I got bored and so held a special meeting of the "Conclusions" writing staff to look at the current roster and summarize what and where it might be going.
QB: Current Roster: Dalton, Josh Johnson, Zac Robinson, Greg McElroy --> We have come almost full cycle on the Andy Dalton Hate-a-thon and mostly realize that we are getting another year of the Groundhog here. The big question for the Groundhog who wears jersey #14 is whether he'll see the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, and, if so, whether in that first playoff game he'll again see his shadow. After that we'll have to see whether Dalton is re-signed. In other words, we better have a better Plan B here going into the 2014 season to provide continuity in the case of a Dalton-less 2015 season. That's why I think we'll see the team draft a QB and why I think that the backup QB likely won't be Josh Johnson, a Gruden guy signed for 2013. As for UFA hopes, the only two possibilities that might be able to play at Dalton's level would be Josh McCown and Michael Vick. However, they'd cost a pretty penny to sit the bench, and that ain't happening here. More likely, I think we'll see an open vet competition for backup between Johnson, Robinson, and McElroy, while I think we'll target a rookie pick to be our #3 roster QB. For the record, put me down as expecting that McElroy will win that competition. A bonus for the Bengal front office would be to take Zack Mettenberger or Aaron Murray, either who could start out on PUP and thereby allow another position player to start the year on the roster. While it is possible that the Bengals could take an upper echelon QB (i.e., Bridgewater, Bortles, Manziel) if he were to fall in the draft, that doesn't look to be happening this year. Further, I would be surprised to see Derek Carr get our nod at #24.
RB: Current Roster: Green-Ellis, Bernard, Peerman, Burkhead --> Despite a lot of talk that anyone not named "Bernard" might need replacing, it certainly isn't going to happen in the UFA process with Ben Tate or Darren McFadden (unless the guy comes bargain level cheap...unlikely!). Where we could see competition at the bottom of the roster might be a draft selection of a RB that I would anticipate would involve a "later" round (i.e., Round 3+) pick and a high value selection. In more direct terms, I think that Burkhead will have to compete for his job against the field of any draft picks or CFAs who come aboard but that the other three vets' jobs are safe unless injury intervenes. Don't misinterpret. I'm not saying that The Law Firm is "all that" or that we can't do better than Peerman as a #3. I'm saying that Bengal tendency is to honor contracts where a vet has given optimal effort (e.g., Green-Ellis....and remember this for future reference in discussion at other positions) and to keep key STer's (i.e., Peerman) intact.
FB/H-Back: Current Roster: Orson Charles --> I called Charles the "H-Back" although it seems that they scrapped that notion after the Chicago game, relegated him to purely a TE and STs guy, used Alex Smith and Eifert in the H-Back role occasionally, and scrapped the possibility of FB altogether when they cut Pressley later in the season. The question is whether Hue Jackson will stay the FB-less course? I think he will since roster efficiency has become an important consideration on this deep team and because the current Offensive Scheme (which could change under Jackson) only had used the FB for limited (i.e., less than 10) snaps a game in recent seasons. If they were to decide to look at using a FB again, they might try to re-sign Pressley and/or draft a FB (LSU's J.C. Copeland comes to mind) later on the third day of the draft. We may also see a move to draft a TE who is a better fit for H-Back ("Hybrid"-Back) who tends to be mid-range TE size with good receiving skills, blocking skills, and collegiate experience as both FB and TE. These kinds of players usually go in Rounds 4-7. Such a pick would likely compete to illustrate that he's a better roster fit than Alex Smith or Charles in this role and in STs duties.
TE: Current Roster: Gresham, Eifert, Alex Smith, Charles, Kevin Brock --> We seem to have gotten comfortable keeping 4 TEs, and I expect this to continue (again, with one guy who is more targeted in the H-Back role). Gresham goes into his lame duck season having received mixed reviews. He probably won't be extended before the 2014 season and may move on via UFA afterwards. In this respect we should be on the lookout for a value draft TE who can be groomed to replace Gresham. That might not happen, but I suspect our eyes will be open. Since Alex Smith has UFA status and is coming off a broken wrist that pushed him to IR for the playoff game, it is possible that we might look for a value TE in UFA as well. The key points to remember are that we'll target two guys (Gresham & Eifert) as roster locks, will probably try to re-sign Alex Smith (as he did a nice job in utility TE and ST roles for us in 2013), and will look to upgrade depth in the draft and/or UFA on a value basis for guys who can play multiple roles.
