clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Bengals 2016 offseason blueprint: What do Bengals need to do in next few months?

New, comments

The Bengals' 2015 season is officially over and the focus has shifted on how to improve their team for next season. We run down some of the team's biggest priorities throughout the spring and summer months.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, what seemed like the team's most promising chance at a Super Bowl run in more than 20 years was dashed as the calendar crept toward the new year. Cincinnati's starting quarterback wasn't available for some of the most important games of the season, while other powers-that-be failed to do the team any favors.

Regardless, the fact remains that it's on to the offseason and the Bengals are once again facing many issues outside of simple free agent signings and who to take in the 2016 NFL Draft. It's going to take a similar focus they used to create the solid team they have built, as well as potentially reaching out of their comfort zone to take that next step as a franchise.

A blueprint for the Bengals as they attempt to make another championship run in 2016 isn't just big bullet points--some have sub-areas. I'm going to explore some different aspects I feel are crucial for the Bengals to not only sustain the success they have had the past few years, but also ways to potentially get the team over the hump.

Recognizing areas for improvement and changing some philosophies:

Getting more athletic at linebacker: Last offseason, the Bengals attempted to boost their linebacker corps after it had been ravaged with injury in 2014. Veteran A.J. Hawk and rookie third round selection P.J. Dawson were added to the fold and spent the 2015 season as rotational backups, at the very most. Fans were excited about the outlook on Dawson, given the production in his final collegiate season, but he finished with just 12 tackles as a rookie--mostly on special teams.

Emotions aside, Vontaze Burfict has proven to be provide big plays on defense frequently, while Rey Maualuga played some of the best football in his career last season--especially when Burfict returned to the lineup. It's the other starting linebacker spot and the ones on the field in nickel situations that need some work. Fans and coaches love Vincent Rey, but there are limitations there, as evidenced by his drop of a relatively easy interception in the Wild Card game against the Steelers. Emmanuel Lamur has great range and athleticism, but he's still struggling with consistency and staying healthy. Complicating things further is Lamur and Rey both entering free agency. Is Dawson the answer to some of the issues, including Burfict's impending suspension, to start the season?

Figuring out the secondary: We'll get more into free agency later, but part of the issues facing this group lies in the fact that both starting safeties (Reggie Nelson and George Iloka) and two of the team's top four corners (Leon Hall and Adam Jones) are set to hit the open market. There are warts that come with each, mostly age, a loss of emotional control and some injury history, but the Bengals will likely try to keep some or all of those four.

Still, the questions go beyond the free agents. Darqueze Dennard is entering his third year and no one fully knows if he can be an every-game NFL starter yet. Dre Kirkpatrick is coming off of an uninspiring season and Josh Shaw is still a wild card. Will they grab a corner high in the draft again this year or keep the status quo? Will Shaw take over for Hall in his former role?

Defensive tackle: Last year, the Bengals were on a mission to re-establish a formidable rotation on the defensive line and were quite successful at doing so. While they locked up Michael Johnson for the next couple of years, they also signed Pat Sims and drafted the enigmatic Marcus Hardison in the fourth round last season. What some fans forget is the Bengals' initial interest in defensive tackle Nick Fairley before Johnson became available.

Cincinnati could have technically signed both Fairley and Johnson, but they decided to save a little for their commonly-referenced windfalls. Point being, the Bengals recognized a need for another solid presence next to Geno Atkins and addressed it. Domata Peko is actually coming off of a career year in 2015, but he's entering his 11th season and final one in his contract, so that might be a place to look to add to, especially with Sims becoming an impending free agent.

Kick returner: Brandon Tate is set to be a free agent, as is Jones--both of the team's returners over the past few seasons. It's possible neither return, and if that's the case, the Bengals will need to find a suitable replacement. Some think Mario Alford has potential, but whether it's him or another receiver with returning potential, it should be part of the positional evaluation process.

Shy away from unabashed veteran preference: Going back to Dawson for a second, is that just another example of Marvin Lewis' preference of playing perceived lesser-talented players in lieu of promising youngsters. Sometimes it has worked out well long-term, but others have struggled to progress once they are finally thrown into the lineup because of a lack of significant early playing time. This has to change--play the best players regardless of tenure.

Free agency:

Keeping their own: The Bengals have 15 impending free agents set to hit the open market in 2016, one Exclusive Rights and 14 unrestricted. Here is the list:

PLAYER

POS.

