2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Mike Wilkening
The Bengals' defense of their 2009 AFC North title was a spectacular failure. They won four games in 2010, and as they tumbled from contention, speculation turned to head coach Marvin Lewis' future with the club. His contract was up, and it would have been no surprise if he and the Bengals parted ways.
However, Lewis and team president Mike Brown, after an end-of-season meeting, decided to stay the course. Lewis returns for a ninth season, and for an organization not prone to making sweeping changes, it appeared it largely would be business as usual for the Bengals in the offseason.
But the team was rocked by a trade demand from QB Carson Palmer, who then followed through on a threat to sit out rather than play for Cincinnati.
In the draft, the Bengals selected TCU QB Andy Dalton, who could replace Palmer, who seemed poised to sit out in 2011 as of this writing. The Bengals believe Dalton is an ideal fit to run new coordinator Jay Gruden's version of the West Coast offense. Former Raider Bruce Gradkowski provides a veteran option if Dalton falters.
One round before taking Dalton, the Bengals added Georgia WR A.J. Green, one of the top prospects at his position in recent memory. Green's arrival preceded the departure of Chad Ochocinco, who was traded to New England.
Palmer-to-Ochocinco helped define the most successful stretch for Cincinnati since 1990. Now, all eyes are on Dalton-to-Green.
Jay Gruden, who replaces Bob Bratkowski, will install his version of the West Coast offense. The Bengals attempted 618 passes and just 428 rushes last season. Considering the Bengals had about a 50-50 run-pass ratio when they won the division in 2009, it will be no surprise at all if they run more, especially with a rookie quarterback expected to be at the controls.
Quarterbacks: Rookie Andy Dalton likely looks to be the starter. He is a smart, instinctive passer who is best-suited for a West Coast scheme, where he can make a series of short, high-percentage throws, but he lacks arm strength and loses accuracy the further he has to throw. However, Dalton, who struggled somewhat during the preseason, has good poise. If he can correct some of his flaws and continue to improve, he could be a solid starter in this scheme. Ex-Raider Bruce Gradkowski is expected to back up Dalton and could spot-start if needed. Gradkowski can command a huddle and has some valuable starting experience to his credit, but he's on the short side for the position and lacks accuracy and arm strength. Dan LeFevour will compete to be the No. 3 quarterback. Arm strength is an issue for LeFevour. Carson Palmer, for the record, was placed on the reserve/did not report list on July 29. Owner Mike Brown has said the team will not trade Palmer, who likely would intrigue teams looking for a starting passer, even if he no longer is the elite talent he was before suffering several injuries in recent seasons.
Running backs: RB Cedric Benson is a rugged inside runner who has been everything the Bengals could have asked for from a productivity and dependability standpoint since joining the club in 2008. The 5-11, 227-pound Benson has a skill set ideal for a tough, cold-weather division. He is capable of carrying a heavy workload and can wear down a defense, but he lacks long speed and is not much of a factor in the passing game. Benson's off-field issues are also a concern. Bernard Scott is quicker, faster and more elusive than Benson but would be best sharing the work with another back. Third-down back Brian Leonard is a very good pass catcher but is not fast. Cedric Peerman is smart and fast but also on the small side for the position. Rookie Jay Finley is a fast perimeter runner who will vie for one of the last RB spots. Fui Vakapuna and Chris Pressley are the top competitors for what likely will be one fullback spot.
Receivers: WR A.J. Green has Pro Bowl-caliber talent and quickly could become one of the elite players at his position. Green possesses a rare combination of size and speed. He's a smooth route runner who can get deep and be dangerous after the catch. The sure-handed Green possesses a wide catching radius and will make his quarterback look good. He has just about everything you look for in the position. Jerome Simpson stepped into the lineup in place of the injured Chad Ochocinco late last season and flashed big-play potential. Simpson is a rangy, athletic, long-striding wideout who can be dangerous after the catch and an above-average red-zone target. However, he is still raw. Fellow fourth-year WR Andre Caldwell has more experience than Simpson but not as much upside. That said, he can be a solid complementary target. Slot receiver Jordan Shipley is quick and runs good routes but is slightly built and susceptible to taking some big hits working the middle of the field. TE Jermaine Gresham showed promise as a rookie and could take a step forward in his second season. He has the speed to stretch the seam but also has the movement skills to be effectively deployed on screens and shorter passes, where he has to be creative in space. Ex-Titan Bo Scaife suffered a shoulder injury in the third preseason game. If he's out for an extended period, Chase Coffman will be the No. 2 tight end. Reserve WR Quan Cosby's ticket to sticking on the roster will be special teams. Rookie Ryan Whalen will vie to make the club as a special-teamer and inside receiver. Terrell Owens, the club's leading receiver last season, won't be back.
Offensive linemen: OLT Andrew Whitworth emerged as one of the AFC's better left tackles in 2010 with a career-best season, one that was Pro Bowl worthy. Whitworth is a very good pass blocker. He allowed just 2½ sacks a season ago — a particularly impressive statistic, as the Bengals passed much more than they did in '09. He is also a solid run blocker. Whitworth is tough and technically sound and has the length and strength needed to hold pass rushers at bay. Nate Livings started all 16 games a season ago at left guard but eventually could be pushed by ex-Eagle Max Jean-Gilles. Livings has been solid in pass protection, but the Bengals struggled to run off left guard last season. Jean-Gilles has good size for the position but needs to keep his weight in check and improve his technique. C Kyle Cook has been a solid starter since entering the lineup in 2009. At 6-3 and 316 pounds, he has ideal size for dealing with some of the bigger defensive tackles in the division. ORG Bobbie Williams has been a reliable starter throughout his career in Cincinnati but will be 35 in September. Jean-Gilles could get a look at right guard, too. Rookie Clint Boling also could be in the mix at guard. He is smart but needs to be more physical. Boling also can play center. At right tackle, the Bengals hope to get a full, productive and promising season from 2009 No. 6 overall pick Andre Smith, who has been slowed by foot injuries throughout two NFL seasons and also has had issues with conditioning. One positive sign: Smith came to training camp in better shape this year. Nevertheless, if Smith cannot stay healthy, the Bengals could turn to Anthony Collins, who showed real promise earlier in his career, or Dennis Roland, who has significant starting experience at right tackle filling in for Smith but is not the natural talent Smith is. Second-year pro Reggie Stephens provides depth at center and guard. He has good size for an interior lineman and strong hands. Otis Hudson provides further depth inside.