WR: Current Roster: Green, Jones, Sanu, Hawkins (RFA), Sanzenbacher (RFA), Whalen, Tate (UFA), Cobi Hamilton --> Thinking that we might expand the QB roster to 3 players, it is unlikely that we carry 7 WRs again in 2014. We stayed unusually healthy in 2013 at this position and now have a situation with 6 guys returning, Tate as a UFA who will be likely to re-sign here, and Cobi Hamilton as a very talented, long-armed receiver who had a year to develop on our PS (without us knowing much about how that process was going). My perspective is that we should not look for a UFA signing at this position and that any draft pick at WR likely will be 3rd day and value-oriented. An outside chance at getting an earlier WR might be in the case of someone who falls and offers, let's say, a huge value in the 3rd Round without another pick that offers value and use for this roster. But that's probably a low probability thought. I expect our top four WRs to remain as such in 2013, for Tate to be the WR/RS, and for Sanzenbacher, Whalen and Hamilton to compete for the last WR roster spot.
OL: Current Roster: OTs Andre Smith, Roland (UFA), Collins (UFA); OT/OG Whitworth; OG Boling (ACL injury), Zeitler, Pollak (UFA); OC Cook, Robinson, TJ Johnson, Wedige; Utility Hawkinson --> The OL has been an enigma with a lot of depth and talent yet the inability to consistently control the Line of Scrimmage or be considered a team strength. Hue Jackson says that he wants to change this, and it would seem that this would require at least some change of personnel - why would you think that you can get different outcomes using the same personnel? A lot of confusion in planning will emanate from the fact that we are dealing with three UFAs: Collins, Roland, and Pollak. It would seem from 2013 performance that we'd really want to get Collins and Pollak back, while history tells us that Roland will be around come spring practice. Scuttlebutt from everyone from the coaches to your child's Kindergarten teacher suggests that our interior OL is just not getting it done. Most of us love the idea of keeping Collins at LT and Whit at LG. This would allow us to have more LT depth and a stronger left side of the OL as we witnessed the last quarter of the 2013 season. However, this of course depends on re-signing Collins in UFA. For the record, Collins says, "Hell yeah" when asked if he'd like to return to the Bengal locker room. If you haven't heard it yet, then just be aware that many are not satisfied with Kyle Cook as the team's starting Center. With a large contract, popular wisdom would suggest that Cook won't be on this team if he's not the starter. Mass action buildup on the roster at Center, where we now list 4 roster players (which, if you didn't know, is a lot) and 4 more guys who can snap (Pollak, Boling, Zeitler & Hawkinson) also suggests that there will be a battle for this spot in spring and summer. With all that duly noted, what can we say about the Bengal OL for 2014? We can say that three of the projected starters will be Andre Smith (LT), Kevin Zeitler (LG), and Andre Whitworth (LT or LG). We can also say that Tyler Hawkinson will be on the roster. We note that we'd like to re-sign Collins and Pollak via UFA. And if this occurs, these guys will be on the roster. That's 4 roster knowns and two hopefuls of a normal 9 man OL roster. Figure that we'll also keep two guys listed primarily as "Center" and that Boling will be somewhere (either on the roster or PUP) when the season starts. This is very confusing but will clear up considerably once we move past the UFA process. For now it's historically safe to say that we'll focus on our own players in UFA but might consider a backup level OT if Collins were to move elsewhere. For those who are holding out hope to sign Alex Mack at Center, don't hold your breath. In the draft where we'll be operating heavily out of a BPA mode, don't be surprised if we selected a value LT or Center. There are a bunch of upper level LTs this year, so we very well may see one taken at #24 overall. Many on the CJ line have professed undying love for Arkansas Center Travis Swanson, but the relative talent order of interior OL in the draft still remains murky. I'd find it odd for us to invest early at the interior OL spot (especially when we're carrying 7-8 guys who can snap), but stranger things have happened. And it's tough to argue against the trend of poor Center performance over the last 1-2 seasons here. In summary, the OL is in transition between UFAs, injuries, and the draft. We'll have to take each aspect as they come to determine how the next one might be handled.
