The early summer months are interesting ones, in terms of NFL teams and the outlook of their upcoming season. Optimism is high among all fan bases this time of year, but caution should be heeded, as avoiding devastating injuries and the sorting out of crowded position groups are part of the early summer process.
This week, we received a number of great questions from our readers. Twitter and email are the norm for our receipt of questions for this weekly feature, but because we did a Facebook Live stream on Friday, we received interesting questions in the comments of that post, too. Be sure to submit your questions to us to be featured in our mailbag series!
@CincyJungle Why in the love of God do they keep Tate on the team?— Steve in Crowtown (@StevenCrowtown) June 17, 2016
Though some ask it in a more jokingly way than others, this question has been a common one among Bengals fans over the past few years. After a decent first year with the Bengals in 2011, which included a punt return for a touchdown, Brandon Tate has become one of the more unpopular players of the fan base. A lot of the ire is warranted, but some of it is over-analysis due to a strong roster in almost every other facet than that of kick returns.
Over the past three or four years, fans have awaited the departure of Tate in preseason cuts, yet he continues to stick around because he is a coach-favorite. In what is an off-and-on trend with Marvin Lewis and his staff, they tend to prefer veteran steadiness over the peaks and valleys that can come with exciting rookies.
When speaking on Tate and his stance with the club, special teams coach Darrin Simmons has pointed to Tate's reliability when returning kicks, though it's an odd proclamation because of Adam Jones' somewhat-frequent opportunities in spelling him for the role. And, when Jones has returned punts and kicks, he usually becomes the catalyst Tate hasn't been in his five years with the club. It's also a bit hypocritical of the team when they publicly prop up Tate, but continuously give him one-year rental deals, which can exhibit a lack of faith in a player.
This year provided an odd dichotomy in Tate's career path and future with the Bengals. On one hand, it seemed like Tate sticking on the final roster would be a sure thing once Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones left via free agency. Though Tate hasn't been much of a factor on offense in his five years as a Bengal, 2016 seemed to pave a way for a bigger role for him.
But, the Bengals made moves at the position to remedy the losses. Veteran Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd were brought in to see if they can keep the offensive momentum that has been created over the last few years. While there are doubts and growing pains associated with both additions, the prevailing thought is that both will bring more to the offense than Tate can.
As to the question of why Tate sticks around, I don't have a definitive answer, but there are some pieces of evidence to use. Aside from the public support from his coaches, Tate is frequently one of the team's best receivers in preseason play. With the coaches openly noting the importance of a player's performance in the four games preceding the regular season, one gets a picture as to why he has continued to stick around.
Additionally, the Bengals use a a bit of a different approach than some other teams with using their best players on the field. Regardless of position, they prefer to save guys like Jones, Giovani Bernard and other returner possibilities from harm in the role to keep them healthy for their primary job on the team.
What doesn't make sense with Tate sticking around is the recent devaluation of of kickoff returners with recent NFL rule changes. If Tate was a relatively consistent contributor on offense, while a special teams ace, I'd understand his sticking around so frequently.
To me, this seems to be a year in which Tate's future with the Bengals is in jeopardy. However, every time I say it publicly, I get the sarcastic chuckle which is the polite version of the phrase, "Sure, bud". Aside from the LaFell and Boyd additions, Mario Alford is grinding to find a role with the team after both he and Tate made the 2015 final roster. If Alford can use his speed and college returner prowess this offseason, Tate could finally be seeking work elsewhere.
As I mentioned earlier, the Facebook Live post gave us a number of questions we weren't able to get to in the brief session. Here's one of them:
Will Michael Johnson stay in Cincinnati?
Well, the short answer to the question is yes. After leaving for a lucrative free agent deal in 2014 with the Buccaneers, Michael Johnson was released from Tampa Bay one year later and became a hot commodity on the open market. Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer had a bidding war of sorts, and the Bengals ended up on the right side of the negotiations, signing Johnson to a four-year deal worth $20 million.
