When looking at the personnel attrition of the Cincinnati Bengals during the past two offseasons, it’s hard to see exactly how the team has gotten better. After losing valuable players in free agency like Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, Marvin Jones, Reggie Nelson and Mohamed Sanu, some are wondering if the team is starting a mini-rebuild this year.
Though the Bengals were relatively inactive in outside free agency once again this offseason and are preferring to rely on the 11 draft picks they have accrued, head coach Marvin Lewis doesn’t believe this year’s team is in rebuild mode.
“It’s not rebuilding,” Lewis explained at the annual owner meetings in Phoenix, Arizona, via The Cincinnati Enquirer. “We’ve put the guys in place. We still have probably likely our three or four, five best players in the midpoint of their careers. Obviously, they have played a lot of football, but as I told them before I left this is going to become your football team.”
After seeing leaders and long-standing veteran mainstays leave, be it by their own volition or not, this team now belongs to the big names the Bengals netted in the 2010 and 2011 NFL Drafts. Lewis hinted that it’s time for guys like Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, A.J. Green and Andy Dalton to truly take the reins of the team, now that guys like Whitworth and Domata Peko—who have long been looked at as locker room leaders—have left.
“I talked to the guys in January that this is where we were,” Lewis said. “That the football team was going to have a different landscape.”
Rightfully so, Lewis didn’t compare this year’s transition to the major overhaul that took place back in 2011. Aside from having many of the team’s stars locked up long-term, being set at quarterback and there being less of a “me-first” atmosphere with this current team, Lewis noted that getting drastically younger in a short period of time is simply the nature of the NFL.
“We got younger on the roster (in 2011),” Lewis continued. “We went from the youngest team in the NFL to one of the older teams very quickly. That’s what happens. That’s the hardest thing on coaches when you subtract veteran players from the position groups, position coaches job to bring on the next players. That’s what it is. That’s part of the process.”
In terms of getting younger, the amount of success the Bengals experience in 2017 will largely hinge on Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher. The Bengals’ two top picks in the 2015 class are penciled in to be the starters at left and right tackle, respectively, and they’ll need to show great improvement if the Bengals wants a playoff-caliber offense this year.
“We just have the belief in the two young guys at tackle,” Lewis said. “Thought that was the best thing to bring Andre (Smith) back and have the opportunity at guard to see what happens. Eventually, we are going to get the best five guys out there anyway. We want to have a starting point.”
While grabbing Smith back from the Vikings in free agency was a decent get, he has never played guard in the NFL, saddling the offensive line with even another type of inexperience with that of Ogbuehi and Fisher. When asked about an AJ McCarron trade possibly netting an experienced offensive tackle, Lewis tersely responded with “never thought of that”. He also claimed no one has called to make an offer for McCarron.
“AJ McCarron is a valuable member of our football team,” Lewis said via Bengals.com. “No one has asked to trade him. We’re not going to go out and seek a trade for AJ McCarron. He’s a valuable member of the team. We’ve said that how many times?”
While the NFL is cyclical, in terms of roster turnover, and Lewis does have a point in the team finally relying on promising youngsters, they haven’t done themselves many favors when it comes to free agency supplementation. While primarily relying on the draft and focusing inwardly in March worked well for the team from 2011-2014, it has begun to backfire over the past two offseasons and partially led to the six-win campaign last year.
Once the summer months hit, we’ll get a better grasp on if this team is in for more growing pains this year, or if some of the disappointments from the past few draft classes begin to step up and Lewis’ perceived confidence is validated. It’s also imperative that the Bengals add quality, immediate-producing talent with a good chunk of their 11 picks next month.