Veteran experience and leadership versus younger and potentially more athletic football players: it's a constant balancing act between the two in the NFL. With the CBA changes that occurred in 2011, teams have relied a bit more on rookies and other youngsters that come cheaper than some high-priced free agents. This is a dilemma most teams have faced over the years and one that the Cincinnati Bengals will have to kick around this offseason.
In the first post in this series, we noted a need to be active in free agency--at least far more so than the 2014 offseason, where keeping an eye on Bengals news was akin to watching tumbleweeds bounce by. Reading that and now seeing a need to get "younger" seems seems contradictory, right? Especially when the Bengals boasted the 10th-youngest team in 2014.
Still, that doesn't mean that free agency can't be applied. There are many players entering the "prime years" of their respective careers. The next contract these players receive could be one that houses their most productive years as a pro. Aside from that there are a number of positions, both backups and starters that need an infusion of youth. Bengals owner Mike Brown is loyal to a fault--a trait that has seemingly diffused into head coach Marvin Lewis--and some of the players on the current roster reflect that.
Shed/Demote Dead Weight:
As a former coach myself, I fully understand the value of having "good guys" on the team, even if they aren't as talented as the "stars". They can bring accountability and mentoring for some of the fresh-faced players on the team, and can also crack the whip when practice and game performances aren't up to snuff.
On the flip side, a coach can lose credibility with their team when lesser-talented players start, as it can become a detriment to the team. There have been a number of examples during Lewis' tenure with Cincinnati where he inexplicably sat talented youngsters in favor of tested veterans (more specifics on that in a little while).
Robert Geathers, Domata Peko and Terence Newman all immediately spring to mind when talking about upgrading spots with long-tenured players. It's a painful proposition, given the outstanding character of each of those three players and their long-touted veteran leadership in the locker room, but each of the three spots can be looked at as some of the weaker links on a defense that took a major step back in 2014.
As a former coach and a writer that covers the Bengals, it's painful for me to write things defaming two high-quality guys, and ones who have meant so much to the city of Cincinnati. In fact, I'm not even necessarily advocating a waiving of the guys because of what they mean to the team. Unfortunately, the film and stat lines just don't lie. The Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriiots, aside from being the overall shining beacon of how NFL franchises should be run, are also excellent at knowing when to cut bait with a veteran. Take a look at some of the trades by Bill Belichick, as well as the overhaul of many Steelers defensive positions in the past few years.
Newman had one interception, while Geathers and Peko combined for just two sacks on the season. For reference, Dre Kirkpatrick had three interceptions in very limited defensive play last season (and one more than Newman over the past two), and Margus Hunt equaled the number of sacks with far less snaps than Geathers. Now, Hunt and Kirkpatrick aren't without their warts, but when the defense was starved for more big plays, these two are examples of questionable decisions.
Furthermore, as was noted in the previous post in the series, the Bengals' defense had one touchdown scored in 2014, as opposed to six in 2013. Those plays greatly assist an offense when it's flailing and though Kirkpatrick has had his ups and downs, six interceptions with two returned for touchdowns in two seasons is something that can't be ignored. If it appears that a player is sluggish or slow-responding in practice, it's possible that the guy is a "gamer" and/or needs ample in-game experience to truly grasp the game. The Bengals' coaching staff doesn't seem to always believe in that logic.
Don't Be Afraid To Try The Young Ones By Fire:
There are many cases where Lewis and Co. show trust in rookies and other youngsters, and others where they don't. In the latter cases, it has definitely hurt the overall impact of the team. It's hard to pinpoint what it is that gets in Lewis' craw with some of the benched youngsters. Is it a maturity thing? Are there already high-quality entrenched starters at the respective position? Or could it be that the coaching staff's acumen on evaluating development of young players and their current talent level compared to others?
For every Leon Hall and Giovani Bernard, there is a Hunt, Kirkpatrick, Jeremy Hill and Carlos Dunlap. Hill and Dunlap were particularly egregious; given their amount of contributions to the team, they gained trust and earned themselves bigger roles. In case you didn't notice, the four above-mentioned players who have taken a backseat consist of a first rounder and three second round players.
