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Bengals mailbag: Post-injury Andy Dalton and a free agent wide receiver to consider

The Bengals are undoubtedly looking to improve in multiple ways after a 6-9-1 season, but is a potentially washed-up receiver the answer?

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One of the most fun segments we conduct on The Orange and Black Insider podcast is answering listener questions. A lot of interest recently has surrounded NFL Draft prospects and who the team could land at No. 9, as well as the level of activity the Bengals will engage in this offseason.

We answered a handful of questions this week, ranging from the possibility of LSU running back Leonard Fournette as a possible Bengals pick, to the team grabbing another veteran rental deal with another wide receiver. And, no Cincinnati offseason would be complete without more questions about Andy Dalton.

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When it comes to offensive struggles, critics readily point to the quarterback as the scapegoat. Right or wrong, Dalton is one of the national media’s targets in their criticism of the Bengals’ underachieving offense in 2016.

In 2015, the Bengals’ signal-caller was en route to a possible NFL MVP nod. With all of his weapons on-the-field and his second year in Hue Jackson’s system, Dalton looked like a top-five quarterback in the league.

Then Week 14 happened.

In what would become a critical contest on so many levels, Dalton broke the thumb on his throwing hand while attempting a tackle on Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt after throwing a rare end zone interception. It would be the last pass he would throw the entire season, and it subsequently led to more familiar postseason heartbreak.

This week, we were asked if Dalton’s thumb injury was a reason for the decline in his stats and thus, wins, from 2015 to 2016. There is no doubt most athletes physically recover from their ailments—especially with today’s medicine. However, some pro players just can’t mentally recover, wondering when the next big injury will come their way.

Casual NFL fans will see the paltry 18 touchdown passes and go back to their convenient 2011-2014 narrative of the Bengals quarterback However, when you look at the loss of Tyler Eifert for eight games and A.J. Green for essentially seven, while also working through the growing pains of four new receivers, Dalton deserves some praise. Especially when he committed the fewest turnovers through a full season in his career.

As Scott Schultze and I noted on this week’s show, we didn’t want to wholly exclude the idea of a gun-shy Dalton who didn’t want to re-injure his thumb. However, we felt that if this was indeed a contributing factor to the offensive struggles and the team’s 6-9-1 record, it fell way down the totem pole, in terms of big-picture issues.

The injuries to two of the team’s major stars on that side of the ball was a big one, as was the acclimation to new faces, the offensive line’s lack of pass protection had to be up there as well. Right tackle was a mess, regardless of who was in the lineup, while even the most steady linemen, Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, weren’t without their hiccups. Throw in a rookie offensive coordinator replacing one who was known as one of the most creative minds in Jackson and you have the makings of a perfect storm.

I haven’t been the most ardent Dalton supporter, but there are statistical areas to note in 2016, even with the chaos around him. Have a look:

Career-bests: Completions (364), Interception percentage (1.4%), Long pass (86-yard touchdown).

Statistical second-bests in his career: Interceptions thrown (eight), passing yards (4,206), passing yards per game (262.2), plays of 20-plus yards (53), plays of 40-plus yards (13), average yards per pass (7.3), pass attempts (563), passer rating (91.8).

We all know Dalton needs surrounding help, but we also can see a player who has improved over the past two seasons. If we’re keeping tabs, I don’t see the thumb injury as a lingering issue as the real problem was the erosion of play around him.

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Some folks get sick of questions on if the team should sign a high-profile player who recently was released from their former team, but personally, I enjoy them. This is a fan base starved for Cincinnati to make significant free agent moves to prove they aren’t the embodiment of the image they have often projected as an uber-frugal team.

Given the offensive struggles of the team and the turmoil at the wide receiver position, the once-productive Victor Cruz has provided interesting conversation amongst Cincinnati circles. Three recent productive seasons with the Giants makes him an intriguing player, as does his experience as a champion in Super Bowl XLVI.

However, the last time Cruz had anything resembling a season worth respecting was back in 2013. Injuries suffered by Cruz and the emergence of Odell Beckham, Jr. and Sterling Shepard made Cruz expendable in The Big Apple, especially considering the large salary he was earning.

Shepard slid into Cruz’s old slot receiver role last year, while the veteran moved outside opposite of Beckham, Jr. It didn’t seem to be the best of fits for Cruz, as he managed just 39 catches for 586 yards and one touchdown in 15 games in 2016. His lofty contract with New York also led them to cut the cord.

When looking at Cruz, it has to be concerning to the Bengals that his recent lack of production has hit in recent years. Cruz’s injuries in the coinciding time also has to be a concern, especially when the team was hit by the injury bug so hard last year.

It’s his fit as a slot receiver and mediocre results as an outside guy that makes it a misfit in Cincinnati. The Bengals already have an able an emerging slot guy in Tyler Boyd, and it’s the other outside spot that Cincinnati needs to lock down. Whether it’s in the draft or free agency, the Bengals need a viable outside threat opposite of Green. Cruz just doesn’t seem to be that type of weapon for Cincinnati.

You can join us live every week here at Cincy Jungle or on our YouTube channel. Additionally, you can download our material on iTunes and SoundCloud, or reach us on Twitter @BengalsOBI or via email at theobinsider@gmail.com. Thanks for listening!