The Cincinnati Bengals figure to once again feature one of the NFL's best rosters when the 2016 season begins.
You don't make five-straight playoff trips with a 33-14-1 record over the past three years without having a talented and deep roster that should be capable of contending for a Super Bowl. However, untimely injuries, unaddressed weaknesses and simply not having enough poise when the pressure is highest have led to Cincinnati not being able to get over the playoff hump.
Of those three things, you can argue which is easiest and hardest to address, but for now, we're focusing on the positions of weakness that the Bengals may be capable of upgrading this season.
The biggest and most obvious comes at center, where Russell Bodine has struggled mightily to take hold of that spot and be anything more than below average.
Not having just a decent option at center can really hinder an offense, even one with as much talent as the Bengals had last season. While the Bengals have yet to directly address this area, they do have several players who may be capable of moving over the center and being an upgrade.
Kevin Zeitler, Clint Boling and fifth-round rookie Christian Westerman all have either some background at center or the potential to play there. Perhaps if Bodine continues to struggle this year, we'll get to see one of those guys get a shot to show what they're capable of.
After Bodine and the hole at center, you could make some good arguments for and against other spots on the roster needing an upgrade. And just like center, there may already be better options on the roster as the 2016 season nears.
Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson (via ESPN) broke down and ranked all 32 NFL rosters, and he has the Bengals coming in at sixth overall. The Cincy starters he listed as needing an upgrade included receiver Brandon LaFell, defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Domata Peko, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and of course, Bodine.
The Bengals have had a fine roster for several years now, and it looked like it was finally going to pay off in 2015 with an improved Andy Dalton. But Dalton got injured and missed the biggest games of their season. Cincinnati lost some talent to free agency, but it has reloaded in the draft and could potentially upgrade at those spots, particular wide receiver. The offensive line remains a solid unit anchored by one of the league's most underrated players in Whitworth.
On defense, Atkins was back to his devastating best last season, notching 82 total pressures and trailing only Aaron Donald among defensive tackles in PFF grade. He needs a little more help up front, and there are some weak links in the chain overall, but this is once again one of the better rosters in the league. The Bengals can contend for a Super Bowl title if Dalton repeats his 2015 performance -- and stays healthy.
The question of center needing to be upgraded is no real debate. However, I don't think it's fair to lump guys like Johnson in that group. It's been well documented how he played through multiple injuries last year and still was a solid starter. Just having him healthy should be a slight upgrade over what he was last year.
At wide receiver, the Bengals probably need a little more firepower after losing both Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones this offseason. However, Brandon LaFell has been a quality NFL receiver at times, so already saying he needs to be upgraded before he plays a single snap as a Bengal isn't really fair. Let's see what he looks like with the Bengals before we say that second boundary receiver spot needs to be upgraded.
As for Domata Peko, I think a case could be made that the Bengals don't need to upgrade the position as much as they need to not allow Peko to be on the field as much as he was in 2015. Peko is just too old and with a lot of tread on his tires to warrant playing 600-plus snaps per year. He's still got enough left in the tank to be a decent starter if he's only playing 300-400 snaps this year while younger guys like Andrew Billings, Brandon Thompson and DeShawn Williams get some run.
The same goes for Kirkpatrick, who could benefit from added rotation at cornerback. I thought he did enough last year to warrant being a starter in 2016, which is the final year of his rookie deal. But with Adam Jones, Darqueze Dennard and first-round rookie William Jackson III also at corner, it's easy to see how it may be possible to upgrade that second boundary corner spot in 2016.
All in all, the only starting spot that for sure needs to be upgraded is center. All of those other perceived areas of weakness can be addressed simply by playing the current starter less and giving more reps to younger and perhaps more talented options.
Of all the starting spots on the Bengals' roster, which ones do you think are in need of an upgrade this year?