DL: Current Roster:
DT Atkins (ACL injury), Peko, Thompson (shoulder/elbow probs), Still, Black (ankle dislocation), Bilukidi, Nwagbuo (UFA), Minter --> Although there is certainly overlap between DT and DE, I'll keep these separate with the thought that our recent trend has been to go with 4 DTs and 5 DEs. The elephant in the room for 2014 involves how quickly Atkins will return from his injury and what level of play he'll achieve as time evolves. This isn't a sure thing if you don't know that already. ACL recovery is a tricky business, and it becomes more complex when you start talking about 300 lb guys who play in a crouch while using non-stop lower body twisting leverage. I'll also take this moment up front to note that Peko is not going anywhere in 2014 - he is too well appreciated in the front office, coaching office, and locker room to think that they might release his contract or ask him to renegotiate a lower deal. The conceptual problem is that Peko doesn't have gaudy stats. He is asked to control the interior LOS with a role that is usually similar to that of a 3-4 NT. He isn't a dominant middle guy like Vince Wilfork, but he's good enough that Zimmer listed him at the end of the 2013 season as one of the most important players on D. That's good enough for me. I think we also need to understand that Thompson and Still will also be here in 2014 and will play key roles. They are what they are, and both are still developing into what they will become. As young "investments," the Bengals know that they aren't subject to be cast aside at this time. So the issue at DT for 2014 basically is whether Atkins will be back on time or will start the season on PUP or game day Inactive. If it's the former, the team might keep another DT until he's back. If it's the latter, I think they'll go with 3 game day DTs until he's back. That said, there won't be a lot of thought put into the UFA process in terms of acquisition. Nwagbuo, who is a UFA, may or may not return - it's probably not that relevant. In the draft I wouldn't look for any DTs to be taken before Day 3 - why would the team spend draft currency on a position that has no vacancy and on a player who would be claimed before making it to the Practice Squad? So for those who are fantasizing over a Geno Atkins/Aaron Donald tag team, step away from the pipe. For the rest, move along folks - there's no show here.
DE MJohnson (UFA), Gilberry, Geathers (elbow injury), Dunlap, Hunt, King --> A solid spot going into 2013, we now may have to replace a top performer (MJ93) and maybe even an aging vet (Geathers). The former guy is going to get a lot of looks around the league, and we can count on someone going over what we are willing and/or able to offer. So I'm counting Johnson out (and wishing him good luck - he's a great player and a really decent person) for 2014. Further, I'm just not sure on Geathers anymore as he is really been beaten up in his career. My hunch, however, is that Geathers will show up and will make the team although his days are very clearly winding down in this league. We also aren't so sure about the relative readiness of Margus Hunt to play a regular role as the #3 DE, so the DE spot is....spotty. With MJ likely moving on, we now have Gilberry starting at RDE, and I'm not completely sure that's a good role for him. Thus, we could potentially be players for a value UFA DE and a top end DE draft pick in the next few months. Let me add that I know nothing about the PS/futures signee David King and will consider him irrelevant for now. With respect to the UFA process, I think that we'd be willing to sign Johnson back for a deal around $30 mil for 4 years. So, we might be willing to sign another UFA for something similar if that guy were, let's say, Jared Allen or a similar player who could bring us 6-10 sacks for 1-2 years while we transition at this position with Hunt and a draft pick. We won't break the bank, however, for a DE and will be happy to go with our four vets and a draft pick. If we don't get the UFA, then we'll be looking at Round 1 or 2 for our DE. Think about Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt, Mizzou's Kony Early, and NC's Kareem Martin as the prototypical tall DEs that we have come to expect here. If we do get someone in UFA, the DE spot will become a BPA issue with the knowledge that any pick might well represent the end of Robert Geathers in a Bengal uniform. There is a lot that can happen between all the variables involving UFA, injury recovery, new injuries sustained, and the draft - remember that this isn't a totally predictable science and that "Stuff Happens!"
