The Bengals, like so many times in the past, have remained quiet on the free agent front. Whereas some fans complain of quantity, the Bengals went after quality this off-season.
In the past few seasons, the Bengals defensive tackles have been average, at best. Last season, the rush defense has allowed 115.6 yards per game (20th in the NFL), 16 touchdowns (t-23rd) and 4.3 yards per play (27th).
In 2004, the rush defense was ranked 26th allowing 128.9 yards per game. In 2003, the rush defense was ranked 25th allowing 138.6 yards per game. In 2002, the rush defense was ranked 22nd allowing 125.4 yards per game.
Enter Sam Adams
Since joining the league in 1994, Adams has been noted as a specialist against the run. Signing a three-year deal in March, Cincinnati will became the fifth team Adams has played for in his career -- Seattle (1994-99), Baltimore (2000-01), Oakland (2002) and Buffalo (2003-05).
Acquiring Adams turned the Bengals defensive tackle depth from average to good. Even ESPN's Len Pasquarelli says that Adams "will probably team with John Thornton in the starting lineup. That would leave veteran Bryan Robinson and promising youngster Shaun Smith in reserve and give the Bengals one of the deepest and best tackle rotations in the league.".
As most football enthusiasts know, having a big hole clogging defensive tackle allows the bone-crunching linebackers to swarm freely. Odell Thurman, Brian Simmons, Landon Johnson and David Pollack are good roamers and quick. But like most linebackers, a big offensive lineman can quickly neutralize them. That has been the biggest problem plaguing the Bengals for the past few seasons. Hopefully adding a guy that's in the 350 pounds range will help. Hopefully? How does that NOT help?
Another problem that's plagued the Bengals defense is injury at the safety position. Madieu Williams, an extra 2004 second round pick from the Corey Dillon trade, was hurt most of last season. Kim Herring, while not great, is better talented than Kevin Kaesviharn (started 13 games plus wild card game), Ifeanyi Ohalete and Anthony Mitchell. Kaesviharn, while not an ideal starter, is a fine backup utility man able to play anywhere in the secondary. Mitchell is a great special teams player (most special teams tackles and snaps). Ohalete was an embarrassment and perhaps the worst player that's come through Cincinnati on Marvin Lewis' watch. I've never seen anyone so terrified trying to make a tackle like he was against Jerome Bettis in the wild card game.
Not only are the reports about Williams' recovery very optimistic, but the team decided to go after a former Super Bowl MVP safety.
Enter Dexter Jackson
Most fans will acknowledge that Jackson has lost a step or two and injury has limited the incredible talent he once possessed. But almost every Bengals fan you talk to, there's a general agreement that bringing in Jackson upgrades the safety position -- a lot. Again, I'm not taking anything away from Kaesviharn or Mitchell -- both guys have made invaluable contributions and I hope they remain with the team; as either backups or special teams players.
The Bengals signing Jackson to a four-year deal in March greatly enhances the safety position. I think if there's a concern with Jackson, it's his durability. In the past two seasons, Jackson has missed 16 games and a stint on the IR.
There's another player the Bengals picked up that could make quality contributions.
A former University of Cincinnati Bearcat, Chatman signed with the Bengals in mid-March. Last season, Chatman finished with 49 receptions and 45 punt returns. In the off-season mini-camps, Chatman has impressed the coaching staff enough to consider moving him to the #3 receiver position if Chris Henry's legal troubles limit his playing time (ie, suspension).
But I think his greatest contributions will be at punt return. For most of last season, Keiwan Ratliff handled punt return duties and was very ineffective (28 punt returns, 157 yards, 5.6 ypr). Comparatively Chatman returned 45 punts for 381 yards; 8.6 yards per return.
There's a chance Chatman could handle kickoff return duties, but that's probably dependent on Tab Perry's role in '05 (returning or offense). Either way, the returning duties for the Bengals in 2006 are in good hands.
Stats and rankings via ESPN.com