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Make or Break Year: Jerome Simpson

This upcoming season, if there is one, will be an important one for Bengals wide receiver Jerome Simpson. The former 2008 second-round draft pick has a lot on the table as he potentially has a chance of being catapulted into a starting role with the likely departures of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.

When the Bengals drafted Simpson ahead of wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Malcolm Kelly, who were both rated higher than Simpson, they envisioned him darting down field, leaving opposing defenses in the dust. When given the opportunity, though, Simpson wasn't able to demonstrate why the Bengals spent a second-round pick on him. However, in the final games of the 2010 season, he was finally able to show why he was taken so high.

Over the course of three seasons Simpson has played in only 13 games, accumulating 21 receptions for 279 yards and three touchdowns.  During the first two seasons of his career, though. Simpson played in only eight games and had one reception for two yards. Analysts and fans were critical of the Bengals, making comparisons to the Eagles' Jackson who was climbing the ladder of success in Philadelphia.

The 2010 season was a different story for Simpson. During the first 13 games, Simpson played in only one game and didn’t accumulate any receptions. However, in the final three games Simpson was given an opportunity to play due to the injuries to the TOcho show. When given the opportunity, Simpson demonstrated his athleticism. Against the San Diego Chargers he had six receptions for 124 yards and scored two touchdowns. In the season finale against the Baltimore Ravens he had the best game of his professional career; against one of the toughest defenses in the league, Simpson made 12 catches for 123 yards and a touchdown. He finished the season with 20 receptions for 277 yards and three touchdowns. Could this be the first sign that he's breaking out of his shell and showing the Bengals brass that he’s deserving of more playing time the next season?

Another reason next season is vital for Simpson is that he’s basically playing for a contract. He is entering the final season of his four-year contract, signed upon being drafted in 2008. Luckily for the Bengals his salary for next season will only be $550,000, which is a very modest price to pay as long as they receive similar production throughout the entire 2011 season as they did in the final three weeks of the 2010 season. But, if Simpson falls into a rut and is unproductive then he might be lucky to get a lucrative contract, or any contract, in 2012.

In most Mock Drafts, experts have the Bengals selecting A.J. Green. If this scenario does occur then Simpson's chances of proving himself to the Bengals and the rest of the league may slide downhill a little. Simpson would then be in a battle with Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley, both of whom have more experience than he does, as well as with a first-round pick that many compare to Calvin Johnson. Another element that might cause problems for Simpson is the change at quarterback. Simpson has spent his entire career with Carson Palmer and if Palmer is not at the helm next season then Simpson will have to work with a new quarterback, needing to learn timing and how to communicate with a new field general under center. Then we also need to take into consideration the new offensive system that will be put in place under offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. If Simpson's biggest problem with getting on the field was the adjustment period needed between playing college at small Coastal Carolina to an NFL offense, how will it be between adjusting from Bob Bratkowski's down-field offense to Gruden's west coast offense?

This upcoming season is not only important for the Bengals, but it’s also an important one for Jerome Simpson. He is entering the final year of his contract and is going to be attempting to fill the big shoes that will be freed by the probable departures of veterans Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. This is the year for Simpson to prove critics wrong and to potentially enter the spotlight. Otherwise he may have to look for a team to take a chance on a one-hit wonder, or a team that has room on their roster for a project wide receiver.