Three months ago, the Bengals' possibility of losing nine players who had taken starter snaps at some point in the 2015 season was a very real possibility. Despite this, Cincinnati managed to lock up three key defenders (George Iloka, Adam Jones and Vincent Rey), as well as Brandon Thompson, Pat Sims, Eric Winston and Brandon Tate. The Bengals signed Brandon LaFell to partially compensate for the losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. They brought in Karlos Dansby, who will replace A.J. Hawk, who was cut on Tuesday. The club also signed Taylor Mays, likely hoping he can compete for special teams snaps, or possibly snaps at nickel linebacker.
It would be hard to argue that the Bengals significantly overspent to keep any player they re-signed or brought in, and the team will likely receive four compensatory picks in next year's Draft as compensation for the losses of players who played a critical role on the team. The team wisely held onto AJ McCarron despite speculation that McCarron could be traded elsewhere. Seeing the fortunes Los Angeles and Philadelphia offered just to move up and select a college quarterback in this year's Draft, it's likely McCarron's trade value will increase as he sits on the bench in 2016 while other signal-callers struggle.
Those were three key aspects of the Bengals' offseason, but there's plenty of more the team taught us in 2016. Without further ado, here are five most important things the Bengals have taught us.
1. Whoever lines up opposite A.J. Green, and whoever is selected with the Bengals' first overall draft pick, will be highly criticized, regardless of his performance.
This statement doesn't necessarily mean that this player (or these players) cannot succeed or will not succeed; it simply means that Cincinnati's highest-picked rookie receiver will face scrutiny he has production to show for.
Like it or not, football fans are quick to forget the past, and they often take things for granted. Having one of the NFL's best number two wide receivers was a luxury, not a necessity, to the Bengals. If you don't agree with that statement, explain to me how the 2011, 2012 and 2014 Bengals teams made the playoffs with Jerome Simpson, Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu serving as the team's number two wideout during those respective seasons. And before you say that Cincinnati's defenses carried those teams, I want to point out that the two years in which Cincinnati's defense was most dominant happened to be the two years in which Marvin Jones was the team's number two wideout.
Face it, NFL fans are extremely outspoken, definitely to a fault, around this time of year. Many of the best players in the NFL have been booed upon being drafted--remember how Texans fans booed J.J. Watt?
This seems like a reasonable response https://t.co/7DZ3PHN3yM— Michael Silver (@MikeSilver) April 26, 2016
Everyone likes to think they know more about scouting and analytics until their favorite team takes a guy they absolutely hate. Fortunately for Bengals fans, many picks that didn't sit well with the fanbase (passing on a quarterback in the first round of the 2011 Draft and taking Tyler Eifert when the team already had Jermaine Gresham stand out in recent memory) have actually worked out very well for the team. I'm not saying fans were booing these picks, but many fans definitely questioned what the Bengals were thinking, myself included.
Most Bengal fans want the team to select a wide receiver with the 24th overall pick, and I don't blame them. There's nothing more enjoyable to watch in football than exciting receiver play. But is taking a number two wideout, who at best would be the team's third or fourth option in the passing game, absolutely necessary in the first round? It seems like a bit of a reach to me. Many will disagree with me, and I'm okay with that.
According to a poll I put out on Twitter, Bengal fans would most like to see TCU's Josh Doctson in stripes if the team were to draft a wideout. Even if that were to happen, plenty of fans would voice disagreement with the Bengals' front office. Many more would disagree with a first-rounder at any position at any position other than wide receiver, despite there being bigger needs (in my mind) at multiple positions on the defensive line and in the secondary. If the Bengals were to select Notre Dame's Will Fuller, many fans would lose their minds.
Ultimately, however, this likely won't matter. I think Brandon LaFell will be the team's number two wideout. LaFell has already been reamed all over social media, because however he plays, he'll likely be a downgrade from Marvin Jones. And while I don't disagree there, I don't think downgrading the team's second wide receiver position will make the team any worse than it was in 2015. More on that later.
Brandon LaFell compared to Bengals' number 2 receivers in the Dalton era. He's going to be the number 2 this season. pic.twitter.com/GV3k2rO09r— Connor Howe (@HoweNFL) April 25, 2016
Injured Brandon LaFell vs. 2015 rookie wideouts. Like it or not, LaFell will be the Bengals' number two WR this year pic.twitter.com/NkYjBvEw9M— Connor Howe (@HoweNFL) April 24, 2016
2. Wallace Gilberry's role is open for the taking.
Something that hasn't gained the attention it deserves is that the Bengals' rotational end/nickel defensive tackle position is open for the taking. Will Clarke will likely be the guy who is given every opportunity to win one or both of those jobs, but Marcus Hardison and/or a rookie defensive lineman could also be in play.
