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Bengals Mailbag: Possible free agent targets, drafting a linebacker and thoughts on Steelers fans

We answer the burning questions on the minds of Bengals fans as they are submitted to us every week. Submit yours to be featured in this regular feature!

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Super Bowl 50 is all set, with the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos meeting up in San Francisco about a week and a half from now. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals and their fans are looking toward the next few months, which consist of scouting events, free agency and the NFL Draft.

It's in these areas that the bulk of reader questions are centered around for this week's mailbag. While some are similar in nature, like questions about keeping Marvin Jones and George Iloka, others are going off the path a bit. Submit your questions every week via Twitter or email to be answered in this weekly feature!

I'm assuming we're talking either free agency and/or the draft, and if it's the former, we'll talk outside free agents. We're going to throw out the initial disclaimer to the novice Bengals fans: the Brown family doesn't like to make splashy moves for outside players.

Every once in a blue moon they offer a big contract to semi-productive veterans like Antwan Odom and Antonio Bryant, only to have them blow up in their faces. Since, they've preferred to spend the money internally, while opting for bargain deals on veteran castaways. Michael Johnson was a bit of an anomaly last year, but after he spent six years in Cincinnati and one in Tampa Bay, he didn't feel like a huge outside splash in free agency, given his extensive time spent with the Bengals.

Signings like the Odom and Bryant ones have seemed to stick with the Bengals, as they haven't made many big moves since. To their credit, the plan has largely worked, as the team has five straight postseason berths and 52 regular season wins since 2011. On the other hand, the strategy has netted zero playoff wins, so something has to change, right?

In terms of outside players who could join the Bengals and contribute, I've already talked about Rams defensive tackle Nick Fairley and Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan in previous posts. In looking at an updated list of NFL free agents other names pop out as immediate upgrades for the Bengals, but they'll cost a pretty penny.

With franchise tags yet to be assigned, big names like Von Miller, Josh Norman, Sean Weatherspoon and many others top the list of big-name gets. But, knowing the Bengals' modus operandi of late, these signings aren't necessarily in the cards. Given what's happened over the past few years, the expectation of these names to arrive in The Queen City is little more than pipe dream.

That's why we're looking at those "B" and "C" list players as possible open free agent targets this year. Another part of the Bengals' philosophy is to poach the freshly-released players in which Cincinnati's brain trust can score a good deal. The other coveted players the Bengals like in free agency are former high picks that have underachieved which Cincinnati might be able to get on the cheap for a rehabilitation project.

Cowboys defensive back Morris Claiborne fits that mold, as do many others set to hit the free agent list. If I'm a betting man, I'd say the Bengals look to get one of these bargain deals, either with a former high pick who has disappointed and/or unexpected cuts they can get on a deal that is mutually beneficial.

There's one other thing to note about the Bengals as they construct their roster and it has to do with a blend of free agency and the draft. Cincinnati has shown the willingness to let some decent players walk and/or not sign big-name free agents because of the compensatory formula and the team's ability to get younger, cheaper talent in the draft--an area in which they have excelled of late.

If we're talking the draft, a number of positions could be up for grabs in the first few rounds. Linebacker tops the list for me, as the Bengals need athleticism and depth there for a variety of reasons. Defensive tackle, cornerback, safety and wide receiver are other options they could look at.

The next question from a reader addresses one of those needs, so we'll hold off on that for now. However, a guy that has to be at the top of Bengals' fans minds is the versatile Ohio State quarterback/wide receiver, Braxton Miller. Can he return kicks? Has he learned enough over the past year in his transition from quarterback to receiver to be a productive NFL player? Those are coveted traits that will immediately help the Bengals in 2016.

Whether it's in free agency or the draft, the Bengals need to find at least a couple of immediate impact players. It's an odd proclamation to make with a team having so much regular season success lately, but something has to give if Marvin Lewis wants to break his 0-7 playoff record. Some of the aforementioned names would help, but other diamonds in the rough could also.


Both players provide interesting opportunities and are exciting prospects for the Bengals, and it ties into the previous reader question. With Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur hitting free agency, and Vontaze Burfict looking at a three-game suspension, Marvin Lewis needs to bring some 2000 Ravens magic at the position to Cincinnati.

Smith is recovering from a knee injury, so picking him might lead to a bit of a redshirt type of season. Some, like my colleague Cody Tewmey, believe Smith could return to a team after the PUP List window expires, as Burfict did this season. Still, if the Bengals employ the immediate impact player mantra I've been preaching of late, the drafting of the star Notre Dame linebacker goes against that plan. Regardless, the outlook of Jaylon Smith's pro career looks bright, especially when flanked with talented 'backers like Burfict and Rey Maualuga.

Su'a Cravens is one of those interesting players whose "athlete" designation when committing to a college scholarship rolls over into the pros. Even though he's too small by NFL linebacker standards, "rover" players like Cravens have limited examples of success in the NFL.

