For a team that has made four straight postseason trips and has averaged 10 wins per season in that span, the Cincinnati Bengals have quite the laundry list of items to propel them to the next level. The 2014 season that was ripe with promise and presumed talent became a house of cards, collapsing with the slightest of January breezes. Have the Bengals missed their window of opportunity? It's a great debate for another time, but not here and now.
We are looking at some of the most important areas of improvement for 2015, both for the roster and the entire franchise. If the front office thinks and acts differently, then surely the roster outlook will appear different as well. Some of these priority items will bleed into each other, while others will be completely independent from the other. That's what will comprise this list--not arbitrary items like "get a new quarterback", "fire Marvin Lewis", etc. Regardless of your feelings on those subjects, all fans need to face the fact that both will be in their highly-prominent positions with this franchise next year.
There are ways for the Bengals to prop open that window for a while longer this offseason. One that this post will focus on revolves around the mindset and approach to the spring months by the front office. Simply put, they cannot employ the same blueprint from 2014 and expect a championship year.
Stick To Your Word About A "Different" Offseason:
While in Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl, Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis beat his chest soundly with a vague referencing to a different approach this offseason. "It's a different feel than where we have been", Lewis said. "It's not a status quo." So what does this mean, exactly? No one can be exactly sure.
Will the Bengals be doing what the Dolphins did a couple of years ago and grab a slew of major free agents (Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson, Philip Wheeler)? Probably not. The telling part of Lewis' statement for me, centered around "not waiting to get guys back". That was a major problem for the Bengals this year as they got a heavy dose of injuries to many important players.
However, I also don't think they are in line for a free agent class headlined by guys like Marshall Newhouse and R.J. Stanford. Based on these comments and the appearance of the team when injuries hit in 2014, they simply cannot go that route. They will need to bring in guys who can step up behind dinged-up starters and play quality football. The team relied too heavily on their own drafting prowess with low round and undrafted players and when the time came, they struggled.
Mike Brown has spent money on free agents--don't forget that. The issue has been that those decisions ended up biting the team in the rear in the form of Laveranues Coles and Antonio Bryant. They Bengals have also heavily-courted some bigger free agents in recent years (Donte Whitner, Ted Ginn, Jr., Carlos Rogers), but it hasn't worked out for a variety of reasons. Now that Brown has seemingly relinquished a chunk of that decision-making to others like Lewis, Duke Tobin and Katie Blackburn, perhaps a bigger-ticket free agent won't be a ticking time bomb. The ironic thing about that last sentence? Lewis says that Mike Brown is "leading the charge" for change this offseason.
I've said this before many times: there is a science to free agency. The teams who mostly rely on it and spend a ton tend to get into cap trouble and/or bring guys in who falter because they aren't fits. The teams that supplement solid draft classes with key free agents put themselves in the position to go far in the postseason.
Can't Wait On The Rehabs:
If there is one thing to applaud the Bengals for in last year's mind-numbingly slow free agency period, it's that they were true to their word. The team told everyone that they weren't going to do anything, and by golly that's what happened.
Didn't they almost seem arrogant about it? As if they let out a scoffing, sarcastic laugh when asked if they were going to pursue any outside players of note. "Well, why would we need to? We've got everyone we need here, including guys coming back from injury". Doesn't that sound like the tone they used when addressing the situation?
Unfortunately, the Bengals gambled on some of their best defensive players returning to their old form to solidify the defense. That risky plan ended up backfiring, as both Geno Atkins and Leon Hall were shades of their former selves in 2014. Still, admiration has to be given to those two for rehabbing so fiercely to be back on the field in Week 1, after such devastating injuries.
Looking to 2015, the Bengals could be facing similar issues. Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict recently underwent microfracture knee surgery and the hope is that he'll return by Training Camp. Tight end Tyler Eifert suffered a dislocated elbow in the season opener, which was supposed to take 8-10 weeks to properly heal before he was back on the field. He wasn't seen again the rest of the season. Marvin Jones, another big Bengals offensive weapon, missed the entire year after foot surgery and a major ankle issue.
No one knows if these players will return to old form, especially in time for next season's kickoff. Judging by what occurred with Atkins and Hall this year, the Bengals would be wise to bring in players at those position groups to avoid dips in play, which were on display in 2014. Luckily, this seemed to be one of the areas that Brown and Lewis talked about with the supposed new strategy. Beef up positions that had major injuries last year and if the injured players come back to help, that's even better. But, don't build a roster around hurt/rehabbing players and expect greatness from them--especially not right out of the gate.
In somewhat surprising fashion, Lewis and Co. have made a number of player trades over the past handful of years. Brian Leonard, Taylor Mays, Kelly Jennings, Reggie Nelson and others are on that list. Though Nelson is the shining star among those names, others have contributed in various capacities. Sometimes a glaring roster hole is seen in Training Camp (accrued injuries, slow-learning rookies, etc.) and the only way to fill the void is through a trade for a guy not on the open market.
Perhaps that is something that the Bengals could look to achieve if they lose out on players in free agency or the draft. There has been an air of mistrust for some of the rookies of late and/or a problematic loyalty to certain tenured Cincinnati veterans. So, trading for a needed position could be a blend of the those two issues.
Another route that could be taken is the team maneuvering the draft. Accumulating more picks by moving down, or grabbing a highly-coveted player by moving up could fill up this roster nicely. Unfortunately, Cincinnati has only moved up in the draft three times in its history, so they would have to buck a major trend if they were to move up. This year's AFC Champions, the New England Patriots, have averaged about 3.2 trades per draft under Bill Belichick. You can see for yourself how the Bengals rate among the league with moves in the draft.
Moving up or down in the draft makes sense. Accumulating as many picks as possible by moving down, as the Bengals have done somewhat-frequently, would be a nice way to refill a roster that showed its warts after injuries hit in 2014. Moving up to get a perceived "game-changer" is risky, but if you feel strongly about wanting a guy, go get him.