Though most NFL front offices believe a player only has three years to prove himself worthy of a roster spot, the Bengals are a bit more generous. Perhaps, knowing that Margus Hunt likely won't receive any blockbuster offers in free agency, Cincinnati could give him yet another chance to win the backup job at defensive end. Whoever replaces Gilberry will have to win a competition, but I envision Clarke being the guy Cincinnati hopes can win the job. It's also entirely possible that the Bengals will select a rookie defensive end, perhaps even in the first round, to compete.
The nose tackle position also needs depth. Domata Peko and Pat Sims are both getting up there in age, and Brandon Thompson is an uncertainty, given his injury late in the 2015 season. It's still entirely possible that the Bengals don't select a nose tackle in this year's draft (they didn't last year, and most of us thought they'd address the position), but I would love to see the Bengals take a high-upside nose tackle to groom behind Peko during the last season in the nose tackle's contract. If Peko's play drops off, there's an opportunity for a rookie to make an immediate impact at nose tackle; for this reason, many Bengal fans would love to see a nose tackle selected high in the Draft.
3. The Bengals are expecting their rookies to step in and contribute
This came as just as much a surprise to me, too. But I legitimately believe Marvin Lewis was serious when he said the following in his Tuesday press conference:
In my opinion, we're going to have a hard time backing away from one of the players [in the first round] who we feel really good about, that can make a contribution early in his career.
We all need to hold our horses here. This doesn't necessarily mean that a rookie will start. That's far from guaranteed, especially considering that there isn't exactly a vacant position on the roster aside from the empty slot receiver position, which could still be filled by a guy like Jake Kumerow, Mario Alford or Brandon Tate if the Bengals believe a rookie needs more time to develop. However, that's not to say that an early-round rookie will essentially redshirt his first year. There are open snaps at the receiver position, along the defensive line and potentially even at linebacker or in the secondary, that need to be earned. If a rookie proves himself most worthy of those snaps, I fully believe he'll earn those snaps, just as A.J. Green did in his first year pro.
4. 2016 will be a prove-it year for the Bengals' secondary.
Aside from Adam Jones and George Iloka, there really isn't a player within the Bengals secondary who has a lock on a position. While Dre Kirkpatrick seems the most likely to start opposite Jones, Josh Shaw and Darqueze Dennard both have every reason to want to push Kirkpatrick and become the long-term starters at corner, and they're fully capable of doing so when they're playing at their best. And while Shawn Williams is likely currently penciled in as the starting safety opposite George Iloka, Derron Smith could easily push for snaps if he proves to be good in limited action. Taylor Mays is also still on the roster, so it's possible the Bengals could try to carve out a Chris Crocker-like role for the veteran if he plays well.
Shawn Williams and Dre Kirkpatrick need to play well, as both defensive backs are entering contract years and could make a lot of money on the open market if they perform. This season could be a make-or-break year for Kirkpatrick, who was the second-most targeted corner in the NFL last season. We've seen glimpses of greatness from both defensive backs, so the talent is there. But 2016 will be a year when both players need to show they've got it all together, or they might be looking for jobs next summer. Hopefully both guys can break out; I'd love to see both players become long-term fixtures on the team if they can prove their worth.
5. The Bengals believe in Andy Dalton.
This is evident, and it's the most important thing we learned this offseason. Marvin Lewis and company definitely wanted to keep Hue Jackson around, but the organization's confidence in naming Ken Zampese offensive coordinator rather than looking around for a hotshot so-called "quarterback whisperer," like the team did when hiring Jay Gruden, goes to show that Cincinnati trusts its signal-caller.
Furthermore, the team had plenty of chances to continue to surround Dalton with weapons in free agency, whether through signing a guy like Travis Benjamin, making a trade with another team or overpaying to keep Marvin Jones in town. However, the Bengals remained confident in their strategy, understanding that Dalton not only has the offensive weapons to succeed but also has progressed as a quarterback enough to prove that he's no longer a guy who should be considered the product of a single coach or teammate. Andy Dalton is the Bengals' franchise quarterback. The team understands it, and the fans have finally come to understand it as well.