If there is one thing on the side of the Cincinnati Bengals, it is youth. Andy Dalton, the red headed wonder who lines up behind center and should continue to be there for the next decade or so, is in his second year. A.J. Green, the star receiver who fans and analysts alike cannot praise highly enough, is in his second year. Geno Atkins, the sack master who dominated the trenches all season long on his way to a Pro Bowl nod, is in his third year. Jermaine Gresham, Carlos Dunlap--the list goes on and on, and that's excluding the frequently gushed over incoming rookie class. This team's core is full of potential, and anticipation is high. This upcoming season is a reason for genuine excitement among Bengal fans, something seldom seen in Cincinnati.
Danny Tuccitto and Rivers McCown of ESPN.com are in agreement. In their rankings of the top 25-and-under organization rankings the Cincinnati Bengals come in at No. 3.
They begin their analysis of the youthful Bengals with the offense.
QB Andy Dalton (25) and WR A.J. Green (24) didn't disappoint in their rookie seasons. The former was the only other player besides Newton to garner votes for Offensive Rookie of the Year, and the latter made the Pro Bowl. Dalton played his best on third downs (38.9 percent DVOA) and in the red zone (28.0 percent DVOA), while Green had a 57 percent catch rate and dropped only two passes all year despite having 39 percent of his targets come 16 or more yards downfield. Cincinnati also has two other young pieces in the pass offense with TE Jermaine Gresham (24) and RT Andre Smith (25).
As with every NFL breakdown, let's start with the quarterback position. The two statistics mentioned above speak to the heart of Dalton's success. He played at the highest level on third downs and in the red zone, or in other words, when it mattered. Yet, the rave this offseason has been to nitpick Dalton and call him overrated, predict him as a candidate for a sophomore slump, or blurt out some wisecrack against his weak arm. How quickly we forget. Isn't this the same man who came in with almost zero expectations and led a less than stellar Bengals team to the playoffs? The same man who performed with poise well beyond his years leading his offense to comeback win after comeback win? It's easy to look past the performances and the wins and instead criticize the arm strength or accuracy (shown here) all the while maintaining allegiance to the amazing, wonderful do-no-wrong Cam Newton, but let's take a deep breath and appreciate what Dalton has done. He's made the playoffs, he's made the Pro Bowl, and most importantly, he made fans forget Carson Palmer. And he's only 25.
A.J. Green is a vastly different story. He's awesome and there's hardly a single doubter. His talent, athleticism, attitude, work ethic, body type, age--he has everything working for him. "Quarterback Andy Dalton pass complete to Wide Reciever A.J. Green, TOUCHDOWN". Get used to it.
Andre Smith and Jermaine Gresham are two fringe players who continually approach that next level, but have yet to reach it. Smith was the first round pick of the Bengals in 2009 and Gresham the first round pick in 2010. Both players held significant offensive roles last season, and they'll be just as crucial to the success of the offense moving forward. Love 'em or hate 'em, Smith and Gresham could prove to be essential pieces to the Bengals offense, and being only 25 and 24 respectively, each still has time to lay claim to that role.
There is no shortage of youth of the defensive side of the football either.
The Bengals' run defense improved from 25th to 16th in DVOA thanks in large part to the play of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (25) and DT Geno Atkins (24), the latter of whom also led the team in sacks. DE Carlos Dunlap (23) was a force as a situational pass-rusher, producing a team-leading 13 quarterback hits and 20.5 hurries to go along with his four sacks. Cincinnati's pass defense ranked 18th in DVOA despite the front seven finishing 10th in adjusted sack rate, which spoke to problems on the back end. To help remedy that, the Bengals selected CB Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round of April's draft.
To describe Carlos Dunlap as a "force" is to hit the nail on the head. The numbers speak loudly, but there is no stat that can quantify the added presence Dunlap brings to an already intimidating Cincinnati defensive line. He's a monster. Unfortunately, that presence is added all too infrequently as Dunlap can't seem to stay healthy. Yet to play a full season during his first two years in the NFL, Dunlap enters 2012 with a focus on keeping himself on the field. He has 14 sacks in limited time. Just imagine the damage he can inflict playing a full season.
Geno Atkins is close to the defensive version of A.J. Green (ignoring the obvious differences in body type ). Both ex-Georgia Bulldogs, both 24 years old at season's beginning, both 2011 Pro Bowlers, and both unquestionably the best player on their respective side of the football. Atkins was outstanding in 2011. He racked up 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, 47 tackles, and an ungodly high overall rating of 34.8 from Pro Football Focus. And like A.J., there isn't much concern about Geno--only certain success.
If only the same could be said for Rey Maualuga. His age, 25, is the best thing going for him right now, and that's unfortunate. By saying so little, ESPN managed to say it perfectly. He's unmemorable. He does alright but isn't worthy of anything more than a name drop in an ESPN article like this, and that's a shame. There is an extra level of play he hasn't reached yet that every Bengal fan knows is in him, but not many are sure he can harness and unleash. Essentially, he's average. Maualuga is a crucial part of this defense, and if he is on his game then this defense becomes a whole different animal but until he proves he has that extra level, the best thing he'll have on his side is his age. And he'll only be 25 for so long.
Yes, there are concerns and worries, but that is cause for celebration in itself. There wouldn't be concerns or worries, at least none that weighed on fans so heavily, if there wasn't an exciting team those issues correlated with. This Bengals team could be good! When the potential is so high, the stakes rise as well and the individual problems shine with more clarity. Each position is nitpicked. Arm strength becomes a No. 1 talking point. Fans care on all encompassing level. That is what a young, talented team can do to you. And dammit, it's about time Bengal fans felt like this again.