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Bengals Mailbag: Running game commitment, restocking wide receiver and thoughts on Terry Bradshaw

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The questions supplied to us from readers this week runs the wide gamut, ranging from the Bengals' offensive approach in 2016 to the legacy of Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw.

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The new league year is almost upon everyone, while the prospects of free agency and the draft have football fans of all allegiances excited about the upcoming season. This time of year can be bittersweet for some Bengals fans though, as the team largely watches from the sidelines, so to speak, while other teams wheel and deal in free agency.

The Bengals will be active this offseason, but it will largely be with their own guys set to hit the market. It's in that spirit, along with the draft possibilities, that the bulk of our reader questions come to us this week.

Well, with Over The Cap reporting the Bengals as having just under $39 million at their disposal this offseason, you would think they have the ability to sign who they want from the list of 14 unrestricted free agents. There are four players who seem to be higher on the priority list than others in safeties George Iloka and Reggie Nelson, cornerback Adam Jones, and wide receiver Marvin Jones. And, as it goes every year at this time, the rumor mill is spinning wildly to drive up interest and prices--the news surrounding these four is no exception. Vincent Rey might also be added as another priority to re-sign.

Using some very rough and quick math, the Bengals would likely be looking at about a $25 million investment in retaining the big four (about $6.25 million per player average), leaving about $13-$14 million left to re-sign others, use on draft picks and have an in-season injury money pool (side note: how many other teams do you see using the latter two reasons/excuses for lack of spending in free agency every year?). So, you can see how re-signing the glut of the 14 impending free agents becomes tricky, especially when that $25 million figure might be conservative.

There are a couple of things the Bengals have done in recent years that have made them quiet geniuses. The first is often backloading cap hits on contract extensions to their stars. This might especially ring true this time around with the older defensive back duo of Nelson and Jones because of their age. They are coming off respectively productive 2015 campaigns, but both will be 33-years-old in the first month of the season. How much do these two have left in the tank and how much are you willing to dole out when facing the prospect of their bodies breaking down mid-contract?

The other shrewd thing the Bengals have done is drafting potential replacements under the guise of taking the best player available in the NFL Draft. Andre Smith is a free agent who they will likely let walk because the Bengals feel they drafted their next set of bookend tackles last year in Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher. Cincinnati will also be facing the departure/retirement of Andrew Whitworth in the near future, so you can see how those two picks make sense. Add in P.J. Dawson while Rey and Emmanuel Lamur are linebacker free agents, as well as defensive backs Josh Shaw and Derron Smith behind Jones , Nelson and Iloka, and the Bengals have a contingency plan in place, albeit, one that's unproven.

Personally speaking, I'd be making Marvin Jones and George Iloka the top priorities this offseason. Both are heading into the primes of their careers, and while both have had injury issues in their short career, they bring a lot to the table. Jones and Iloka will be 26-years-old when the season starts, making it seem as if their arrows are trending up and the other two, while valuable just last year, seem to be pointing downward because of age.

Of the 14 setting to hit the market, I can see the Bengals keeping Brandon Thompson, Vincent Rey, Nelson, Adam Jones and either Marvin Jones or Iloka--probably not both, unfortunately. There are also some interesting names being released this week, as teams clamor to clear space for free agency, so the Bengals might also bargain bin shop for some players in that niche too.

*****

This is a fantastic question and one that will likely determine the overall fate of the 2016 season for the Cincinnati Bengals. Am I being overdramatic? Maybe. Even so, part of the Phoenician-like rise the Bengals will need to embody this year after a crushing end to 2015 will come from the running game and Hill's bounce-back from a season full of disappointment.

Zampese has been with the Bengals through the Bob Bratkowski days, as well as the subsequent reigns of Jay Gruden and, most recently, Hue Jackson in the Andy Dalton era. It's hard to say exactly where Zampese will fall between the styles of his three predecessors, but he definitely seemed to jive with both Jackson and Gruden.

Because of the flashiness and creativity Jackson showed so often last year, it's hard to think back to 2014 when Jackson first took over for Gruden. Jackson's system featured more running and a bit more of a systematic approach, resembling what Gruden had built since 2011. The returns of Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert in 2015 opened Jackson's playbook up and the offense, especially its quarterback, looked a lot different just a year later.

For some of the moans and groans that came with Zampese's promotion to offensive coordinator a couple of months ago, fans have to remember that he was the quarterbacks coach in three of the team's most prolific seasons by a passer--Carson Palmer's 2005 campaign and Andy Dalton's 2013 and 2015 seasons.

