While a major part of the Cincinnati Bengals’ formula in getting back to the postseason this offseason is the draft additions and new faces from free agency, it also centers around some veterans playing up to snuff. Be it from injuries or simple underachievement, one of the major keys is to either get rebound seasons from some veterans, or finally receiving the payoff hoped for since these players were drafted.
Here are seven critical veterans slated for significant roles in 2017 who need to show improvement this season to help the Bengals’ chances of returning to the playoffs.
Cedric Ogbuehi, offensive tackle: This year’s Bengals team may live or die by the two offensive tackle positions. In his first full year as a starter, Ogbuehi struggled mightily as the team’s right tackle. Footwork and overall strength were two areas in which he was failing in 2016, and was placed on the bench as the year wore on.
He’s now switching to the left side, and to his credit, he seems to be taking this offseason and his workouts very seriously. Still, he had struggles at left tackle at Texas A&M at times and he’s taking over for the great Andrew Whitworth after a season in which the entire line struggled.
Jake Fisher, offensive tackle: Ogbuehi’s 2015 NFL Draft classmate hasn’t had any more success either. Fisher has the inside track on the starting right tackle gig, as he’ll team up with Andre Smith at right guard, who manned the Fisher’s proposed position for seven seasons. The Bengals have attempted to get cute at times with Fisher, playing him as a jumbo tackle and even lining him up as an H-Back as a rookie, but none of it has really worked.
The running game battled consistency issues in 2016, so Fisher and Smith will need to be a big power duo to pave lanes for the trio of Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. Like with Ogbuehi, Fisher will need to play above-average football this year if Andy Dalton is going to be able to properly use all of his offensive toys.
Tyler Eifert, tight end: Are you surprised to see a Pro Bowl starter on the list? By now, I think we all know the issues with Eifert reside in his inability to stay healthy. Eifert has missed 28 games in his four-year career (including the postseason), and is currently coming off of offseason back surgery.
When he’s out on the field, he consistently takes attention away from A.J. Green and is a monster in the red zone. With some deficiencies on the offensive line, Dalton will need to get the ball out quickly. Eifert and all of the receiving options have to be at full-go for this offense to be at a playoff-caliber level.
Did we also mention the long-term effects here? Eifert is in a contract year, and while the Bengals would like to give him an extension, it will be a tricky one because of his injury-littered career, with great production and huge gaps of missed time.
Darqueze Dennard, cornerback: Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick are set as the starters, with Dennard likely getting the inside track as the team’s slot corner. Dennard has been another recent first-round disappointment for the club, both because of injuries and the inability to be a solid top-three corner on the team.
He will have a lot of competition from his position group this year, as William Jackson III is returning, Josh Shaw has proven he can man the slot and Bene Benwikere has newly joined the roster. With the Bengals playing against great offenses like the Steelers (twice), Packers, Lions, and others, having multiple able-coverage guys is a must. A possible suspension might also be looming for Jones, so Dennard’s role might increase even further for a period of time.
Michael Johnson, defensive end: The veteran defensive end has been a staple of some of the best defenses under Marvin Lewis. Whether it was in his 11.5 sacks in 2012, or his consistently-unheralded prowess as a run-stopper, or in batting passes down at the line, he has shown different forms of value to the team.
Still, Cincinnati needs more pass-rush ability, and Johnson’s average of 4.9 sacks per season in his career will need a jump if he is to rightfully receive significant snaps again in 2017 (and we still suspect he is). The Bengals drafted two talented pass-rushers in Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson a month ago, but there will be growing pains there—especially with Lawson’s transition to outside linebacker—so Johnson will need to be more of a consistent threat to opposing quarterbacks.
Russell Bodine, center: Fans’ favorite whipping boy has actually improved in his three seasons as a starter, even if marginally, and Bodine has also been very durable. But, with Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler leaving in free agency, the spotlight on the team’s center will be brighter—especially as he also looks for his next contract.
If the tackles struggle early on, the middle of the line will need to be stout for Dalton to be able to step into the pocket. Clint Boling is also coming back from injury, so Bodine’s role as a leader on the line has also grown in 2017.
Vincent Rey, linebacker: If you weren’t surprised about Eifert being on this list, maybe seeing Rey on here will shock you. The veteran linebacker is a pretty good player, who provides both versatility and locker room stability. As of now, he seems to be flanking Kevin Minter as the starting strong side linebacker, with Paul Guenther also mixing in guys like Lawson and Nick Vigil in packages.
Rey has flashed some nice plays over the years, but he sometimes struggles in coverage, and even when he’s in the right place, he has had a penchant for dropping big interception opportunities. Really, Rey’s place on this list is more about making the big play when given the chance and not giving guys like Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford extra chances to make plays.