LB: Current Roster: Harrison, Maualuga, Burfict, DiManche, Sean Porter (shoulder injury), Brandon Joiner (ACL injury), Schaffer, Bruce Taylor, Vinnie Rey (RFA), Lamur (shoulder injury), Boley --> This is quite a stable of veteran players for a roster that will probably only include 6 players. Again, don't look for UFA acquisitions here. The questions here involve whether Harrison is back for another year, how well Lamur returns from his shoulder setback, and what level of improvement we might see from the younger guys (DiManche, Porter, Joiner, Schaffer, and Taylor). I'd expect the three middle vets of Maualuga, Burfict, and Rey to stay intact as a high performing group from 2013. Figure that DiManche, Lamur, and Porter have a leg up on the others to round out the roster. That puts Harrison, Joiner, Schaffer, Taylor, and Boley on the bubble. Is there really room here to invest heavy draft currency? I lean towards an answer of "No." However, as a BPA-oriented drafting team, we'll have to assess that possibility if it falls. For now, I think the mocks that have us taking an early LB or 2-3 total LBs in the draft are really off base.
DB: Current Roster:
CB: Hall (Achilles injury), Newman (age, hamstring injury), Pacman, Kirkpatrick, Ghee (UFA), Lewis-Harris, McCalebb, Burton --> The uncertainties here make this position a complex concern. As many coaches point out, the CB spot is the easiest one from which to lose a game quickly. With Hall expected to lag a bit with his second Achilles and advancing age, Newman expected to continue to deteriorate with age (and probably be in his last NFL season in 2014), Pacman being Pacman (and now whining about needing a contract renegotiation), Kirkpatrick still not able to illustrate himself clearly to be an answer at CB, and Ghee being an oft-injured UFA, there's a lot of concern here. Some feel that picking up a vet UFA might be a wise move, and I concur. I would determine now whether Hall will be PUP or active to start. If the latter, I'd focus on addition through the draft. If the former (PUP), I'd also strongly consider signing a UFA. In any case I would make a reasonably strong effort at retaining Ghee in at least a one-year UFA deal. At this point we should error on the side of numbers. In the potential UFA pool (if we project Hall starting on the PUP), we already signed Burton but probably want someone who fits more of the #3 CB role, who won't break the bank, and who would be expendable when Hall is back to 100%. One thing I have totally discounted at this point is the development of Onterrio McCallebb - anything he could give would be considered a suprise bonus. Finally, let's talk draft. I'd have to say that we will lean towards CB heavily and will weigh that against our relative needs at LT and DE (that both depend on how the UFA process goes with Collins, MJ93, and any others who might replace them on the working roster). There is a pretty thick level of CB talent this year with so many underclassmen coming out. Depending on how the draft falls, we might elect to wait until the 2nd Rd if value is depleted by #24 in the 1st. But I'd expect us to pull the trigger on a CB in one of the first two rounds. If the cupboard isn't stocked prior to the draft, we might expect another CB selection by the early third day as well.
Safety: Nelson, Iloka, Williams, Mays (UFA, shoulder injury), Crocker (UFA) --> Both starters did a nice job in 2013 and are back in 2014, so we are talking depth here in comparison to other personnel needs. That doesn't mean that things can't change but signifies that greater relative roster needs lie elsewhere. Williams didn't play much on D in 2013 but performed quite well on STs. He was immersed in the Defensive scheme and should be ready to contribute when needed as our #3 safety in 2014. Mays is a situational Safety who plays short-yardage, goal line, STs, and the WILL/joker LB spot on passing downs. Mays is valuable but may be overkill if we have both Lamur and Rey back to play WILL LB for us. Mays may also draw interest elsewhere around the league, and I'd be quite surprised if we offer him a lot more than the veteran minimum in that process for a guy who has limited use and is coming off a shoulder injury. Crocker will again go on off-season de-activation and may return if called upon during the 2014 season - he says that he will retire, but I'd expect him to be waiting in the wings if needed. That all duly noted, I wouldn't count on the team to spend excessively in UFA at Safety but would expect us to have at least 4 vet Safeties going into the draft (i.e., if Mays signs elsewhere, we'll sign a value UFA safety). I'd also expect us to draft the best value Safety that we can get in a draft where there is a strong stock expected in middle rounds. So expect us to pick a Safety in the draft somewhere between Rounds 4 - 6.
