Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Even though the Bengals offense performed well at times in 2012, consistency remains an issue. In order to keep pace in today's NFL, the Bengals need to stock up on offensive talent. What is the best route for them to take?
Watching the second round of the playoffs this weekend, something popped out to me with most of the remaining teams in the divisional round: the multitude of offensive talent on most of the squads. One thing became clear when examining these teams and it was the amount of investments that each franchise placed in surrounding their franchise quarterbacks with supporting talent.
The divisional round had a nice mix of veteran quarterbacks--two of which are headed to the Hall of Fame in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning--and some young guns in Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. Throw in Matt Schaub and Aaron Rodgers, and you have a group that encapsulates all stages of a quarterback's career. Given the amount of points scored and the variety of contributors to those points, the need for multiple offensive playmakers is apparent.
Perhaps no team exemplifies the high investments made in "toys" for the quarterback more than the Atlanta Falcons. Since they drafted Ryan in 2008 following the Michael Vick disaster, the Falcons have surrounded him with quality offensive players via trade, draft and free agency. One of the first moves they made was to bring in running back, Michael Turner the same year that they drafted Ryan. Since the team shelled out big money for Turner in free agency, the big back has brought them roughly 6,000 yards rushing, as well as 60 touchdowns and two Pro Bowl berths.
After already spending a first round pick in 2005 on wide receiver Roddy White, the Falcons decided that they needed two more pieces. They swung a trade for future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez in the 2009 offseason and it paid off well. Gonzalez has been elected to the Pro Bowl three times out of his four seasons in Atlanta, while racking up 27 touchdown receptions and 326 catches. And, if that wasn't enough, Atlanta moved up in the 2011 draft (while giving up other draft picks), to get another wide receiver, Julio Jones. He was elected to the Pro Bowl in his second season and is on track for a solid career. Jones rounds out the four-headed monster that Ryan gets to play with.
Though the Falcons aren't exactly the model of postseason success, they are hosting the NFC Championship game this year and advanced past the divisional round. You could really point out that every team in the divisional round are franchises who have surrounded their quarterbacks with talent to complement their skills. When the Denver Broncos landed Peyton Manning, they loaded up their roster with players that Manning was familiar with and could help out right away.
One could argue either way. Since Dalton arrived in Cincinnati, the only consistent offensive threat he's had to work with is fellow 2011 draft mate, A.J. Green. Tight end Jermaine Gresham has had some brilliant moments, but he still battles inconsistency and there hasn't been a reliable No.2 wide receiver to speak of. The team tried three players at the spot opposite Green and none really stuck, due to a variety of circumstances (injury, poor performance, or not enough playing time). With the two youngsters, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, Bengals fans are envisioning a reincarnation of the T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry days, but this group is a long way from that comparison being accurate. The running game has also been inconsistent in Dalton's two seasons, though it started to get some nice things going towards the end of the year.
On the other hand, the team invested two draft picks at wide receiver and one at running back in 2012. They also brought in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who most would argue was a decent upgrade from Cedric Benson. Are they just too young and need to develop over some time? Possibly. But, if the teams in this year's divisional round can tell us anything, big investments made in the way of free agent splashes, trades and high picks in the draft on players to help your franchise quarterback can only help--even if it appears that things are set.
There is talent on the offensive side of the Bengals roster to be sure, but a refill at certain spots couldn't hurt. Another thing you'll note about a lot of the teams from Divisional weekend is the emphasis on always competing for a spot. Pete Carroll (Seahawks), Bill Belichick (Patriots), and both Jim (49ers) and John (Ravens) Harbaugh are coaches who always preach competition amongst their players. Three of those teams are heading to their respective conference championships.
So, where should the Bengals start? I believe that the stockpiling should begin at the running back position. I've been saying for the past year-plus that the Bengals not only need a back with speed, but one that has good hands and can contribute in the screen pass game. Going into last year's draft, I targeted LaMichael James out of Oregon as a potential impact player in the Bengals' offense. At Oregon, James lined up as a halfback and split wide as a receiver to help fuel the high-powered Ducks offense. He didn't have much of an impact this year on the 49ers, but that was more of a product the team being stacked at the position than an indictment on James. There's a couple of backs coming out this year who could help in this regard, including James' former Oregon teammate, Kenjon Barner. Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has come out and said he wants speed at the position and Barner fits that bill.
Why such the emphasis on the running back screen pass game? One, it's a staple of the West Coast offense and can be incredibly productive when employed correctly. Two, the ability to run this play effectively can take heaps of pressure off of your quarterback and can open things up for other players during the course of a game. Having a player with speed and hands at the running back position could make the Bengals offense lethal.
As it currently stands, the Bengals have three running backs entering free agency and have only Green-Ellis and Daniel Herron locked up for 2013. Cedric Peerman could be staying, as he's a restricted free agent and is valued on special teams, but there's likely to be at least one spot open with Bernard Scott and/or Brian Leonard seemingly being shown the door. Some good options would be available in both the draft and free agency, though it would seem that the draft is the best way to attack that position. An intriguing veteran name to kick around is Reggie Bush, especially with his career renaissance in Miami the past two years, but he likely will not end up in Cincinnati with his high price tag.
As for receiver that's a bit trickier. The team no doubt has to like what it has seen in limited fashion from Sanu and Jones, but, as I mentioned earlier, the receiver picture is still unsettled. Return man and backup wideout, Brandon Tate doesn't seem likely to be re-signed, and Armon Binns, a player who was on the roster for a good portion of the season is gone. In my recent mock draft, I had the Bengals selecting USC receiver Robert Woods at the back of the second round, though I'm not sure they will do it.
With Green and Ryan Whalen set to be the most tenured players at the position, I could see the team looking at a veteran free agent. Names like Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline are on the impending free agent list coming up this offseason. I personally think that Jennings would be a tremendous asset to this offense and could bring a few more productive seasons, as well as a winning attitude. Jennings will be seeking big money though (something that will likely keep him from staying in Green Bay), and that is something that the Bengals aren't likely to give to someone at that position. It's an understatement to say that they've been burned by going that route recently.
Tight end appears to be pretty set with Gresham heading to his second Pro Bowl in as many seasons, and the addition of Orson Charles in last year's draft was a good one. Charles needs to be integrated more, especially in the red zone where he could be a very effective player. Another player at the position who is a solid blocker could be a wise investment, especially with the Bengals' late-season surge in quarterback sacks allowed. Still, the Bengals usually only kept two tight ends active through most of the 2012 season, so riding Gresham and Charles into 2013 makes sense.
On the bright side, there are plenty of options out there for the Bengals to explore in an effort to improve their offense. Dalton threw 27 touchdowns, which is indicative of a solid season, but consistency is the main issue. There are too many times where players disappear for alarming stretches (Gresham and wide receiver Andrew Hawkins come to mind). Part of that comes with improper offensive game-planning and symptoms of a young roster. It also comes with a lack of a wealth of good offensive options to help alleviate these dry spells.
It would seem that the best plan of attack is to use the draft to fill some needs at running back, while using free agency to add some depth at wide receiver and tight end. No matter how the formula plays out, the Bengals need to have more "toys" for Andy Dalton to play with in order for the team to take another step forward in 2013.