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I initially intended this week's mailbag to go in a different direction than where it will end up up heading. Usually I answer tweets sent my way, but with the recent developments surrounding the Bengals on Friday, I figured that I should address the recent roster moves that the team made. Obviously, these two moves that occurred at the onset of the holiday weekend have huge implications towards the upcoming draft and the shaping of the final 2012 roster.The termination of safety Chris Crocker's contract came as a welcomed surprise to Bengals fans. Though a solid locker room presence, and a member of a high-performing defense that helped lead the team to two playoff appearances in the last three seasons, Crocker hasn't really had a meaningful impact on the field since the 2009 season. In a division that is filled with impact safeties, the Bengals haven't really had one of their own since Sam Shade or David Fulcher. This likely also comes with the fact that the team hasn't invested a first round pick in a safety since 1992 when they took Daryl Williams out of the University of Miami.
The strong safety position os completely up for grabs at this point. Joe Reedy of The Cincinnati Enquirer notes that third-year man, Taylor Mays, has the inside track on the job as it stands. If you've read this feature before, you'd know that I agree Reedy's take. It's my belief that the team (especially defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer) really likes Mays. Zimmer supposedly stood on the table for the talented USC alum in the 2010 draft after he fell to the second round. After they missed out on him that year they swung a trade for him next year once it was made public that he was available. If you paid close attention to the latter portion of the 2011 regular season, you'd have noticed that Mays was in more and more defensive packages.
If you aren't familiar with Mays, he's an athletic freak. He's 6'3", 230 pounds and has been clocked in the mid 4.3-second range in the 40-yard dash. He had an outstanding junior year as a Trojan and likely would have been a top-ten pick had he entered the draft following that season. He opted to stay in school one more season and it cost him millions of dollars. I still believe that if the mental part of the game ever clicks for Mays, he could be a top-five safety in this league.
Under Marvin Lewis, the Bengals like to have safeties on the roster that can play either the free or strong positions, as well as be able to cover slot receivers and tight ends as a cornerback can. Mays has the speed and athleticism to be this type of player, but still has trouble grasping the X's and O's. The wild card here is Robert Sands. He's got tremendous size (6'5", 225) and the team drafted him late in the 2011 draft after missing out on Mays the prior year. I think it's accurate to label Sands as a poor-man's Mays. Sands has been slated as the backup free safety behind the recently re-signed Reggie Nelson, but as I mentioned the Bengals don't really have a true "free" or "strong" safety. They may feel that Sands has a better feel for the game and may play alongside Nelson.
A lot of people think that Crocker's release will lead to the team drafting Alabama's Mark Barron in the first round later this month. While that's a completely realistic scenario, I'm not totally sold on that happening quite yet. Barron is entering the draft shortly after undergoing double hernia surgery which is a little bit of a red flag. Additionally, Barron isn't a game-breaking safety in the mold of Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu, rather a solid player who is the top-ranked player at his position in a weak class. Because of that, ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr. has him slated to go to the Cowboys at No.14 and many think he won't get past the Jets at No.16.
I think a sleeper player that the team could be looking at is Notre Dame's Harrison Smith, the second-ranked safety prospect in this year's draft. He's not the athlete that Barron is, but he's a heady and physical player who had seven interceptions in 2010, though he didn't have any in 2011. He is a solid tackler as well and he actually played a bit of strong side linebacker for the Irish. I found it very interesting that the team's release of Crocker came just two days after coaches went to watch Notre Dame's Pro Day where Smith was working out.
My early prediction is that the team will give Taylor Mays every chance to win Crocker's spot, regardless of who they bring in. The team has put themselves in a position that even if they invest a high pick in the position with either Barron or Smith, they'd still have to come in and compete with Mays to win a starting job.
Later in the day on Friday, we learned that former Rams guard, Jacob Bell, signed a one-year deal with the Bengals. This is likely a signing of depth and could push Clint Boling or Otis Hudson for the starting right guard position. Bell is an experienced eight-year veteran who is a microcosm of the Rams teams over the past two seasons. He had a strong 2010 season, but a severely disappointing 2011 campaign, though some claim he played through injury and that had a negative effect on him.
