If you follow the Bengals the questions heading into 2006 are simple:
Will Carson Palmer be ready and will he be 100%?
Will the legal troubles with players be resolved or will it remain a distraction?
Will the Bengals sign offensive linemen Levi Jones, Eric Steinbach, and Willie Anderson to an extension?
Will the return of Madieu Williams, the signings of Dexter Jackson and Sam Adams, and the added experience of the youth on the defense help push the Bengals past the Wild Card round?
Question #1: Carson Palmer's return
The Bengals remain about 90% confident Carson Palmer will be ready for opening weekend. If he can't go, then the battle of starting quarterback goes to Anthony Wright, Doug Johnson, and the legendary Erik Meyer.
Combined, the three backup quarterbacks competing for the gig have a combined 67.7 quarterback rating for their respective careers. Palmer's 101.1 passer rating in 2005 was second in the NFL to Peyton Manning (of course); Palmer had a rating of 100 or better in 11 games. The dynamic trio (Wright, Johnson, and Meyer) have two games, in their career, with a 100+ passer rating.
If the Bengals are forced to play minus Palmer, then it's expected the offensive philosophy will be more "grounded". Rudi Johnson can carry the load for a balanced offense; but does he have that Corey Dillon rush for 100 yards against eight-man fronts will be the real question.
Question #2: Bengals legal problems
I won't harp on this too much. I've already detailed what those problems are throughout this blog. The main question regarding the troubled players is whether or not their off-the-field issues will disrupt the team. Will Chris Henry be suspended, by the league, for his multiple arrests? Will the charges of A.J Nicholson be thrown out? Is Frostee Rucker another example of being viewed as guilty before trial from a troubled history?
These questions need to be answered before the team begins training camp. From total speculation, Nicholson just wanted his own stuff back and Rucker got into an argument with an ex-girlfriend; at most, both will probably only get probation. Henry is a completely different deal and who knows what his future holds.
Question #3: Offensive line
This off-season, only Bobbie Williams has received a contract extension. Willie Anderson doesn't expect to return because of the assumption the team will give big deals to Levi Jones and Eric Steinbach. Rich Braham, the most underrated lineman on this team, isn't in the same group partly due to his age.
There is a rumor (unconfirmed and not really credible, so take it for what it is) that Jones will sign a 7-year, $57 million deal.
To me, Steinbach and Jones are priority; not just for the line, but the entire team.
Question #4: Bengals improved defense?
If healthy, the Bengals will kick off the 2006 season with a completely new set of starting safeties than they finished with in 2005. Madieu Williams coming back from injury will be like drafting a first round pick. Dexter Jackson, while slowing as he gets older, is still much better than what the Bengals put on the field in last year's wild card game. Sam Adams... well, I don't need to say much there.
Then you have super-stud sophomore Odell Thurman continuing his personal goal of being better than Ray Lewis. David Pollack, with a full season under his belt, should have a better understanding of his role (LB or DE, or both depending on situations).
Justin Smith is entering a contract year; so his production should increase. Brian Simmons, while not great, is still one of the more stable and consistent players on this team. The Bengals have had a representative at corner back in the past two years; Tory James (2004) and Deltha O'Neal (2005).
I do think the Bengals defense will dramatically improve; and they must. If question #1 (above) follows with a bad response, then the defense must play great for the team to secure a playoff bid; but isn't that football 101?