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Bengals mailbag: Defensive coordinator options, Tyler Eifert’s future and QB preferences

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On this week’s Orange and Black Insider we were asked a couple of interesting questions now that the Bengals are in somewhat of a state of transition in 2018?

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The Cincinnati Bengals are in the midst of something we can possibly “quasi-change”. Marvin Lewis surprisingly signed a two-year contract immediately following the end of the 2018 season, yet there has been a bit of a shakeup among the assistant ranks.

Regardless, there are still massive questions with this year’s Bengals team. Whether it’s in those changes, or what the team will do with their roster in the coming spring months, people are anxious to see just how Cincinnati plans to rebound from two straight losing seasons.

Whether it’s in receiving questions on The Orange and Black Insider podcast, or getting reader questions through Twitter and Facebook, fans are desperately trying to cling to positivity right now. Here are some of the topics we received this week.

Who should replace Paul Guenther at defensive coordinator?

Guenther has moved on from Cincinnati to take the defensive coordinator gig with the Raiders under Jon Gruden. Guenther did a decent job with the Bengals’ defense, especially considering the immense shoes Mike Zimmer left, but they never seemed to be a complete group from 2014-2017.

If they forced turnovers, they couldn’t get to the passer and vice-versa. If they could get to the passer, they couldn’t stop the run (see 2017). Injuries played a role in these ups-and-downs, but there still is a slight sense of underachievement from the unit who always seemed to finish in the top-five in all categories under Zimmer.

So far, the team has a couple of in-house options with secondary coach Kevin Coyle and linebackers coach, Jim Haslett. Both have previous NFL experience at the job, with the latter also having been a head coach in the league.

But, it’s been quiet on the promote-from-within route, as the team’s only interview that has been made public has gone to Detroit’s Teryl Austin. He comes with his own ups and downs, though he only had superstar tackle, Ndamukong Suh, for just one season under his watch. Detroit did block him from an interview for the Packers’ defensive coordinator position, so they value him to some degree.

Outside of Austin, some of the popular names among Bengals fans include Jack Del Rio, John Fox and a few others. Lewis has great personal relationships with both men, particularly Fox, with whom he’s gone on USO tours with in the past.

It won’t be Haslett, as it’s known he’s returning to the linebacker position group, nor do I think Coyle will get the gig, but Austin’s interview speaks volumes. Fox’s future is up in the air, as he is 62 years old and coming off of heart surgery a few years ago. As of now, I’d say Austin is the front-runner, with Del Rio and Fox lingering in the background because of their connections to Lewis.

What should the plan be with Tyler Eifert?

There are some players whose talent level are off of the charts, but for one reason or another, untapped potential continues to frustrate a team and its fans. Whether it’s in legal troubles, injuries, a lack of effort and/or a team under-utilizing said player, many issues can derail even the most promising of sports careers.

For Eifert, his NFL issue is solely in his inability to stay healthy. When he is available and used as the primary tight end, he’s a Pro Bowler and a top-five tight end in the game. Unfortunately that “when” should more properly be labeled as an “if”.

Eifert has played in 41 total games in five seasons (including the postseason), posting 20 touchdowns in the span. Since his being drafted back in 2013, he’s missed more than half of games he could have been eligible in (83) with 42, has landed on Injured Reserve twice (2014 and 2017), and has started another season on the PUP List (2016).

In one of Lewis’ first interviews since re-signing a deal to remain the Bengals’ head coach, he gave a lukewarm answer, in terms of the team’s desire to retain Eifert.

“Yeah, the club would obviously like to re-sign Tyler [Eifert]. We have always made a great attempt to re-sign our good players,” said Lewis to Dan Hoard of Bengals.com. “Obviously, Tyler’s career is not what he wanted, or what we expected. He has had some injuries he has continually had to overcome, and he is fighting back from some this year.”

Hm.

For anyone who has any kind of reasonable understanding of football and its financial side of things, two types of contracts should be what the Bengals offer Eifert this offseason. The first is, of course, the franchise tag.

Last year, the salary and cap hit for tight ends was $9.78 million. The 2018 figure seems to be a bit higher than that, and while the risk is high for a guy who has missed so many games, a high-monetary, one-year bet on him brings uneasiness, but with a team who continually has available cap space, it’s a luxury they can afford.

Obviously, the more desirable option would be to sign him to a long-term contract that is lucrative, but only if Eifert hits certain escalators. Because of his talent, he may not accept an incentive-laden deal, especially if another team comes knocking with a safer deal for him.

And, as we all know, sometimes availability trumps any other athletic asset. Just ask Tyler Kroft and his 2017 campaign.

