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Bengals Mailbag: Teryl Austin’s defense, kick returners and re-signing linemen

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What’s ahead for the Bengals amidst some change and how are they preparing for it with the 2018 season ahead?

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Whether it was via email, Twitter or on The Orange and Black Insider Bengals podcast, we keep receiving interesting questions from our readers and listeners. The latest crop revolves around some new coaches, old faces on the offensive line and possibilities for the 2018 kick return game.

You can submit your questions live on every OBI episode, tweet @CincyJungle and/or @CJAnthonyCUI, or send them via email to bengalanthony@gmail.com. Thanks for your engagement!

Should the Bengals re-sign Russell Bodine and Andre Smith this offseason? If so, what are the benefits?

These two players have two possible different routes with the Bengals, should they return, and the answers to each also differ. Before we dive into each of these though, it’s obvious that Cincinnati’s offensive line needs major help this year.

For Bodine, nearly every Bengals fan and other pundits can see that the team needs some sound improvement at the position. Really, the only positives we can dig up about big No. 61 is some very marginal signs of improvement (which have even been inconsistent), while also being very durable, as he’s started every pro game he has suited up for.

That shouldn’t be enough for a guy to keep his starting job, though, right? After all, it isn’t just those who closely follow the Bengals who see the issues—it’s there on the national level as well.

Yet, despite the obvious shortcomings, the Bengals’ brain trust sounds like they are committed to re-signing Bodine this offseason. And, new offensive line coach, Frank Pollack, recently called him “impressive” when asked about the team’s center.

SB Nation’s Rebecca Toback is in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine and was present for Duke Tobin’s interview with the media. Of course, Bodine was the subject of questioning, in which Tobin complimented the center’s aforementioned ability to stay healthy.

“As Pete Brown used to say, the best ability is availability and he’s been available to us for sure,” Duke Tobin said of Bodine on Wednesday. “That’s valuable. We pay these guys to play and he’s done that. “I think different coaches have different philosophies. And with some coaches those philosophies run through with certain players.”

Bodine’s future not only hinges on Lewis and the front office seeming to like him, but also in the amount of belief they have in Pollack’s ability to get more out of him. Obviously, he helped build one of the league’s best lines in Dallas, but his coaching ability will truly be tested if the Bengals mostly stick with the same guys they had when the line was a mess in 2017.

So, if we’re to believe those aforementioned comments, while expecting more of the same internally-focused free agency approach, Cincinnati will probably re-sign Bodine. The question is if they will actually have him compete for a starting job, or if he’ll simply be given the center spot once again.

Unfortunately, the Marvin Lewis regime has been marked with allowing some incumbent veterans to maintain their positions without any real challenging from younger players who appear to have bigger upside. Despite the pointing to vague “changes” in Lewis coming back in 2018, this preferential treatment of veterans could carry over to the center spot.

Smith is another topic. I think the general consensus is that it’s fine if the team signs him for depth as a backup guy at guard or tackle, but that should be the ceiling of a new contract. At this point in his career, Smith should be considered an emergency starter because of a little bit of declining ability and continuing injury issues.

He should especially be retained as a veteran presence if the Bengals’ plan is to continue to lean on Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher as starters once again in 2018. The Frank Pollack effect I mentioned above obviously plays a factor here as well.

I think that if the Bengals are committed to Bodine in the middle, then they need to really build up the line around him—and that potentially includes replacing Ogbuehi and/or Fisher with new players. The same could be said about Bodine, if their commitment is to the tackle duo.

Simply put, I don’t think Lewis, Andy Dalton and Bill Lazor can afford to have the trio of Ogbuehi, Fisher and Bodine all start once again in 2018, given what we’ve seen from the three. Even more simply put, I expect both Bodine and Smith to be with the Bengals in 2018.

As for potential benefits in re-signing both Bodine and Smith? I guess band-aids, of some form, for a poor offensive line that is facing even more attrition and turnover for the second consecutive offseason.

What should we expect from Teryl Austin’s new defense?

Hopefully, aggressiveness and more turnovers. Cincinnati’s defense made an improvement in getting to the quarterback in 2017 from the previous year, but the strip-sacks and other forced fumbles came at a premium. Interceptions weren’t as much of a problem, though the defense only ranked 20th overall in that category.

The other thing I think we will see is less of the old Bengals way of attempting to fit round pegs into square holes. Shortly after his hiring, Austin said he would use his players in ways that best fit their respective strengths.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is what talked about above with the offensive linemen in the regard of preferring lesser-producing veterans in certain spots. The Bengals could use help on the defensive line, be it a big tackle next to Geno Atkins to rotate in with Andrew Billings and Ryan Glasgow, and linebacker could use also use an influx of physicality and athleticism.

Tobin said that Carl Lawson’s rookie year earned him an expanded role for 2018, but we don’t know the future of William Jackson after an outstanding, albeit limited 2017 role. If Austin deems him worthy of starting at corner, will Lewis and/or Mike Brown usurp the decision by continuing to give the nod to Dre Kirkpatrick or Adam Jones?

I think who the Bengals bring in this offseason on defense will help us properly answer this question. We’ve talked about how the Bengals need to find an identity this season and if Cincinnati grabs one of the better linebackers in the draft, we’ll get an idea as to how Austin wants to build his unit.

If you’re wondering about my overall opinion on the Austin hire, I like it a lot. I think Paul Guenther’s approach became stale and there were noticeable dips in certain aspects of the unit that were not visible under Mike Zimmer’s watch.

And, hey—we probably won’t be seeing defensive ends drop into coverage anymore. That’s a positive, right?

Do the Bengals need to make a change at kick returner?

Alex Erickson had an outstanding rookie season on kickoff returns after becoming the team’s hero during the 2016 preseason. His pedestrian ways on punt returns continued in 2017, while his kickoff return prowess dipped as well.

Adam Jones still has some flash, but he’ll be 35 at the beginning of the season and ended last year on Injured Reserve. So, should the Bengals be looking for an adequate replacement?

Kickoff returns have become a little bit of a moot point, as recent league rules have made touchbacks much more frequent. So, there’s an argument to be made that grabbing a new returner, especially with a draft pick, isn’t necessary.

Then there’s the route of who’s already on the roster. Last year, the Bengals’ draft class had a lot of flash in John Ross, Joe Mixon and Josh Malone. Only Mixon had a big impact on offense, but both he and Ross were potent kick returners in college.

Ross had kickoff returns all four years he was at Washington and had four touchdowns, while Mixon had one of his own in his final year at Oklahoma. These are guys who are just plain exciting with the football in their hands.

But, the injury risk, right?

For the most part, I abhor this argument. You draft guys who can help your team, and if they can’t see the field in their main position, why not find creative ways to get the ball in their hands?

Still, not convinced? Ask the Saints about their former No. 2 overall pick Reggie Bush, or the Eagles and first round receiver DeSean Jackson? Creative teams with innovative coaches use their best players in a variety of ways.

Anyway, the Bengals have options already on the roster—both safe and steady, as well as explosive and risky. In coming off of two straight losing seasons and wasting a No. 9 overall pick’s rookie year, they should explore every viable option.

If you’re unable to join us live here at Cincy Jungle or YouTube every episode, all Orange and Black Insider content is available here on CJ, as well as on our SoundCloud and YouTube channels, and on iTunes! You can tweet us@BengalsOBI or get in touch with us via email at theobinsider@gmail.com. Thanks for listening!