We've reached one of the most boring parts of the year -- there is no football and free agency doesn't start until March. Most of the talk is now centered on mock drafts and season reviews.
To jazz things up, I thought that it would be interesting to follow baseball's example and rank the Bengals young prospects heading into the offseason -- these aren't players who are already stars, like Tyler Eifert, but those who have the potential to become stars. Since there are no farm teams in the NFL, instead of prospects, we're taking a look at the Bengals best young players. As for what "young" means, we'll consider players born no earlier than 1991, meaning they're no older than 26. The Bengals have a young squad, with an average age of 26.05 including 12 players 30 or older.
Please note that this is my personal take on these players, and your rankings and grades will surely vary from mine.
Here are our top 10 Bengals under 27-years-old:
1) Giovani Bernard, A-
This is easy and not even close. A playmaker, both with his feet and his hands. The third-year running back out of North Carolina was pretty good last season and was always there when fellow back Jeremy Hill did not deliver. He might not be able to carry as heavy of a load as others, but he is an impact player.
He will turn 25 in the middle of the 2016 season and will enter his prime. Bernard is the most important player on this list for the Bengals right now, and will remain so until Cedric Ogbuehi or Jake Fisher take over at left tackle when Andrew Whitworth eventually retires.
His touches have remained pretty consistent these past three years, so he might have a limited ceiling, but as what some pundits call "satellite back" he is at elite level, and head coach Marvin Lewis and new offensive coordinator Ken Zampese know this.
2) Shawn Williams, B
Some could argue he might be a bit high but the 6 foot, 210 pound safety looks likely to replace one of the two free agents Cincinnati has at his position. He finally got a chance to play late in the year with all the injuries that hit the Bengals' secondary and proved he can be at least an average starter in the league.
Williams is just three months away from his 25th birthday, and fits the bill as late bloomer. Nonetheless, his ball skills and physicality against the run make him an ideal fit for the team if Reggie Nelson or George Iloka leave in free agency.
He might not be at the level those two are, but that is no shame at all because they are both Pro Bowl caliber players. Alongside tight end Tyler Eifert and Bernard, the 2013 draft is starting to look like one of the best in recent time for Cincinnati, despite the Margus Hunt bust and injuries to linebacker Sean Porter, which eventually saw him cut in the middle of the 2015 season.
3) Jeremy Hill, B-
In 2015 Jeremy Hill was pretty good and in his rookie season he was great. But Hill has issues and the biggest one is taking care of the football. Unless he gets better at protecting the ball and stops coughing up possessions, his days could be numbered in the Queen City.
We've already discussed his disappointing 2015 campaign, which saw decreases in production and efficiency, and it was clear the Bengals' offense was better with Bernard in the backfield. Hill will get a chance to recover next season and see if he can become the player we all expected he'd be in 2015. After all, he will be turning 24 in October and is still young.
But, running back is a position where replacements can easily be found, as the Kansas City Chiefs showed last year, so it'll be in Hill's best interest to take this offseason seriously and hope he has a bounce-back season in 2016.
4) Cedric Ogbuehi, C+
The rookie offensive tackle only played 65 snaps last season, but he was drafted to become the eventual replacement for All-Pro Andrew Whitworth. Despite not being available for the beginning of the year, the Bengals still drafted Ogbuehi in the first round of the 2015 draft. He is really the guy with the most upside the team has right now and plays at a premium position. His grade could easily change in August.
As right tackle Andre Smith is expected to leave via free agency next month, Ogbuehi is slated to take over the right side of one of the best offensive lines in football, having experience there from college.
I'm being conservative here with a C+ grade for Ogbuehi, which I expect will quickly change at the start of the 2016 season.
5) Darqueze Dennard, C+
The former first round pick has shown flashes but an unfortunate injury in 2015 and a loaded unit has made it tough for him to show his value. Dennard can easily become the team's second best cornerback in 2016, depending on who the Bengals manage to retain in free agency between Adam Jones and Leon Hall.
Despite looking like the ideal replacement for Hall inside, he can also play outside and could prove to be better than Kirkpatrick. He slides into the 5th spot because of injury concerns, given that he hurt the same shoulder he hurt this season during his junior season at Michigan State, too.
A member of the 2014 draft, Dennard is an example of the Bengals draft philosophy: barely playing at all in his rookie year, watching from the bench, gaining experience and seeing a few snaps, mostly in garbage time. Dennard can beat this grade easily if he can build on his notable but cut short 2015 season.
6) Jake Fisher, C+
What a year for the high school tight end turned offensive tackle and then briefly turned fullback out of Oregon. The Bengals were really lucky to snatch him in the second round of the 2015 draft, and with Ogbuehi sidelined early on, Fisher had a chance to become the team's de facto sixth lineman and trick play recipient.
Is he going able to crack the rotation next year or stick as a utility man as he was in 2015? This is a big question that has no answer yet, but even as a swing tackle, Cincinnati has a good player on their roster who will turn 23 years young in April.
7) Tyler Kroft, C+
Kroft just finished his rookie season with the Bengals and he's another guy who I really like. He showed guts when called into action and made some nice plays catching passes from backup quarterback AJ McCarron. Kroft's downfall is that he is not taking away Eifert's job anytime soon, which limits his upside. If Marvin Jones leaves in free agency and the Bengals go to two tight end sets more often, he could easily beat this grade and become a nice weapon for quarterback Andy Dalton.
8) Ryan Hewitt, C+
I love the guy, I really do, and he was impressive in 2014 joining the Bengals as undrafted free agent. Still he is a fullback in a league that does not use fullbacks much anymore, which limits his value. Hewitt's season was cut short in 2015 after a knee injury suffered in Denver during Week 16's Monday Night Football game so he was unable to play in the playoffs. The injury was just a sprain and that fact that he wasn't put on Injured Reserve following the injury shows the damage was minimal and the Bengals were hoping he could return in the playoffs, had they won the Wild Card game without him.
9) Josh Shaw, C-
He was not supposed to play much in his first year out of USC, but the fourth round pick had to step up after injuries hit the secondary badly. Shaw can play at both safety and cornerback, which is very valuable in this happy offensive era. Shaw showed he has the ability to tackle and make plays and his development will be an interesting storyline during the next two years.
10) Derron Smith, C-
Another safety, Smith only played 13 snaps in 2015, but that is precisely what the Bengals expect from their rookies. Because of a loaded roster, they can afford the luxury not to draft by need, and, the Bengals tend to pick up a defensive back or two in each draft.
Smith was picked in the sixth round of the 2015 draft but showed some flashes of being a capable player who could become a regular starter in a couple of years. During the preseason and training camp he was wowing, but he rarely got opportunities to make big plays in 2015. Shaw played in 2015 only due to injuries to other players, but his role could increase next year depending on how the Bengals manage free agency.
Honorable mentions: WR James Wright, WR Mario Alford, DL Marcus Hardison.