It feels like an eternity has passed, but Week 1 of the 2016 regular season is here! I’m ecstatic and I’m sure all of the Bengals and Cincy Jungle faithful are as well. I couldn’t picture a more perfect opening day either. September 11th, in New York, on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. I don’t think there has been a more impactful Bengals opener in some time. That said, I fully expect Cincinnati to be leaving New York with a victory and these are the five players I’ll be intently watching most closely...
1.) Andy Dalton
It’s an easy choice to pick the quarterback, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong choice. Dalton is coming off of the best season of his career by far. He was efficient, poised, dynamic, and the consummate field general in 2016. This preseason was more of the same as he didn’t have a bad showing. But this time it’s for real, and with such a high profile game (as high profile as a 1:00 p.m. game can be) it’s a good test to see if the 2016 Andy was a short peak in his career or the new normal. I’m among those who believes it’s the latter, and that Dalton has developed into the star quarterback the team believed he could be in 2011. Am I right? Time will tell.
2.) Dre Kirkpatrick
I’ve repeatedly called Kirkpatrick the most consistently inconsistent cornerback in the NFL. I don’t know many guys who can get beat on a double move by a reserve wide receiver one week, then essentially shut down Antonio Brown the next week. Such is the life of this Alabama product who happens to be playing in a contract year. There’s a lot of pride (and money) on the line for the 26-year-old defensive back. He needs to take that next step in showing that he can be a legit corner all the time, and not a liability depending on the week. If he can do that, I’d expect the Bengals to give him a nice pay day. If not, Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson III are likely waiting to see him out the door.
3.) Cedric Ogbuehi
With the departure of Andre Smith to the Vikings, it’s time to see how last year’s first round pick will pan out. While he’s more naturally suited to a left tackle spot, Ogbuehi is just too talented to keep off the field this year (yet not talented enough to unseat All-Pro Andrew Whitworth). Despite suffering a preseason toe injury, the former Texas A&M star is ready to suit up and hopefully put on a show. I don’t expect him to be dominant, as his brief preseason play showed indecisiveness in spades, but I want to see how quickly he adapts to the NFL game as a starter. For Big Ced, I don’t think it’s a question of if he can become a dominant NFL lineman, but rather how quickly. He clearly needs reps and Paul Alexander is making sure he gets plenty.
4.) Shawn Williams
A former third round draft choice out of Georgia, Williams is looking to slide into a role previously occupied by now Raider Reggie Nelson. Those are big shoes to fill, especially after Nelson led the league in interceptions last season with 8. However, Paul Guenther and the rest of the Cincinnati defensive staff absolutely believe that it’s Williams’ time to take over a starting job. My reason for selecting Shawn is that he didn’t exactly have a great preseason. He found himself out of position multiple times, giving up valuable yardage in the process. As a player Williams has made a name for himself to date by coming up with a few remarkably big plays, such as the game changing interception at Pittsburgh last season. But a season isn’t won with just a few big plays, and consistency is going to be the key as to if Williams will be successful or not. A lot of the team’s success this season will hinge on him playing well.
5.) Karlos Dansby
One of the long-standing issues with the Cincinnati Bengals has been the inability to cover the tight end. Well Bengals fans, Karlos Dansby could be the savior your coverage was looking for. Even at age 34, Dansby has hardly lost a step, and pass coverage continues to be one of the highlights of his game. I already know that Dansby is a quality player, but I’m really interested to see how he could change the dynamic of the Bengals defense over the course of 60 minutes. In an era where teams are passing the ball at record highs, and nickel is the new base defense, a player like Dansby is invaluable. I really think Dansby is going to be an asset in third down situations especially, taking away a lot of the safety blanket options that quarterbacks are often hoping to find in medium to short situations. Paul Guenther’s defensive mantra has long been to be a bend but not break team. But with Dansby aiding an already solid core defense, the Bengals might not be doing all that much bending in 2016.