Special Teams: Current Roster: P Kevin Huber, Mesko (UFA); K Nugent, Quinn Sharp; LS Harris --> Expect this unit of 3 to stay the same: Mesko probably doesn't return when Huber comes back from his exploration of "smash mouth" football (sorry - that was cheap, but I've been waiting to use it); Nugent trumps Sharp as long as he stays healthy; Harris keeps snapping 'em straight (Thank God!).
UFA/RFA --> Look for us to put a lot of effort into getting Collins back and some attempts to get MJ93 back depending on how much that effort might impend on the limits of the cap. I expect us to retain Collins and lose MJ. I expect us to make low to moderate offers to Pollak, Roland, Alex Smith, Tate, Mays, and Ghee. We won't break the bank on any of these guys, however. We'll compete to some degree for Pollak, Tate, and maybe Ghee (who now may be considered an important one-year depth investment). I doubt Roland will draw interest elsewhere. Alex Smith will get minimal interest. Mays may draw interest but has limited value here as a purely situational player in areas for which we have overlapping roster options.
I didn't mention much about RFA. Expect Hawkins and Vinnie Rey to draw the 2nd Round offers (about $2 M), while Sanzenbacher draws the minimal offer. We'd have the right to match any offer any other team made to these guys, and we'd get a 2nd Rd pick for Hawkins or Rey if we didn't match.
Draft --> Outlook is all conditional to what happens first in UFA/RFA, of course. Look for a CB to be taken in the 1st or 2nd Rd and then again, possibly, in the 5th-7th Rds. Expect us to replace a DE and/or LT with an early (1st or 2nd Rd) pick if MJ93 and/or Collins, respectively, do not return in the UFA process and if we do not match such a loss with a comparable UFA acquisition. Expect us to draft a QB anywhere from Rd 3 - 7. If retention of Collins and MJ93 allows us more early round freedom, the selection of a QB or Center could be realized on the second day - perhaps even in the 2nd Round. And even if MJ93 returns, keep an eye on news about Geathers that may signal a value DE end pick anywhere in the draft. Expect us to pick a Safety on the 3rd day in Rds 4 - 6. Also expect us to consider taking a TE/H-Back type sometime in the 3rd Day. Since we are relatively deep at RB, WR, DT, LB and STs, selections at these spots will probably be relegated to either late rounds or situations of unusual value availability and/or reduced roster need as a result of UFA retention.
Projected 2014 Roster
QB (3) - Dalton, McElroy, Rookie pick
RB (4) - Law Firm, Bernard, Peerman, Burkhead vs. FA/Draft Pick
H-Back (0-1) - Draft pick vs. combo of TEs
TE (3-4) - Gresham, Eifert, 2 of 4 (ASmith, Charles, Draft Pick, H-Back)
WR (6) - Green, Jones, Sanu, Hawkins, Tate, 1 of 3 (Sanzenbacher, Whalen, Hamilton)
OL (9) - Andre Smith, Zeitler, Whitworth, Hawkinson, 2 of 5 (Cook, Robinson, TJ Johnson, Wedige, Draft pick), 2 of 4 (Collins, Roland, UFA acquisition, Draft pick), Pollak (projected return through UFA); Note: Boling (PUP to start season)
DT (4) - Peko, Still, Thompson, Atkins vs. remaining roster field (if Atkins on PUP)
DE (5) - Dunlap, Gilberry, Hunt, 2 of 4 (Geathers, MJ93, UFA acquisition, Draft Pick)
LB (6) - Maualuga, Burfict, Rey, DiManche, Lamur, 1 of remaining roster field (Harrison, Porter, Joiner, Schaffer, Taylor, Boley)
CB (5) - Newman, Pacman, Kirkpatrick, 2 of following (Hall if not on PUP, Ghee, UFA Acquisition, Draft picks, Burton, McCalebb)
S (4) - Nelson, Iloka, Williams, 1 of 3 (Mays, Rookie Pick, UFA acquisition)
P Huber, K Nugent, LS Harris