So, what have the Bengals done this offseason? Not a lot. They signed Antonio Bryant, who had about as much production in 2009 as the receiver they let walk, Laveraneus Coles. Both have speed but were starting to slow down, and neither one has performed up to starting wideout standards. While the team of course has played that they are excited about the acquisition, it’s a wash. And that, my friend, is the Bengals offseason. Starting tight end Reggie Kelly remains a free agent, but it doesn’t appear that Cincinnati is pressed to make any more moves before the draft.
This kind of stability can be good for a team that has seen a lot of players come and go (they usually come back once the team posts their bail), but it doesn’t look like one ready to take a step forward in the AFC North. Then again, the Steelers have done little to improve their club (and have their own issues with Ben Roethlisberger to deal with), and the Cleveland Browns, for all their small moves here and there (adding Scott Fujita, Jake Delhomme, etc.) still look like they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The Ravens, one could argue, are the most improved team in the AFC North so far this offseason, with the additions of Donte Stallworth and Anquan Boldin. However, the losses of Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards make the defense that much weaker. Granted, there is a lot of time for these teams to still change, but the Bengals will clearly be looking to the draft.
I am still one of those fans who instinctively thinks of offense when I think of the Cincinnati Bengals (I also think of 6-10 records, but that is another issue), but it was their defense that took them to the playoffs last season. Their defense allowed just 18.2 points per game, good enough for 6th in the NFL and were 4th in yards allowed. Their rush and pass defense were both in the top 10 in the league in 2009 and they sport one of the better young cornerback groups in the league in Johnathan Joseph, Leon Hall, and Morgan Trent. This is the best secondary in the division, and it showed when Ravens receivers were systematically shut down in both of their matchups with the Bengals. Their linebacking corp is also terrifying, with USC products Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers alongside veteran Dhani Jones. However, despite the defense’s strength against the run and pass, they ranked in the bottom half of the league in sacks.
The offense was significantly less explosive when put side by side. Less than 20 points per game, with a healthy Carson Palmer throwing for just 3,000 yards en route to a mediocre 21-13 touchdown-interception ratio. This team was driven by a rejuvenated Cedric Benson, and their ability to succeed offensively will depend on his health and durability. It is clear that the offense will be an area of concern for the team moving forward into the draft.
This year, the Bengals sport two 3rd round picks and two 4th round picks to supplement their draft, and could have the ammunition to move up or stock up with role players. For an 10-6 division winner, they could be just a couple players on offense from taking a lasting seat at or near the top of the division for a long time. What could their needs be?
Tight End– Every quarterback loves a safety blanket, and Carson Palmer could use someone to take the pressure off of Chad Ochocinco. Jermaine Gresham isn’t a great blocker, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bengals pick him up with the 21st overall pick. Regardless, the fact that Reggie Kelly remains unsigned is a definite red flag that the Bengals will pick up a tight end somewhere in the first 3 rounds.
Wide Receiver– Can you believe that Chad Ochocinco is 32 years old? It seems like he has been waiting his whole career to either get out of Cincy or get a contending team there, and he is starting to lose some of his physical gifts. What was an incredibly talented unit a few years ago is now a group reminiscent of the Ravens of last year- a great but aging receiver and a host of also-rans. With the death of Chris Henry and losing T.J. Houshmanzadeh to free agency in 2009, this position will be a definite point of emphasis.
Safety– Cincinnati may have the best cornerback group in the division, but their safeties leave much to be desired. Roy Williams is and always will be a liability in coverage, and Chris Crocker does not have the instincts or athleticism to make up for it playing center field. Look for Cinci to possibly make a move for Taylor Mays in the first round or take another safety later on.