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Subtle differences brings optimistic 2007

Throughout the 2006 off-season, the Cincinnati Bengals weren't so sure that Carson Palmer would even play, much less start every game. Some suggested that Palmer should sit the first half of the season. Others suggested he should write off 2006 and concentrate on returning in 2007. Palmer's knee injury brought a large unknown that would even force Nostradamus to take up chain smoking. Anthony Wright was tagged as the veteran backup if Palmer was unable to make it. Wright was a serviceable backup. But this offense can't depend on a manage-the-game quarterback, a healthy does of running the ball, with a continuously suspect defense, and expect to win. Agree or not, the Bengals offense -- and the team -- depends on the strength and accuracy of Palmer's arm.

All of that was for naught. In fact Palmer's 2006 season was impressive, considering the injury he sustained. Palmer had a personal best in yards passing (4,035), yards per attempt (7.76), completed passes of 20 yards or more (52) and completed passes of 40 yards or more (15).

This off-season, Palmer is completely healthy and working towards 2007 -- rather than rehabbing most of the time.

The differences between the off-seasons of 2006 and 2007 are very significant.

Last year, Chris Perry was a question mark throughout training camp. He missed the majority of the season starting out on IR. After Perry, there was Kenny Watson and Quincy Wilson. This year, with Perry again likely starting on IR, the Bengals will have second-round draftee rookie, Kenny Irons and Watson. Watson should bring an improvement in the running game giving Rudi Johnson needed rest in games.

Linebacker is an interesting one. We heard that Odell Thurman was addicted to crack/crank/cocaine or other drug last off-season. The addiction supposedly saw a 30-40 pound weight loss with Thurman. In reality, all that was simple PFT rumor. The truth was that Thurman missed a drug test -- which is equal to failing -- thus suspended for four games to start the season. He was later suspended for the season after a DUI.

Coming into 2006, I thought the linebackers (Thurman, David Pollack and Brian Simmons) were going to be studs. Thurman's rookie season was one of the best compared to defensive rookies. Pollack's playoff game against Pittsburgh in 2005 was nearly a coming out party that brought high levels of anticipation for 2006 (i.e., he was adapting and getting it). After that game, and the continuous reminder from Georgia Bulldog fans that "if you like Thurman, you'll love Pollack", 2006 was going to be the year of the linebacker.

Going into training camp this season, the Bengals will have a different starting group of linebackers. Ahmad Brooks is expected to start at middle linebacker. Ed Hartwell, signed this off-season, will supplement the departure of Brian Simmons. A battle will likely take place between Landon Johnson and Rashad Jeanty for the third spot. And another interesting variable is Earl Everett. Will he make the team? If he does, is his talent level enough to start?

Cornerback is a position that has the highest expectations. And I believe they've improved immensely... all because of the turnover of one player -- Tory James. However, there's a lot of "ifs" at cornerback. Will the 2005 Deltha O'Neal show up, or will the injury-filled and troubled 2006 version show up uninvited. If the 2005 O'Neal shows up, then the Bengals defense could be top-ten. We know Johnathan Joseph is good with the potential of being shutdown. Leon Hall had a great college career simply because detractors could only find two plays in which Hall lost a one-on-one battle. Throughout mini-camps, we're hearing how coaches are very impressed with Keiwan Ratliff's improvement.

So going into training camp, the Bengals are having an optimistic training camp compared to last season's uneasiness.