AGE

FROM

TO

2015 CAP HIT

STATUS

Leon Hall CB 31 CIN TBD $9,600,000 UFA
Andre Smith RT 28 CIN TBD $6,362,500 UFA
Reggie Nelson FS 32 CIN TBD $4,775,000 UFA
Vincent Rey ILB 28 CIN TBD $3,100,000 UFA
Adam Jones CB 32 CIN TBD $2,550,000 UFA
Emmanuel Lamur OLB 26 CIN TBD $2,356,000 UFA
Wallace Gilberry DE 31 CIN TBD $2,050,000 UFA
Mohamed Sanu WR 26 CIN TBD $1,682,813 UFA
George Iloka SS 25 CIN TBD $1,582,075 UFA
Eric Winston RT 32 CIN TBD $950,000 UFA
Brandon Thompson DT 26 CIN TBD $795,300 UFA
Marvin Jones WR 25 CIN TBD $700,700 UFA
Brandon Tate WR 28 CIN TBD $665,000 UFA
Pat Sims DT 30 CIN TBD $665,000 UFA
T.J. Johnson C 25 CIN TBD $510,000 ERFA

You could argue who to keep from the list, but Marvin Jones and Iloka have to be the top priorities. I'd also like to see them retain Nelson and Mohamed Sanu, with a handful of others also needing consideration. They'll make re-signing their own a top priority, if they can. It sounds like a lot of the players want to be back and we've seen evidence of that in recent years, so we'll see how they do with one of their most important crops of free agents in team history.

Need to look outside: The internal approach the Bengals have used is great and has brought them success, but you know what else it has brought them? Zero playoff wins. They have the bankroll with $30,235,255 (and maybe more depending on the 2016 cap) in cap space, so it's time for this team to spend to keep the window of success open as long as possible. Leaving fewer excuses for the Brown family this offseason is the amount of stars they have signed to long-term extensions over the past few years.

Andy Dalton, Burfict, Atkins, Johnson (technically as a free agent), Carlos Dunlap, and A.J. Green have all received mega-deals over the past couple of seasons, so who else is there to extend? Sure, getting some of the bigger names back on their internal free agent list will cost some money, but if they don't overpay, they will still have plenty of room to work with. And, please, Bengals brain trust, spare us the "rookie pool and in-season injury reserve" diatribe you spew at fans every year.

All teams plan for these facets and still make outside moves to benefit the team, while not totally jeopardizing the team's future. With Pittsburgh besting them in the playoffs, the Ravens looking to rebound from an awful 2015 by getting healthier and Cleveland looking improved with the hiring of Hue Jackson, why not take a swing for the fence? Fairley might be available again, while Danny Trevathan of the Broncos is set to hit free agency too. Neither would break the bank, but could improve the squad.

Approaching the Draft:

Selecting Players who are Immediate Impact guys: Last year's draft class for the Bengals proved to be bittersweet. When you have a stacked roster, it's hard to draft guys to come in and have immediate results, as most starting positions are locked up. Still, as injuries hit late in the year and the Bengals weren't able to secure wins against some of the losses they accrued to eventual playoff teams, some impact rookies might have made the difference. Using the above mantra towards veterans that "no starter's position is safe", the team should look to get guys who can contribute immediately--especially since it has been their bread and butter over the past half-decade.

Continue Best Player Available Strategy: It's no coincidence that the Bengals have build a quality team through the draft because they have had the luxury of taking the best player on their board in certain instances, regardless of the position. It's why they drafted two cornerbacks in the first round for two straight seasons, and two offensive tackles in the first two rounds last year. They'll need to find a balance with grabbing immediate impact guys with those who are the highest on their board, but it should be relatively easy to find the formula.

Easing the transition with coaching turnover:

Make Life easy on Andy Dalton/Keep Offensive Continuity: In what seems like both voluntary and involuntary fashion, the Bengals have lost a glut of coaches on both sides of the ball. The biggest is the loss of Jackson at offensive coordinator with the promotion of Ken Zampese to the position. Dalton experienced the finest year of his career in 2015 thanks to the wizardry of Jackson, so really it's Zampese's job to not rock the boat too much. Keep things similar to ensure Dalton's success.

New coaches, new message and increased accountability: It might seem like more of the coaching changes are by choice, given some recent comments by Lewis on the hires. When speaking of Jacob Burney, the defensive line coach replacing Jay Hayes, he said: "Jacob is a great taskmaster with tremendous experience. Marvin Lewis. "He started under Bill Belichick at Cleveland and has worked under some other great head coaches as well since he came into the league."

Perhaps this is what has been lacking for the Bengals to take the next step and eliminate the same mistakes we've seen over the years. I don't want to say Lewis was directly indicting Hayes, but the "taskmaster" remark might be more of what he's looking for from his staff with a franchise usually reticent from making changes.