Thank you Cincy Jungle faithful, for building the momentum over the past month on this Cincy Jungle mailbag feature. I appreciate the comments, emails, tweets and feedback that I've received from writing these. I definitely hope that you all keep them coming, as I want this post to be as interactive as possible.
After Sunday's Super Bowl is completed, NFL fans will enter the very small window of "dead time" in the League's calendar. This period is filled with the anticipation leading up to the Scouting Combine, free agency and subsequent NFL Draft, as well as the build up to offseason workouts and eventually Training Camp. Until these big events, we are all stuck contemplating what could have been in the previous season, as well as the direction the team should go in the offseason to improve itself.
On Twitter, "Boomgal7" tweeted me a question regarding Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham and my thoughts on his role with the team:
Great questions. First, addressing the question on if I think Gresham is underused, I definitely feel that he is, though not to the extent that some fans may think he is underutilized. Gresham was a second alternate in the Pro Bowl this year, basically ranking him as the fifth or sixth best tight end in the AFC--which is where I'd gauge him at this point in his career. The promising thing about Gresham is that he improved on his rookie statistics of last season with a rookie quarterback and a new offensive system. That's quite a feat.
Like Jerome Simpson though, Gresham would disappear in stretches of games and really became a secondary or tertiary option for Andy Dalton. He rarely was the primary target on routes and I think that that hurt the offense--especially down the stretch when they were struggling. A.J. Green was the only real viable receiving threat for the Bengals in 2011, and he was nursing a bad shoulder at the end of the year as well as commanding constant double-team coverage. It did open some opportunities for Gresham, but not as many as I had hoped.
Gresham is a matchup nightmare for defenses. He's huge, can catch and has decent agility and speed for a player of his size. The Bengals need to play off of this strength more. In the West Coast Offensive scheme, you need wide receivers who can run after the catch, a solid running back who can run and catch, and a versatile tight end who is a legitimate receiving threat. The Bengals have one in Gresham, they just need to get him the ball more. I've seen them give him screen passes and even line him up outside as a wide receiver--these are the types of things they need to do to get him the ball.
With the emergence of players like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, it seems as if Bengals fans are wondering why Gresham isn't putting up similar numbers. I don't doubt his ability to put up those types of numbers, but the team doesn't run a tight end-centered offense the way that the Saints and Patriots do. The Bengals rely on their tight ends to help out the blocking game (another aspect that Gresham has improved on since being a rookie), whereas a lot of Gresham's counterparts don't have this responsibility. If you watched the Pro Bowl, you'd have noticed Gresham in on a lot of blocking during the game. Bengals fans also have to note that Andy Dalton isn't in the same echelon as Drew Brees or Tom Brady yet (you like how I threw that in there?). Once he matures and gets a better feel of NFL defenses, I'm sure Gresham's stats will increase.
Will his role be changed and expand this season? I think so. With a full offseason to work with and a second year in the system, I expect this offense to be much more efficient than last season. With a viable No. 2 wide receiver, Jordan Shipley's return and another year in the offense for everybody, I expect Gresham to improve again next season.
We've talked ad nauseum about what the Bengals should do this offseason in the draft and free agency, but none of us seem to get enough of it, do we? Like I said earlier, it's that time of year where we all fantasize about what moves will be made and who will end up in stripes for 2012. As we've said before here at Cincy Jungle, the Bengals would be wise to use both free agency and the draft to plug the roster holes, and not rely too heavily on one over the other.
The biggest hole that fans want to see filled is that of offensive guard. With Bobbie Williams' age and declining play and Nate Livings' subpar performance as a starter, the team could be in the market for two starting guards. I think that the team recognizes this need. Take the 2011 offseason for example: after heavily pursuing Robert Gallery in free agency, the Bengals signed Deuce Lutui (which didn't work out), Max Jean-Gilles and Mike McGlynn. They also drafted Clint Boling in the fourth round. I expect this aggressive approach to signing a guard to continue in 2012.
