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Bengals: Survival of the Illest

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The NFL is naturally selective. Like our old homeboy Chuck Darwin pointed out, species prevent extinction by adapting and genetically evolving traits that work for them. Each offseason, every team goes through a mini-blast of evolution, keeping what they think already works and trying out new things like adding an extra finger or a bunch of cornerbacks, whatever makes the most sense at the time. Some teams are forced to constantly rebuild in the primordial soup of failed draft-pick development, while the winners have found their home on land, stomping around upright on two legs, breathing with lungs and using thumbs and eventually nuclear power.

If the Giants then, Super Bowl champions and conveniently nicknamed for this metaphor, are fully-formed humans, the Bengals are a close hominid, Neanderthal perhaps. Now that the draft is over, aside from some minor shuffling, we see this specimen emerge from its cave—a bit less slouched than last year—stretch, take a leak, and go off to kick some ass and find some food.

It seems wise to make only minor changes to a young playoff team like the Bengals—meddling is what ruined 2010—and nearly everyone agrees they made off like thieves in the draft, but I can't help but worry (I'm a worrier) that some major questions remain.

Most of you loyal readers are aware of my concerns about the safety position. It's razor thin right now with four guys listed and only one of them used to starting. With the two-dozen corners Cincinnati collected in the offseason, one if not two will likely be thrown back there in training camp to see if they can hold up. It seems like for many years tight ends have enjoyed a lot of open space to catch footballs against the Bengals. Often times we would blame whichever journeyman safety was too slow to keep up at the time. Marvin Lewis has searched long and hard for a fixture at strong safety with older free-agents and very little success. Taylor Mays has made strides since donning stripes, and by the lack of effort in acquiring a new one, it seems the team is comfortable penciling him in as a starter for now. He is a natural-born hitter, but his coverage skills have hounded his reputation since entering the pros. Robert Sands has good size and year of tutelage under his belt, but he is still very raw and I would be uneasy to see him forced into a starting role just yet. Don't know much about George Iloka, but it's safe to say his immediate contributions will likely come on special teams.

My other concern is the elusive number-two receiver. In the stretch run of both 2009 and 2011, multiple receivers became injured, rendering the offense too limited and predictable to win a playoff game. While Jordan Shipley is back in the slot, along with new fan-favorite Andrew Hawkins, having a capable player opposite of AJ Green will open things up for everyone else. If Green were to miss any time, God forbid, the number-two would become crucial to maintaining a capable passing attack. If that player cannot threaten the opposing secondary by getting open deep, defending the short-routed possession guys will be a breeze from that point on. The run would then become more difficult and things fall apart from there. Of course, that's a fairly doomsday outlook on the future and I hope that doesn't happen, but we've seen it—felt it—happen before.

Like all rookies, the two new Bengal wide outs fill us with hope. Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones seem to have some NFL pedigree, a lot of scouts like them, but they're rookies nonetheless. Local college graduate, Armon Binns, is quietly garnering a lot of hype within the Bengal fan base and there are many who expect him to surprise the league very soon. Ryan Whalen showed flashes of reliability late last year and knows the offense better then the others mentioned here, yet he certainly doesn't scare anyone. The two tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Orson Charles, are big athletic targets capable of exploiting mismatches all over the field, but wide outs they are not. I realize that the number-two wide receiver is not the most crucial piece to the puzzle, but in the NFL, any inadequacy can and will be exploited by the competition.

There is much well-founded optimism in the shape of this year's striped Neanderthal. Many good and productive tasks have been completed this winter and spring and now we can watch the blooming fruits of that labor come to harvest this autumn, but those fruits will not be without flaw. The Bengals will have to work even harder to overcome their shortcomings. An NFL-ready strong safety and a play-making number-two receiver must be in place to allow this team to move farther into the playoffs. The candidates are young, but the coaching is good. Only time will tell, survival of the fittest.

Mojokong—using my thumbs.