Unless Jones bolts in free agency, things don't seem to need to be tinkered with in the passing game, if it's anywhere close to as effective to last year's version. The primary focus this offseason has to be righting the running game and getting Jeremy Hill back to who we saw him be in 2014.

One thing that seemed to fly under the radar last year regarding Hill's performance, was Jackson's urging of Hill to bulk up in the legs to break more tackles in the offseason. There were times where Hill looked sluggish when hitting the hole (not always his fault, as line play was also spotty in the run game), and didn't have that same long-distance pop he showed as a rookie. Might the extra bulk he may have added be the culprit?

The more prevalent ideas such as not using a fullback as often as they had, interior offensive line inconsistencies and Hill getting into his own head about some of the fumbling issues are also pretty common chatter as to what went wrong. Heck, maybe everyone, inside and outside of the club, are just overthinking things.

There are two trains of thought with Hill this offseason: either make him earn his spot back by showing sure hands and a hunger to get back to being dominant, or prop him up as the starter to re-instill confidence after what's sure to be a long offseason for the kid. Both stances have merit, and frankly, I'm not sure where I stand on it at the moment.

Regardless, the team should focus on all aspects of improving the running game, including personnel, schemes and play calls. The Bengals don't have to be a "run-first" team in my eyes, they just need to show more consistent production when they do decide to pound it.

*****

The last question didn't come from Twitter, but from a personal friend of mine, who happens to be starting up a website on lifestyle, food and a myriad of other topics called "The Life In". He decided to ask me about one of the greatest players in Steelers history. Given the open wound that still exists in Bengaldom from the Wild Card loss to Pittsburgh a couple of months ago, the question revolving around a Steelers legend still seems relevant.

Shameless plug aside, my friend text messaged me the other day asking me an interesting question about former Steelers great, Terry Bradshaw. "Why doesn't Bradshaw get more love as an all-time great?", he asked me. My first thought was to text him saying I felt he gets quite a bit of praise--maybe more so than he deserved because of the team that surrounded him.

At each starting offensive skill position, Bradshaw had other Hall of Fame players in running back Franco Harris and wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Let's also not gloss over the fact that he had "The Steel Curtain Defense" consisting of  defensive end "Mean" Joe Greene, cornerback Mel Blount, and linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert--all in the Hall of Fame. The dude had some major help.

Still, four Super Bowl Championships and two Super Bowl MVP awards in a six-year span? Give the eccentric FOX Sports analyst a little credit.

Furthering the question, my friend asked why Bradshaw wasn't always talked about in the same breath as John Elway, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Troy Aikman and others who haven't passed him on the Championship count. One reason might be that he was drafted a decade earlier than any of those names, causing a memory blank to more recent quarterbacks. Statistically-speaking, Bradshaw is on the same lines of Bob Griese, Joe Namath and former Bengals great Ken Anderson, as opposed to Brady, Montana or others. Another noticeable item is the change in NFL offenses from the 1970s to the 1980s and into its current state.

Given their draft proximity and amount of Super Bowls won, I decided to compare Bradshaw to Montana:

Quarterback Years SB Wins Passing Yards Passing Touchdowns Interceptions Passer Rating
Joe Montana 1979-1994 4 40,551 273 139 92.3
Terry Bradshaw 1970-1983 4 27,989 212 210 70.9

To be fair, Montana had his share of great players on his team as well. The greatest receiver who has ever played the game, Jerry Rice, was in San Francisco for most of "Joe Cool's" career, as was Hall of Fame defensive lineman, Charles Haley. But, most see that Montana and Bill Walsh's then-innovative system made the 49ers' parts a bit better than they actually were.

Obviously, the most disparate stats between the two greats are passing yards, interceptions and passer rating. Montana played 16 seasons to Bradshaw's 14, but threw for almost 13,000 more yards, yet 71 fewer interceptions. It's also not like we're talking about Bradshaw, a four-time Super Bowl champ, against a stat-king signal-caller who never won the big one like Dan Marino, either. It's because of the stats and big wins that Montana is widely-regarded as the best quarterback to ever play the game.

Still, Bradshaw was one of the architects of what is now known as the modern day NFL passing game. In an era were short passes to running backs were the norm, Bradshaw heaved many long balls up to Swann and Stallworth over the years, unphased to the possibility of a turnover, and usually ended with great results.

The talent argument to knock a quarterback's skill is one that current Bengals signal-caller Andy Dalton faces on the regular. I'm not saying Dalton is Bradshaw by any stretch of the imagination, but the point is you have to have a skilled quarterback heaving the ball around the yard to win games--even with all of the collective talent that might be on a roster. And that also plays into Bradshaw's lasting legacy.