The Bengals have finished in the top half of the league in yards allowed in each of Mike Zimmer's three seasons as defensive coordinator, but the defense took a step back in 2010 after a strong performance in '09. Cincinnati employs a 4-3 scheme up front and primarily plays zone coverage on the back end. The success of the defense in 2011 could ride on the pass rush and the continued development of some talented younger players.
Defensive linemen: DE Carlos Dunlap was the defense's breakout star of the second half of the season, as he notched 9½ sacks in the final eight games. The 6-6, 285-pound Dunlap has very good athleticism for his size and can be a very tough matchup for opposing tackles. To take the next step, he'll have to become an effective three-down player as opposed to just a rush specialist, and he must maintain good work habits. For now, Robert Geathers, a solid all-around end who is stout vs. the run but only an average pass rusher, will start ahead of him at left end. Third-year pro Michael Johnson, who has a chance to start at right end, has the raw talent to be a difference maker. Johnson can play end or strong-side linebacker. Frostee Rucker is another option at defensive end. Domata Peko, a stout run stuffer, is the Bengals' top defensive tackle. He's a tough-to-move force in the middle. Second-year DT Geno Atkins, who will start next to Peko, showed some intriguing pass-rush ability as a rookie and is a player to watch. He quickly gets upfield. Pat Sims, who showed improvement last season, is an intriguing player in the middle, Sims, like Peko, can occupy blockers and be very tough to dislodge from the middle of the line.
Linebackers: The Bengals are deep and talented at linebacker but have yet to see a blue-chip performer emerge at any of their LB spots. They have invested heavily at linebacker in recent seasons, drafting WLB Keith Rivers No. 1 in 2008 and MLB Rey Maualuga in the second round in '09. Rivers is smart and athletic but hasn't made many impact plays in three NFL seasons. Offseason wrist surgery kept him out of the beginning of camp. If Rivers can't go at the start of the season, which the team's website has suggested is a possibility, ex-Raider Thomas Howard and Brandon Johnson would be the primary options on the weak side. Howard runs and covers very well but is not especially physical. Johnson has played well in the Bengals' sub packages. Maualuga disappointed somewhat in his second NFL season but now moves back to the middle, where he starred at USC. Maualuga is instinctive and physical and could take a step forward moving back to his old position. Former 49ers OLB Manny Lawson seems likely to start on the strong side. Lawson, a former first-rounder, looks the part but hasn't quite put it all together. Reserve SLB Dontay Moch, a pass-rushing prospect, suffered a broken foot in the preseason opener at Detroit and could be out two months. Dan Skuta can play on the outside and also in the middle.
Defensive backs: CB Leon Hall is an above-average starter but a cut below the game's elite at his position. He is smart, athletic and instinctive but isn't exceptionally fast and had his struggles at times last season. Nevertheless, he is one of the division's best cornerbacks. Former 49ers CB Nate Clements will replace the departed Johnathan Joseph. Clements. who is best in zone coverage, has good size for the position. However, he will bite on double moves and can be too aggressive at times. Adam Jones, Morgan Trent, Brandon Ghee, and Jonathan Wade all provide further depth. Jones has retained enough of the rare athleticism and cover skills that made him such a highly touted prospect but needs to be more technically sound and might be best-suited in a No. 3 CB role. He missed training camp with a neck injury. Ghee is very talented but lacks experience. Trent is an intriguing size-speed prospect. Wade is fast and played relatively well when pressed into service after injuries hit the secondary last season. Rookie Korey Lindsay also could be in the mix at cornerback, with his ball skills being one of his primary assets. SS Chris Crocker is tough and versatile and fits the scheme well. He also can play free safety, but ex-Jaguar Reggie Nelson will start there this season. Nelson has good range, has shown he's willing to play with the requisite physicality and displayed potential in his first season with Cincinnati. Consistency is the key with Nelson. The safety depth is not strong. Jeromy Miles, ex-49er Taylor Mays and rookie Robert Sands will vie for reserve roles. Mays and Sands have upside to develop but neither is close to being a finished product.
Former Jets and Cardinals PK Mike Nugent rejuvenated his career with Cincinnati in 2010, hitting 15-of-19 field-goal attempts and averaging a career-best 63.3 yards on kickoffs before suffering a season-ending ACL tear in November. P Kevin Huber limited opponents to 26 returns out of 71 punts in 2010 and improved his net average to 38.2 yards compared to 36.3 as a rookie. He has a bright future. Quan Cosby, Adam Jones and Jordan Shipley can return punts. Jones, who also could be in the mix to return kickoffs along with Bernard Scott and Andre Caldwell, has home-run ability.
The Bengals' hopes of contending in 2011 will come down to their QB play. If Dalton thrives, the Bengals have the talent around him needed to be competitive in the North. If he struggles, they will be in a world of hurt in a tough division.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player ratings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.