While so many things felt different for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2015, the end of the season had a familiar sting. Once again, the team has a pick in the early-to-mid 20's in the first round of the draft (24th to be exact), while also positioning themselves as a franchise aiming for an inward focus toward free agency next month.
It's difficult to point out the areas for improvement on a team that netted 12 wins and very nearly their first playoff victory in 25 years, but if you're not looking to get better, you're getting worse. The Cincinnati have one of the most well-rounded rosters in the league, so pointing out major areas of weakness, particularly with their starters, becomes a difficult task.
Bengals Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin already towed the company line in a recent interview by saying the team will once again primarily focus on re-signing their own impending free agents, so most fans shouldn't get their hopes up for the big splashes other teams make. Our own muertasdeatenas laid out some nice outside options in free agency, centering around realistic and affordable options for the team, and now we're exploring which positions are in most need of replacements or depth.
Defensive End/Edge Players:
Premium position: First of all, no matter how good a team's defensive line is, getting players who can get to the passer is always a hot commodity. The Bengals regularly utilize an edge or "'tweener" player, especially given Marvin Lewis' history with the creation of the legendary Ravens' defense of the late-1990s/early-2000s, but he has yet to find a player like Peter Boulware in the traditional 4-3 defense the Bengals employ. They've tried with guys like David Pollack and Dontay Moch over the years, but Lewis hasn't found the quick-twitch, smaller complement to the giant defensive ends they've preferred over the years. If that isn't the route they want to go with once again in 2016, that's fine, but getting another guy who can regularly get to the passer will make this good defense even more formidable.
Replacing Players and Replenishing the Rotation: Wallace Gilberry is an impending free agent and while the team and most fans appreciate the four years and 17 quarterback sacks he has provided since 2012, he's 31-years-old and coming off two consecutive years with three sacks combined. The trait Gilberry had that the Bengals loved was versatility, especially with his ability to rush from the interior of the line at times. While the team might want to go with the known commodity in Gilberry, getting a younger and more athletic player to fill a similar role could continue the defensive dominance up front and might be even more beneficial.
Expectation: The Draft.
Getting younger and more athletic: It's so weird to say the defensive line, perhaps the strongest unit on the 2015 Bengals team, needs upgrading, but it seems like that's the case for a variety of reasons. Free agency, age and the always-lingering issue of injury make the group susceptible to a decline. Give veteran Domata Peko credit, who, after much criticism, had arguably the best season of his career with five sacks at the other defensive tackle position opposite Geno Atkins.
There are a number of options for the Bengals to pursue, both rookie and veteran, for another rotational player opposite Atkins, and another big body to disrupt opposing offenses. Complicating matters is Pat Sims' impending free agency. Sims is a guy the Bengals like as a rotato, but he might be low down the totem pole of priorities for the team because of Atkins, but the future is now.
Expectation: The Draft.
Shoring up depth: Say as much as you'd like about the limitations of Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur, but they have had some solid contributions for the team over the past few years. Both are set to hit the open market, and while they might not have great appeal to other teams, they seem to have good fits on the Bengals' defense. If one or both leave, major holes would appear on the positional depth chart, especially with Vontaze Burfict staring at a three-game suspension to start the 2016 season.
Marquis Flowers looks to be back from Injured Reserve and the hope is that P.J. Dawson will have a bigger role this year to help the group. However, increased athleticism and a possible three-down player in a position group that might only have one in Burfict, could push this defense into the truly elite category.
Expectation: Signing internal and external free agents, and/or the draft.
Free agency and contingency plans: If I'm the Bengals, I'm continuing the strategy to make Andy Dalton as comfortable as possible and doing so by re-signing both Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones this offseason. Both seem to want to come back, even if Jones says he won't give a "hometown discount", but even the frugal Bengals need to watch the salary cap with so many high-profile players set to hit the market.
If Sanu and/or Jones end up chasing the money, the team will need to re-invest some relatively heavy resources in the wide receiver position. When they were revamping the position group in 2011-2012, Sanu and Jones were brought into the fold via the 2012 draft class in the third and fifth rounds, respectively, and it was believed both would be solid contributors in the rebuilding effort Marvin Lewis was overseeing. Both have proved to be valuable for their respective skill sets and keeping the band together has to be of utmost importance this offseason.
If the Bengals can't keep one or both, this deep team might look to draft a wide receiver early in the draft. Some think Ohio State's project player Braxton Miller is the answer, but that might be a reach, while others think Baylor wideout Corey Coleman in the first round would be a great complement to A.J. Green for a cheaper price than what might be expected of Jones. If they can't get the core group together, the continued plan of surrounding Dalton with talented offensive players should be the game plan going forward.
Expectation: Attempt to re-sign internal veterans and use high draft picks if unable to.
Losing starters: One would be hard-pressed to find a better safety tandem than the Bengals' Reggie Nelson and George Iloka since 2014. Cincinnati's defense took a step back in 2014, but their saving grace was the play of their secondary, particularly that of Iloka, who had a breakout campaign in his first full year as a starter. Nelson, on the other hand, made his first Pro Bowl this year after plucking eight interceptions and positioning himself for a big contract in 2016, despite his age.
Much like how Cincinnati has dealt with the offensive tackle situation with the drafting of two players at the position in the first two rounds last year, they have chipped away at the impending attrition of the group with the additions of Shawn Williams, Derron Smith and Josh Shaw. Will they roll the dice and allow one or both of their starters to walk to allow the promising youngsters to step in, or will they go the familiar route of retaining productive players who they know what they have in?
Expectation: Internal re-signing and late-round picks.
Interior Offensive Line:
Admitting a mistake and continued versatility: Most Bengals fans feel Russell Bodine isn't the answer at center for the team going forward, but he still has his limited spurts of dominance. Meanwhile, Clint Boling signed a four-year deal last offseason, but Kevin Zeitler is entering the exercised fifth-year option of his rookie deal. With Andre Smith seeming to be on the outs and Eric Winston also an impending free agent, more able bodies are wanted along the line.
Yes, both Winston and Smith are tackles, but a trait the Bengals love out of their offensive linemen is versatility. Whether it's a tackle who can kick inside to guard and/or center who can swing to guard, offensive line coach Paul Alexander likes the big guys who can play multiple positions. Given the stubborn nature of the Bengals' coaching staff, we don't expect any major moves here.
Expectation: Late-round draft picks and/or undrafted free agents.