We ran a series of "players with the most to prove in 2013" on Sunday. The criteria wasn't specific. Our players ranged anywhere from needing improvements in performance, recovery from injuries, contractual issues or the proverbial "breaking out". It was designed to be more substantive than your generic "you sucked last year", so let's prove to not be so sucky in 2013. If you missed any of them (seriously, scroll down on the front page... they're the only postings on Sunday after 2 p.m), here was our list in a nutshell:
- Rey Maualuga
- Dre Kirkpatrick
- Taylor Mays
- Andy Dalton
- Michael Johnson
See our point? Michael Johnson didn't suck last year; there was a reason why he was listed as one of the top NFL free agents and why the Bengals placed the franchise tag on him. Was it a one-year wonder performance, or continuing improvement that will be sustained beyond 2012? Perhaps that's an argument directly related to, will the Bengals be able to afford Johnson. Andy Dalton wasn't bad, but there has to be more. And someone like Kirkpatrick really, really, really, really needs to play and gain experience.
We avoided rookies on this list, only because every one of them needs to prove themselves. That's the nature of being a rookie. It's the same reason why you don't include rookies on a best Bengals list less than a month after being drafted into the NFL. A history in college football no longer has any influence in regards to rookies.
There are more names that swirled around when generating our list. We're calling this the Honorable Mention class.
JAMES HARRISON: Ask any Bengals fan that you encounter about James Harrison, and angels pluck the strings of their harps and sing songs that only angels sing (like Seek and Destroy!). A general belief is that James Harrison presents an upgrade to a position that needed help. Well, more than a belief. It's true. But that may not even be his greatest asset. Nearly every player interviewed, spoke about Harrison's attitude and edge, something an already good defense felt that they needed. This guy grabs rattlesnakes bare-handed for (your appropriately selected Messiah's name) sake!
Despite spending upwards to $600,000 per year to maintain his body, and despite a second-half run last year in which he generated five quarterback sacks during the final seven games, Harrison is 35 years old and hasn't played a full season since 2010. And the contract he signed in Cincinnati (two years, $4.45 million) reflects that.
But it's more than that. Harrison has something to prove, not only to himself and the Bengals, but the Pittsburgh Steelers, who released him for having a $5.1 million cap number in 2013.
MIKE NUGENT: After breaking Shayne Graham's franchise record by converting 33 of 38 field goals in 2011, Bengals place kicker Mike Nugent was the toast of the town. OK, that's a bit much. He helped us finally forget Shayne Graham. Hey, that was enough. Cincinnati placed the franchise tag on Nugent in 2012 (which he signed), converting 19 of 23 field goal attempts last season, including a franchise-tying 55-yarder against the Oakland Raiders as the first half expired.
Then Nugent was placed on Injured Reserve after suffering a calf injury during practice on December 5. The Bengals signed Josh Brown as a replacement.
It may have been the most critical late-season signing in recent history. Not only did Brown convert 11 of 12 field goals, he kicked the game-winner against Pittsburgh that sent Cincinnati to the playoffs. Toast of the town? We're talking key-of-the-city love for Brown. And the one miss was a 56-yarder on a field that doesn't favor long field goals in Pittsburgh.
Yet the Bengals remained loyal to Nugent, signing him to a two-year deal worth $2.3 million in early March.
Did the Bengals make the right decision?
JERMAINE GRESHAM: Gresham at one point was an enigma to me. Athletically gifted with soft hands that could run virtually any inside route, Gresham naturally caused significant matchups problems with a safety (size) and linebacker (speed). Yet in three seasons, Gresham has never scored more than six touchdowns during any given season and has dropped 24 total passes in 44 games played -- including a career high ten in 2012. I know it seems like more; you just happen to remember all of them.
We're not sure if he has anything to prove at this point. My instinct, three years later, is that he is who he is and shame on us for expecting more. But like quarterback Andy Dalton, Gresham should benefit with an injection of offensive talent, including second-year players (hopefully) undergoing a growth spurt in year two.
Gresham is a two-time Pro Bowler, who entered the game as an alternate thanks to injuries and Super Bowls. Now it's time that Gresham proves that he can get there on his own.
ANDREW WHITWORTH: I love Whit. He's staunchly loyal to friends, family and his community, doesn't back down from a fight and when his friends are in trouble, he risks all to ensure their security. There isn't a player that we could be more proud to say that plays in Cincinnati.
However this injury thing is cumbersome.
After the Bengals lost to the Houston Texans in January, Whitworth underwent a procedure to have his knee scoped. Though Whitworth isn't expected to be ready until training camp, this knee has been problematic for two years now. In 2010 Whitworth was the class of the field. From 2011 through 2012, Whitworth lost his power, becoming a mediocre run blocker. His pass blocking was still excellent, but quicker defensive ends gave him trouble; however that's not new information.
If he's fully recovered and reverts back to 2010 form, the Cincinnati Bengals rushing offense will gain a tremendous boom. If.
DEVON STILL/BRANDON THOMPSON: We're not exactly sure how the Bengals will apply Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. We do know that Cincinnati will use one or a combination of both to replace defensive tackle Pat Sims, who departed from the promise of Championships for the Oakland Raiders during the offseason.
Perhaps Still plays as the pass rusher, with Thompson carrying the torch of the true run stopper between the two. Either way, Sims, one of the more under-appreciated Bengals during his time in Cincinnati, is a loss. What won't be lost is the amount of time that he missed with major injuries.