The most obvious is another USC product in Troy Polamalu. The future Steelers Hall of Fame defender was listed as a safety, but Pittsburgh wisely gave him free reign on defense, particularly as his career wore on, and he responded with a slew of big plays in his career. Sometimes NFL stereotypes rein in a player, limiting his potential and it does the team and the player a major disservice. While the gamble on taking Cravens in the first two rounds is high, as his stock is projected, the upside is huge.

One of the things the Bengals loved about fellow Trojan defender, Josh Shaw, is his versatility. At USC, Shaw played both corner and safety, making him a versatile defender in the far more complex NFL offensive schemes. Though Shaw had limited time as a rookie, he proved capable in coverage and seems to have a bright future in the league, he might fill a role that Bengals defensive back Chris Crocker once filled as a hybrid defensive back.

Cravens played linebacker as USC, but also lined up as a safety and one-on-one on the outside against wideouts. When selecting a prospect, it's difficult to not push a player into one role to find a specific fit in a team's plans. However, sometimes the risk of not pigeonholing a player to one area hinders the youngster to fulfilling their full potential.

In the Marvin Lewis era, the second round has been one where the team has taken high chances in the draft, but also garnered some of their biggest dividends in the draft. Success levels range from 2015 Pro Bowl defensive end Carlos Dunlap to guys like Odell Thurman and Margus Hunt. Because of his size and lack of a true position, Cravens might slip that far and might be one of those experimental players the Bengals would look at with their pick.

The good news with Cravens is that he would fulfill two needs/wants in an able coverage guy, as well as a linebacker-type with the ability to tackle and even rush the passer. The bad news is the risk that comes with a "'tweener" type of player and another potential waste of a high pick if he doesn't work out. If neither of these two strike the Bengals the way they feel a potential star linebacker should, there is Reggie Ragland from Alabama who is showing some nice things at the Senior Bowl this week.

Both Smith and Cravens come with high upside and pretty big risk. However, with the Bengals winning so many regular season games and their desperation to keep the championship window open, these are the types of gambles they might need to take. If the they were to take either/both in April, I personally would be excited, given the value is there when the selection is made.


Oh boy--slippery slope here. The problem with Pittsburgh fans is that for every one decent one you encounter, three more dopes make you forget the good guys. I live in Southern California and the amount of Steelers fans out here alone is staggering. In fact, the Monday after the Bengals' playoff loss to the Steelers, I drove past at least four cars sporting Steelers license plate frames. Go figure.

Honestly, I'm torn, for a variety of reasons. Earlier this year, I attended the Steelers/Chargers Monday Night Football game in person and the amount of Pittsburgh fans in attendance was staggering--so much so that it felt like a Steelers home game. Part of it is understandable, given the San Diego's fan base being fed up with the Spanos ownership and the Chargers' potential move to Los Angeles souring the Bolts faithful. Beyond that, almost every other member of another team's fan base I meet has a mutual hatred of Steelers, largely due to their fan base.

At a personal level, I know about a half-dozen ardent Steelers fans. A couple are total meatballs who have lifted pickup trucks and act like entitled mini-Manziels, backing into parking spots instead of pulling into them as normal human beings would. A few others always talk about how good the Bengals look and respect their tough matchups this year, or just don't make eye contact with me for fear of a debate, really as a sign of decent friends because they are cognizant of the debate that would occur.

That being said, two male Steelers fans were arrested at the Wild Card game for punching women in the face, that with other random unprovoked Steelers fans I've never encountered trolling me on Twitter, make a hearty handshake to their constituents difficult. Many of the Black and Yellow faithful seem to embody the Joey Porter attitude of poking a sleeping bear until a debate ensues only after being provoked.

"All Steelers fans or just vocal ones?". If there's an area in the middle that's probably where I would reside. Unfortunately, the vocal trolls heavily outweigh the good sports and that's part of the reason why the rivalry has hit a new level. Steelers fans will rightfully point out the lopsided record in recent history, but they fail to post out the Bengals' massive success against the Ravens under Lewis--a team which Pittsburgh has had a tougher time with than Cincinnati.

I'll tell you this much--the class Bengals fans largely showed Steelers fans over the years, despite the hatred, dissipated a couple of weeks ago. Like the "guilty by association" stigma Bengals fans feel with the Pittsburgh faithful, the city of Cincinnati sustained a black eye with the tossing of trash on the field in the game and at Ben Roethlisberger hurt the image of the fan base. It's weird what winning does--this would have merely been a fueling of the rivalry had the Bengals won instead of the image of a whining Bengaldom.

Look, the hatred will exist regardless. The tough guy talk from those who have never stepped on an NFL playing field will ensue regardless of the current situation, but all Bengals fans have to hope for is a move towards evening of the series. The 2015 Wild Card game was something that embodied the Bengals since their inception of a franchise: two steps forward, four steps back.

My advice to all Bengals fans is to always take the higher road because many Steelers fans won't do the same. They'll gloat, they'll make excuses in a rare loss and they will do what they can to get under your skin--like Porter did with Cincinnati players a couple of weeks ago. Your only hope as a Bengals fan is to realize that their hobby is following the Steelers, but their passion is to be an irritant to every other fan base around the league. You have a life, a family and interests that are above trolling. Take solace in that fact, at the very least.