Like Mays, I feel that Boling may have a leg up on taking the starting position. He played adequately in the first two games, filling in for the suspended Bobbie Williams, but was then benched midway through the Week Three matchup against the 49ers. He never regained the starting position in 2011, but I still think the team is high on him, especially with the departures of Mike McGlynn and Nate Livings.
It's possible that if either David DeCastro or Cordy Glenn fall to the Bengals in the first round that they'd pounce on them. Both have high upside and would be difficult to pass up, given their talents. The issue is that the Bengals have never used a first round pick on a guard in their 43 (going on 44) year existence. Never. So, with the recent signing of Bell and the investment of a fourth round pick in Boling last year, what makes you think that they'd change the trend this year?
Unlike the situation at safety, if they were to draft one of these two guards, I think that there would be little in the ways of a competition for the starting right guard position. There would likely be a mirage of a competition that would be doled out by the coaches, but I'd imagine the scenario to play out like the Rey Maualuga/Rashad Jeanty one from 2009.
What's nice is with both situations and positions, the Bengals have not only put themselves in a position where they can take the best player available in the draft, but they can also have competitions at positions that were seemingly weak spots. I wouldn't be surprised if the team used one first round pick on a position of need (wide receiver, running back, guard, cornerback) and the other just take the best player on the board, regardless of position.
Thanks to some new data from the guys at ProFootballFocus.com, I've began to reassess the BenJarvus Green-Ellis signing from a couple of weeks ago . Take these two tweets from Mike Clay:
Tom Brady and Co. went up against 5+ defensive backs on 80% of their 2011 plays. This makes Green-Ellis and Co. look even worse.
Now, there's a certain science to statistics. One can put up all the data they want on a player, but the truth is that a lot of stats don't gauge attributes like "clutch" and whatnot. Even with certain numbers, there can often be a "paralysis by over-analysis" and will skew the true performance of a player. Clay is a fantasy guru and his job is to analyze the numbers put up by players and breakdown their true meaning.
Now, I think most of us will agree that Green-Ellis is an upgrade over a declining Cedric Benson. He is younger, has better hands, doesn't fumble (knock on wood), has a better attitude, and was ironically rated higher as a back than Benson by PFF. He's a touchdown machine and has produced well in a high-octane offense. As a Bengals fan, I'm excited to have him in the squad.
But, these stats are telling. The truth is that Green-Ellis was a secondary piece to the offensive scheme. Everything runs through Tom Brady and much like Joseph Addai or Edgerrin James, I fear that he might just be a product of the system and quarterback that he played under.
Again, we don't know the specific role that Green-Ellis was brought in for. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has said numerous times that he wants the offense to go to a committee approach, so Green-Ellis likely won't have the type of duty that Benson has held here since the latter portion of the 2008 season. But, at this point in time, Green-Ellis is the lead back in the committee. And since the Bengals don't have as potent of an offense that New England has, it's a safe assumption that Green-Ellis will be seeing more defenders "in the box" than he did with the Patriots. Another assumption that one can make from that one is that we shouldn't expect the same production in Cincinnati.
As we've reported before, the Bengals are giving the impression that they're very interested in Boise State's Doug Martin and it's possible that they're looking at him to come in be the feature back, not Green-Ellis. If Martin were to come aboard, it would likely leave either Bernard Scott, Brian Leonard and/or Cedric Peerman out in the cold. The Bengals carried four running backs on the roster last year and they may or may not opt to do the same thing for 2012. Given the committee approach that Gruden has laid out, I'd assume that four backs will stick.
Whether or not the draft Martin or any other back, it's possible that the plan for Green-Ellis in this offense is to be a goal line and short-yardage back, which is a capacity in which he's excelled for the duration of his NFL career. If that's the case, an increased role would need to be given to Scott, Leonard and/or a draftee to balance the running game's approach. Regardless of the plan, let's just hope that Clay's statistics were just a fluke for the 2011 season and not the norm for Green-Ellis' career.