One could argue that the Bengals never panic. Even when their record and state of affairs warrant a heightened sense of concern, they keep their faces resolved and forge ahead with encouraging words.
This time around, though, there is no need for panic. Within the organization, one can sense a quiet calm of confidence. As other teams scramble around, tightening screws and battening down hatches, the Bengals have kept to themselves, whistling while they appraise their roster.
The draft reflects their satisfaction with their current team. Pundits and draft wizards sketched out needs-and perhaps the Bengal brain-trust agreed with them-but they weren't going to let that dictate their plans. There were viable safeties and linebackers and running backs available with the 21st pick, but they eschewed those positions in favor of a football player they felt was skilled above the rest.
Tyler Eifert brings more to the team than just another tight end on the roster. As noted elsewhere, he should not be viewed as Jermaine Gresham's replacement, or his backup. He is an accent to the offense as a whole, a newly crafted weapon that was developed under a gold dome in Indiana.
The acquisition of Eifert points to the increased value the league as a whole has designated to the modern tight end. With prospects growing ever bigger and faster, these types of offensive threats are practically immediate mismatches against smaller defensive backs and slower linebackers. The defensive evolution against this new type of player has been slow to respond and we have yet to see the appropriately skilled and sized defender to counter them.
Other teams have used two tight ends recently with wild success. The New England Patriots are the easiest example of the kind of strains a potent double tight end set invokes upon opposing defenses. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have simultaneously exploded on to the scene and only their own health has prevented them from blossoming even further. In Baltimore, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta were major components of a Super Bowl-winning offense, and even the team they beat, the 49ers, found late-season magic with Delanie Walker complimenting Vernon Davis.
The Bengals have given in to this trend by selecting Eifert. The biggest difference between them and the others, though, is that only Cincinnati has A.J. Green. The Bengals want to get all their players involved and put up points in a variety of ways, but the true overriding logic behind all of it is to do whatever it takes to allow Green to dominate more easily. There is no question who their best offensive player is. No one else on the roster is composed of the same cosmic fabric that breathes life into football legends. He alone makes defenses fear the Bengals, and that fear must be utilized to their advantage.
The ability to spread out both tight ends wide and put Green in motion serves as a tangible example of how defenses will need to adjust. If Eifert's presence allows A.J. even a few more yards of open space to operate in, he was worth the pick, but Eifert is more than a serviceable decoy. The scouting reports rave about him with superlatives that emphasize the softness of his hands and the ability to win most jump balls. If there is a knock on him, it's his blocking, but for all the complaining fans do about Gresham, the one thing he has undoubtedly improved upon is his blocking skills. Sure, Eifert will have to learn that trade as well over time-one could argue that the lack of that very thing is what killed Chase Coffman's chances in stripes-but he was not brought here to showcase his blocking attributes. He will catch passes and stretch out defenses for mostly Green's benefit.
Andy Dalton should be thrilled with the Eifert pick. Here is a large, mobile target that reliably brings in what is thrown in his direction on a consistent basis. Gresham has concentration issues that plague him in the form of drops and penalties. For as physically gifted as he is, reliability is not Gresham's strong suit. Eifert comes with more dependability in the pass game and with question marks swirling about the rest of the receivers not named Green, Dalton sorely needs someone he can lean on in third-down situations.
The other new weapon is second-round pick, Giovani Bernard. In February, Bernard was talked about as the only first-round quality running back. Then the evaluation process began, and the wizards proclaimed Eddie Lacy as the best of the crop. Either way, no back was picked in the first round and the Bengals made Bernard the first one off the board.
Running back was a need, but Bernard fills more than the generic backup to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. This is an explosive player with supreme cutback ability. He's fast, has good field vision and can rocket through holes. The purported ability to catch well out of the backfield makes him a terrific new element for Jay Gruden and the offense.
These two draft picks cement the west-coast identity the Bengals have shifted towards under Gruden. Each serves as high-octane safety valves with an emphasis on yards-after-catch. Shorter to intermediate routes are the kind of passes Andy Dalton prefers to throw. Setting up, and then converting, third-and-four, should be the secret ingredient of this year's offense. Do enough of that with the host of complimentary players including the two rookies, and A.J. Green will quickly become the twisting of the knife for any Bengals foe. Their personnel now lend itself to a short-yardage, ball-control offensive philosophy which is rooted in the west-coast scheme.
The draft didn't only help the team strengthen its offensive identity. With the free-agent pick-up of James Harrison, and the drafting of both Margus Hunt and Sean Porter, Mike Zimmer now has a stockpile of pass-rushers at his disposal. With the emergence of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, the team saw it as an opportunity to be exceptional in one defensive category: hits on the quarterback. Because of these men and their success, other like Michael Johnson and Wallace Gilberry found their own jobs easier to perform and team records in sacks were set. Now the team has dedicated even more resources to this one facet of their defensive scheme by loading up on large guys who harbor a distaste for quarterbacks.
There is perhaps no more intriguing player in this year's draft to me than Margus Hunt. This man is a werewolf of a football player, excelling in every physical test set in his path but still a raw specimen to say the least. He is very large (6'8''1/2, 280 lbs.), very fast (4.6 40-yard dash) and very strong (38 reps at 220lbs.). He could create absolute chaos when rushing the passer, especially as part of a heavy rotation of constant fresh bodies along the defensive line, but his most eye-opening stat is the fact he blocked 17 kicks in his college career! The J.J. Watt comparisons may be jumping the gun on a fella who's only played football for four years, but even if he develops into a more reasonable comparison of someone like Calais Campbell, the Bengals will be thrilled.
This young roster, planted as a sapling in 2010, has matured before our eyes and now boasts a solid trunk and strong, fruitful limbs. It is poised and ready to make even bigger strides than the pleasant surprise campaigns of the last two seasons. Its depth is quality and its talent-level satisfactory. The division appears vulnerable and the Bengals' future gleams upon an intense silver lining. Still, divisions are not won and lost in my imagination and they must prove their worth on the field itself, but how can one not feel optimistic about their current state? How many other teams can boast the same refined identity that Cincinnati has shaped itself into?
This offseason did serve as a signpost, and to me it points toward success. I feel good about the team's decision-making and its perceived vision of the future. What you see is not a shiny façade covering a flimsy foundation. What you see is concrete and rebar, housing a sleeping monster. One day in July it will awake and those found on its schedule will rue that day. A new power is rising. May it lead us to triumphs unknown!
Mojokong-the coal wanderer