually be more dire. He needs to show that he can play middle linebacker in the NFL because, as of right now, he hasn't done as well as an old Dhani Jones did in Cincinnati. He's shown flashes of brilliance but they were few and far between.
Jason G. The Bengals were forced into a complete overhaul before the 2011 season and the team, without a real offseason, was baptized by fire. Luckily for them (and us) they were successful in 2011. They obviously have a great opportunity to do something they haven't done since the '80s, which is to have to winning seasons in a row. What are your realistic expectations for the 2012 Bengals, considering their schedule will be much tougher? Do a lot of their star players have sophomore slumps or do they come out firing on all cylinders?
Brennen W. For a while I was actually pretty pessimistic about the Bengals chances in 2012. The Bengals of 2010 were on the wrong side of a lot of close games, while the Bengals of 2011 were on the right side. I didn't feel that the Bengals made any major improvements in free agency this year, so I felt like we wouldn't be able to overcome bad luck and injuries. But, I've steadily come around to the way that the Bengals handled free agency. They re-signed everyone that they needed to, and added depth at many positions of weakness. That give them a lot of flexibility for this year's draft, which I feel can really take this team to the next level. The 2012 schedule is still a little scary to me, but I think that our young players will improve enough to be successful, and Jay Gruden will have this offense on track and running the ball well this year. A lot hinges on Dalton, but I think he will be up the the challenge. Lastly, I'm not satisfied at all with the way the defensive line looks. Our defensive ends aren't productive outside the oft-injured Carlos Dunlap, and I think the Bengals really need to look into signing Matt Roth or drafting a defensive end (DT Amobi Okoye wouldnt hurt either).
Ryan H. My expectations are that Andy Dalton and A.J. Green will continue to grow as players now that they will have an entire season and true offseason with all of the workouts and what not under their belts. I don't think they will come out firing on all cylinders so to say, but I don't see them regressing much. Now that they have had time to get their feet wet and work with Marvin Lewis and Jay Gruden, it's rational to think that they will improve next season. Realistically, it's reasonable to expect 7-10 wins this season. It would be awesome to see them make it back to the playoffs again, but with their schedule, their chances decrease some. I think it depends on what Cincinnati does in the draft and how some of their signings pan out. Fanene and Rucker are both gone. Both had vital roles on the defense and came up big for the Bengals on a number of occasions. They were replaced by Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey. Even though both of them are former first-round picks, neither of them have had much success in the NFL. And there's no guarantee that either of them will be able to replace the production of Rucker and Fanene. The Bengals also need to do something about the receiving game. I've heard that coaches are high on Armon Binns, but he's still an unproven commodity. He could be the next superstar or he could be the next one-and-done receiver in Cincy. And when you look at the rest of the division, no one has really made any big, splashy moves. The Steelers have been getting rid of more players than they have been adding. And both the Steelers and Ravens are getting old, while the Browns are still a mess.
Jack C. Not firing on all cylinders, no. You have to remember this is a team with a lot a faults, and a lot of faults that were blatantly obvious last year. On the defensive side: the line was terrific, but I held my breath every time the opposing quarterback dropped back to pass. Cincinnati's secondary was shaky, and without Leon Hall it was much worse. What if Hall doesn't fully recover from that achilles injury like so many other athletes before him? What if Clements shows his age, the safety play gets even worse, and opposing offenses pick us apart series after series? These are legitimate concerns. Offensively, I'm much less apprehensive. A.J. Green is an absolute gem. He has the attitude and unbelievable skill set to really become a special player. Few times can a receiver truly impact a game, but A.J. can. Dalton is terrific too, but unlike A.J., a player like Dalton is susceptible to the dreaded sophomore slump, but something about him tells me it won't happened. Even when Houston was thrashing him and nothing was going Cincinnati's way, Dalton still carried himself with poise well beyond his years. He's a decision maker, he's smart, and I see him really improving this season. Also, this is a team that learned how to win last season. So many comebacks and so many close games...they just figured out how to get the job done. My final judgment: Dalton and Green drastically improve. BenJarvus Green-Ellis doesn't fumble in the fourth quarter and gets more than just two yards on holes so wide you could drive a truck through them. The D-line stays solid, and the secondary manages to somewhat hold their own. The Bengals go 4-2 in the division, 2-2 vs. AFC West, 2-2 vs. NFC East, and 2-0 vs. Miami and Jacksonville--a final tally of 10-6, good enough for a Wild Card berth. (optimistic, I know)