After being somewhat of a disappointment in his first two seasons, Kroft stepped up in a big way in 2017. He had 42 catches (23 of which went for first downs), 404 yards and seven touchdown grabs. This was all in an offense that lacked sizzle throughout 2017.

This is what is making the Eifert decision a little bit tougher. If we are to believe that the Bengals are going to be more proactive/productive in outside free agency this year, perhaps they feel that another cheaper option in the draft is the way to go.

Eifert has also undergone procedures during this past season. It’s not just an injury that shelved him, but it’s the recovery process that the Bengals need to monitor. Anyone who has had back troubles knows how those issues can linger.

I think most Bengals fans would like to see Eifert return to Cincinnati next year. However, it has to make sense for both sides and the Bengals need to be sure they can count on No. 85 for at least a majority of the length of whatever contract he signs.

Do we really want Andy Dalton back as the team’s starting quarterback in 2018?

Sam Ainger hit me up on Facebook asking this question and I think it’s apropos (as almost every piece of Dalton discussion is this time of year). Because of Dalton’s life on the fringe of NFL franchise quarterback-dom, questions continue to arise every offseason following a winless playoff stretch.

Those questions have grown louder in the wake of two straight losing seasons, including some signs of regression by No. 14. Are those criticisms warranted, though?

Even with many players leaving in free agency, Dalton has netted 43 touchdowns against 20 interceptions over the past two years. The 2016 season netted 4,206 passing yards, good for second-best in Bengals history (behind his own 2013 season), yet 2017 brought something different.

His 3,320 yards this past season was the second-lowest in his career, only to his shortened 2015 MVP-like season, when he essentially missed four entire games. And, he had his second-best single-season passer rating in 2016 at 91.8, but his third-worst in 2017 at 86.6.

So, where to go at the position from here?

With Lewis and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor returning, common sense tells us that Dalton is the guy for at least 2018. Even though a good portion of the coaching staff is being re-employed, Lewis and Mike Brown likely want to see what Dalton can do with an entire offseason under Lazor’s tutelage.

There are many folks in Dalton’s corner, and rightfully so, because of his working through four coordinators in his seven accrued seasons and his charitable efforts. He also hasn’t had a consistent running game since he’s been an NFL starter and the offensive line was a shambles in 2017.

Of course, there is the minor contingent of Bengals fans who would like to see AJ McCarron start for the team. It’s an interesting proposition, given McCarron’s near-win in the postseason against the Steelers a couple of years ago, and his three NCAA Championship rings, but is he the answer?

To me, McCarron is a lot like Dalton and that’s why they’ve hung on to him. The error the Bengals have made with AJ isn’t in his lack of playing time, but their reluctance to deal him for lucrative trade offers. Regardless of what happens with his arbitration this February, Dalton will be ahead of him on the Bengals’ depth chart this coming year.

But, oh, this 2018 class of quarterbacks.

Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Heisman Trophy winner, Baker Mayfield, will all be ripe for the picking in April. And, with the Bengals selecting at No. 12, a couple of those guys should be available, if they want to pounce.

Brown has done it a couple of times with his eyes on David Klingler being the heir apparent to Boomer Esiason, and then Akili Smith as the remedy to Klinger’s flopping. Oops.

By now, we know who Dalton is as an NFL quarterback. He averages 9.3 wins, 24 touchdowns, 12.3 interceptions and about 3,648 yards per season, with an 88.7 rating. Unfortunately, he’s also 0-4 in the postseason.

While this 2017 class is loaded at the position, if the Bengals feel that they need to move on from the Dalton era, they need to be sure they have their hands on a transcendent talent. If there’s one thing Lewis has done in his tenure, it’s in his solidifying of a position that was an utter mess since the days of Sam Wyche.

Complicating things is the “out” the Bengals have in Dalton’s already-team-friendly contract. Cincinnati could bail on Dalton with just a $2.4 million dead cap hit, as opposed to the $14-$18 million range throughout the previous years of his deal.

For reference, the No. 10 overall pick from last year, Patrick Mahomes, had a $2.98 million cap hit in his first year. “Things that make you go ‘hmmmm....’”.

It’s hard because we love Dalton the man, but only like Dalton the NFL quarterback. Part of me really wants to see the Bengals groom a guy they think can lead the team in the future while learning under Dalton, but the other part of me really wants to see “The Red Rifle” win one for The Queen City.

Maybe that’s where we can actually put ourselves in the old man’s shoes and understand the human side of such a cutthroat business. Then again, maybe a 2003-like Palmer/Jon Kitna mentorship scenario this year is the best way to go.

We’ll see.

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