The Cincinnati Bengals seem to be unanimous winners of the 2012 offseason. Filling some holes in free agency with some solid players like Travelle Wharton and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and then adding ten draft picks who could all make the final roster, made the national pundits take notice--especially when you're adding those types of players to a playoff roster from a year ago. We all know that "championships aren't won on paper", but the horizon looks as promising as it has over the last two or three decades.
Still, no matter what any team has done to improve their roster this offseason, there's always more that one can do. The fellows at Football Outsiders recently wrote a piece on the AFC North division and the perceived needs for each squad following the draft and free agency frenzy. We think you'll dig what they had to say.
Of the Bengals, Danny Tuccitto says:
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Strong safety
It's amazing -- and completely out of character in the Mike Brown era -- that, in only one calendar year, the Cincinnati's roster has gone from having more holes than the plot of the Terminator franchise to being as solid as a terminator itself.
To be sure, the Bengals can still use some tweaking around the edges, but for the most part they're in good shape. In February's edition of "Plugging the Holes," we listed running back and guard as glaring needs. The former was met by signing BenJarvus Green-Ellis to replace the worst workhorse running back of the past two years, Cedric Benson. The latter was met by using a first-round pick on Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler, who NFL Films Senior Producer (and avid game tape watcher) Greg Cosell thought was a better prospect than Stanford guard David DeCastro. Speaking of Cosell, he nailed Cincinnati's selection of Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who will immediately fill a need at cornerback.
Our own Nick Crago touched on Cosell's admiration of the Bengals draft class on Tuesday and the fact that FO mentions him in their piece just reiterates Cosell's reputation as a film guru in the NFL community. It's great to see that we Bengals "homers" aren't the only ones noticing an all-around solid 2012 Bengals roster.
It's at another position in the secondary, however, where the Bengals' biggest hole remains: strong safety. Typically, when a team decides to unceremoniously release an aging team captain, they have a promising understudy already in place (See Pittsburgh's handling of Hines Ward). To replace Chris Crocker, who was allegedly let go due to durability issues even though he started all 16 games last season, Cincinnati has ... Taylor Mays? So much for praising Mike Brown, I guess.
Let's recap Mays brief career, shall we? At the behest of Mike Singletary (and only Mike Singletary), Mays was taken by the 49ers in the second round of the 2010 draft. Shortly into the 2010 season, Mays was elevated to the starting strong safety spot in one of Singletary's last moves as head coach (San Francisco was 0-3 at the time). Mays played so badly that he was benched after only five games -- even Singletary couldn't take any more -- and finished the season having allowed 18.4 yards per pass. Then, in an extremely rare move for an NFL team, San Francisco basically gave Mays away after only one season, accepting Cincinnati's seventh-round pick in 2013 for a player they drafted in the second round.
Are there in-house options at strong safety other than Mays? Sure, except that Robert Sands, Jeromy Miles, and 2012 fifth-rounder George Iloka all have played even fewer NFL snaps on defense than Mays has.
On the free agent market, the pickings are even slimmer. The best strong safeties out there include Yeremiah Bell and Melvin Bullitt. Also, there's always -- wait for it -- Chris Crocker (who is still available). Perhaps Cincinnati is best off if they wait for training camp cuts to make their move.
Not exactly the most ringing endorsement for Mays, nor does it show much light at the end of the tunnel for an outside veteran to be brought in. Not only will Mays have to play at a much higher level than everyone assumes he'll play at, but we'll echo Marvin Lewis' sentiments in that the rookies and other youngsters will have to show that they can be trusted to play and/or start, if need be. Even though the Bengals interchange their safeties in a lot of formations, Mays is their only true "strong" safety on the roster. If he can live up to the hype that surrounded him after his junior year at USC, the Bengals could have a major diamond in the rough. For right now, that's a big "if".
Under the "Important Undrafted Free Agents" designation, Tuccitto predictably points at Vontaze Burfict.
In addition to not addressing their hole at strong safety during the draft, the Bengals used exactly zero of their 10 picks on a linebacker even though middleman Rey Maualuga's contract expires next spring. Enter Vontaze Burfict, the headliner of Cincinnati's undrafted free agent class. The range of possible NFL career paths for Burfict is at least as wide as the performance extremes of his final two years at Arizona State: anywhere from winning individual awards to flaming out in a Haynesworth-esque inferno of laziness and cheap shots. The good news for Cincinnati is that, if the latter happens, they won't be losing a major investment in the fire.
As for the rest of the division, Tuccitto claims that the biggest needs for the Ravens is more offensive line help, which makes sense since they are an aging group that lost Ben Grubbs. He claims that the Browns still need receiver help, as they failed to properly address this in the draft. And, in what seems like an annual weak spot for the Steelers, Tuccitto points at their cornerback situation. But, as we all know, the Steelers rely on their front seven and their safeties much more than their corners.