We've already highlighted Kirkpatrick, so we won't re-hash that any longer than we need to. And though we've also talked about Hunt, one has to wonder if he truly has been given a fair shot before so many label him a bust. In the final three games, including the playoff loss to the Colts, Hunt had a combined 32 snaps. He was averaging more per game early in the season, but that was mostly in blowout contests. Justifiably so, the film room geeks will point to major struggles in Hunt's game as the reason for the dip in play later in the year. But, with limited snap counts, the Bengals being the worst team in the league at sacking the quarterback, and their non-aggressiveness at finding an outside source for quarterback pressures last year, one would think that they would give Hunt more time to see if he is truly a bust.
But, then again, sacks are overrated, right?
Sacrifice Character For Big-Play Potential?:
In the midst of the Bengals' renaissance in the mid-2000s, the team was still a national punchline. Unlike a decade earlier, it wasn't about atrocious on-field play, but rather a slew of player arrests. Late night talk shows destroyed the Bengals with jokes and viral emails were spread around containing gems like "the Bengals wear orange because they look like prison jumpsuits". Zing.
In recent years, the team has shied away from poor character guys and, to the team's credit, it has paid off. Perhaps that was one of the supposed concessions that Mike Brown made to Lewis when the coach was re-signed in 2011, but one can only speculate. In the rare instances that they have taken chances on guys with off-field baggage, it has seemed to pay off.
Hill had a checkered past from his early college career, Dunlap had a DUI arrest while at Florida, and Vontaze Burfict was said to be a complete jerk who was uncoachable. In their brief careers, all have panned out to varying levels of success and have shed any of those preconceived notions.
Personally speaking, I've always been someone who likes teams bringing in high-character guys. you want players who will run through walls for a coach, guys who will bring accountability and ones you never have to worry about doing things the wrong way. However, sometimes the most talented guys have the some of the sketchiest backgrounds. It's just how it is.
Am I saying that the Bengals need to use high picks and big money on guys who have had multiple issues? No, we've seen what Josh Gordon can bring to a team. Still, if you believe that that delicate NFL window is beginning to close on the Bengals and there is a player with a checkered past available for an immediate upgrade at a much-needed position, I'd think that they would have to consider it.
If Cincinnati employs this mentality, they would have to be confident that they have truly changed their ways from about a decade ago, and have built a structured atmosphere for these types of players. They also can't comprise their team of a large chunk of troubled guys as they did years ago.
More Three-Down Guys On Defense:
Rotation is a huge part of the NFL. In fact, it's been a huge key to the Bengals success since 2011. Mike Zimmer brilliantly hid the weaknesses of his defensive players by rotating in certain players to fit specific situations and keep most of his defensive unit fresh. Paul Guenther likely wanted to employ the same game plan with the group, but was dealt a bad hand between injuries and an inactive free agency period.
Still, there's something about having certain positions relied upon every down on defense. Burfict personifies the three-down type of player, taking up the WILL linebacker spot on the first two downs and then often kicking to the middle on third down passing situations in relief of Rey Maualuga. This specific rotation is what made Burfict's injury so critical to the defense this year.
Geno Atkins was another three-down guy pre-injury, but, as with Burfict, his not being the same guy as the 2012 All-Pro really hurt the defense. If one looks to the guys who flanked Atkins on the edge from 2010-2013 in Dunlap and Michael Johnson, they are three-down players who can be shuffled all over the line. Both Johnson and the Bengals missed each other in 2014.
While shoring up the defense with a niche pass-rusher type, maybe one with speed to complement the size up front as Joe Goodberry and I have been noting lately, is a good thought. Sometimes being able to grab a dominant player that you don't want to take off of the field is a must. It's this notion that begs the question of the future at middle linebacker for the Bengals, as well as defensive end and defensive tackle.
The Bengals can't abandon the rotation practice--they will need it going forward. But, if they are able to get younger, faster and more athletic players at certain positions who can play every down, then they'll need to spring for them. What will that take? Being active in free agency and aggressive in the draft.