Given his production and his age, it's almost a given Johnson stays with the Bengals for the duration of his contract. While he doesn't always pop off on the stat sheet, Johnson is an integral part to the Bengals' consistently dominant defense. His length, power and savviness against the run makes him an undervalued player with Cincinnati.
There might be some who feel Johnson isn't worth the money because of his averaging of 5.25 quarterback sacks in his previous six seasons with the Bengals, when excluding the 2014 campaign with Tampa Bay. However, he just makes the entire line work well, while allowing other big statistical opportunities for others.
Look at the difference between the output of the group from 2014 without Johnson, to 2015 when he came back and started once again for the Bengals. Two seasons ago, Cincinnati was dead last in the NFL in quarterback sacks, but rebounded in a big way last year, finishing 10th in the league with 42. It was more than twice as much than in 2014 when they finished with just 20 without him.
Obviously, having Geno Atkins back to his old self, as well as career-years from Carlos Dunlap and Domata Peko were reasons for the leap, but Johnson's return sparked the unit. It also seems like Johnson is one of "their guys", so it's safe to assume he'll be here through 2018 when his contract is up.
There is a bit of bad news with Johnson and his effect though, too. While it's great to have him back, especially since he specifically chose to come back to Cincinnati as a free agent, it also points to two potential Draft failures. Margus Hunt and Will Clarke didn't prove that either of them could carry the torch once Johnson left, making many wonder if they'll ever become NFL contributors. Marvin Lewis said it's a big year for both, especially with new defensive line coach Jacob Burney wanting to use more of a rotation this year, so the questions on how long someone is staying in Cincinnati should revolve around Clarke and Hunt, not Johnson.
Do you think Dalton has passed up Palmer on the bengals QB all-time ranks?
Really difficult question and slippery slope there. It's easy to say Andy Dalton is the better quarterback because of recent success and wounds not being healed from Carson Palmer's exit out of Cincinnati, but there are a lot of things to point to both as the better quarterback for the teams.
Using revisionist history and getting poetic about Palmer's arrival, he and Lewis re-built the team from total ashes. While he didn't play a snap his rookie season, he led the Bengals to their first playoff appearance in 15 years in 2005, also making two Pro Bowls through his eight years in The Queen City. He set single-season franchise passing marks for the team in 2005, putting his name with other immortal Cincinnati quarterbacks in Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason.
On the other hand, Dalton has been a Godsend himself, as he picked up the pieces from Palmer's nasty divorce from the franchise. He has helped lead the team to five straight postseason berths, which is three more than Palmer spearheaded. Dalton also scribbled Palmer's name out of the team record books, as he had the most touchdown passes and passing yards in a season back in 2013.
You have to go with Dalton then, right?
Not so fast. One of the areas Dalton has had the luxury of leaning on since 2011 is a stout defense. The unit is almost-annually ranked within the top-10, whereas Palmer didn't have a high-quality group in his first few years. Palmer's early defenses created a lot of turnovers, which greatly aided his play, but they also gave up quite a few yards and points.
One other thing is that neither quarterback has performed well under the big spotlights. Primetime football, whether it was in the playoffs or regular season, has been an Achilles heel for both Palmer and Dalton. While both were forced out of Bengals playoff games because of injury, neither player has individually fared well in January. Palmer has a 1-3 postseason record with five touchdowns against seven interceptions in his entire career. Dalton has an 0-4 record with one touchdown against six interceptions. Yikes.
Even though Dalton is on a pretty team-friendly deal through 2020 and has ample time to wholly leapfrog Palmer, the portion of the deal which has higher salary cap hits is coming. So, while it was great to see Dalton take great strides in 2015, the leash may start to get a little tighter on him if one-and-done playoff spurts keep occurring and/or he shows regression.
While I don't know if I have a definitive answer to this question, I do know that these two selections have greatly helped Lewis' renaissances with the Bengals. It's a stark and welcomed contrast to the preceding decade when the team couldn't find a suitable signal-caller and "bungled" through the 1990s.