The first guy that I could see the Bengals targeting is current 49er guard, Chilo Rachal. He was a starter for the better part of three seasons and Frank Gore had some of the more productive years of his career during that span. He lost his job this season with the emergence of Mike Iupati and the arrival of Jim Harbaugh. Why would the Bengals target a current backup to be their starter? Because Marvin Lewis and Paul Alexander seem to like those types of guys--former second-round draft choices who have fallen out of favor with the franchise that drafted them just a few years back (Bobbie Williams and Deuce Lutui are prime examples). Rachal is also from USC and Lewis seems to like players from that school. This isn't a personal preference of mine, but rather a player that I could see the team landing because of affordability and their inability to land a big-name free agent.
The other guy that I could see as an outside possibility signing in Cincinnati is Ravens guard, Ben Grubbs. He is the second-best free agent guard on the market this season (behind Carl Nicks) and comes from a dominant AFC North offensive line. This week, Ravens ownership expressed a lack of interest in re-signing Grubbs, primarily because they're going to have to give Ray Rice a lot of money. If the Bengals court him right and throw enough money at him, Grubbs could come to Cincinnati to slight his former team. This would be a huge upgrade for the Bengals' line and would open up the draft.
Another position target in free agency should be wide receiver. There are plenty of good options for the Bengals to look at a No. 2 wideout, opposite A.J. Green. Two of them come from the Colts--Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne. I'm more partial to Garcon myself, mostly due to the age factor. Some could argue that Garcon's production is simply a product of Peyton Manning's awesomeness, and not so much an indicator of his own ability. I could see that point, but if you look at Garcon's stats in the Colts' Manning-less 2011 season, there is very little drop-off from his production in the years prior by comparison. He's quick, able to digest a complicated playbook, and has kept himself out of trouble off of the field. That's the first place I'd look.
Some are clamoring for Robert Meachem. While I think he's an exciting player, this is a system guy. He's made quite a few big plays in his short career, but he's never had more than 45 catches in a season. By comparison, Garcon had 70 last season alone. Meachem strikes me as more of a "one-trick pony" with his speed than a viable No.2 threat. I wouldn't be upset if they grabbed Meachem, but I still think Garcon is the first place to look. With either player, this would again open up the draft. If they look for a wide receiver in the draft, I wouldn't be surprised if they targeted Arizona wideout, Juron Criner. He had a good Senior Bowl week an is seen as a third-round pick with good hands and toughness.
If two of the above-mentioned positional acquisitions were to occur, I could see the Bengals spending their first three picks on defensive backs and a running back. Luckily for the Bengals, this draft seems to be chock full of both. A cornerback early in the draft is a must. With Leon Hall rehabbing, Nate Clements getting a year older and Adam Jones a free agent, the position group is really thin. If they were to go for a corner at either No. 17 or No. 21, I'd like them to stay away from the problem children of Kirkpatrick and Jenkins. Two guys I'm currently high on are South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore (thanks Joe), and Vanderbuilt's Casey Hayward. If they were to sandwich these two corners around a running back like Doug Martin in the first and second rounds, that would be quite the haul. They could opt to add a safety like Alabama's Mark Barron instead, but given the value that this team has placed on that position over the years, I wouldn't be surprised if they passed on him. From rounds three on, I'd like to see them fill the roster with a safety and then offensive and defensive lineman.
I would also like to see them retain Reggie Nelson, Manny Lawson, Frostee Rucker, Pat Sims, Brandon Johnson, Jonathan Fanene, Mike Nugent and Donald Lee, if at all possible. I realize that all of these moves would require quite a bit of money, but the team has a lot to spare going into 2012. And, realistically speaking, there's really only one elite free agent name that I mentioned and that would be Grubbs. The rest would be solid role players and/or No. 2-type starters. As a Bengals fan, this scenario could be a reach, but I could see the offseason playing out this way.
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