Tuesday, March 6, 2012

NFL Offseason Preview -- Cincinnati Bengals

I couldn't find a picture of Marvin Lewis stupidly throwing a challenge flag, so I just went with one of him looking very confused. Sorry to disappoint...
Though the Super Bowl is over and games don’t begin until next fall, the NFL season never truly ends. In many ways, the “game” that goes on in between the games is just as important, if not more so, than what happens on the field. Here, in the offseason, is where the course of all 32 NFL franchises is determined. To highlight the importance of this period, and to take a peek at what each team is facing, I’ll be embarking on an ambitious series in which I briefly preview each team’s offseason. We’ll examine the major questions each team faces, what type of cap room they have, who they should be targeting in the draft, etc. My goal is to complete this prior to the start of free agency (March 13)…..which will likely not happen. Oh well.

We continue the previews with a team that feels far more comfortable at the beginning of the draft than the end of it, the Cincinnati Bengals. In case you missed them, here are links to each of our past previews:

*Cap figures are taken from South Florida Sun-Sentinel.  Estimated cap is $124 million.*

Cincinnati Bengals

2011 Record:  9-7
PPG For: 21.5 (18th)
PPG Against:  20.2 (9th)
2012 Cap Number:  $80,641,237
Draft Position:  #17 Pick and #21 pick

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way – Mike Brown has done an excellent job with this team. That’s right, I said it. Mike Brown, the guy who has unquestionably been the worst GM in the NFL since taking over two decades ago, has amassed what is arguably the best young foundation in the game. How else would you describe a young team that somehow made the playoffs in Year 1 of rebuilding?! That’s pretty darn impressive! While the 9 wins are a bit deceiving (no wins over fellow playoff teams), it must be pointed out that Cincinnati is rising at exactly the right time. With Peyton Manning’s health problems, the Steelers rapid aging and deterioration, and Tom Brady’s advancing age; the AFC hasn’t been this wide open in years. With a fistful of cap space, two first round picks, and a bunch of developing studs, the Bengals could easily make the leap from surprising, but somewhat fraudulent playoff team to true contender.

The Good: 

Did I mention the Bengals group of young studs yet? If not, let me mention them again.

Andy Dalton – While I will caution Bengals fans on their unrealistically high praise/expectations for Dalton, his impact as a rookie cannot be denied. The guy was put in a very difficult situation, what with the whole Carson Palmer thing looming, and responded big time in leading Cincinnati to the playoffs. Don’t forget, he did all this without the benefit of a full offseason.

A.J. Green – What is there to say about this guy that hasn’t already been said? It usually takes at least a year for guys to turn into true “go-to” players, but Green easily assumed that mantle from the moment he stepped foot on the field.

Jermaine Gresham – 56 catches and 6 touchdowns in his second season is already pretty good, but Gresham has the type of big time talent to push himself into the elite class of tight ends.

This list could go on and on with guys like Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Rey Maualuga and others. Point is, Cincinnati is loaded for the future. And they have two first round picks. And they have more than $40mil to spend in free agency.  

The Bad:

Look, I can sit here and nitpick about Cedric Benson being overrated and the team needing a minor upgrade here and there, or I can point out the obvious. The only thing that is going to screw up the Bengals is the Bengals. Mike Brown has had young talent in the past, and he’s proven time and time again to be far too incompetent to take advantage of it. This, in my opinion, is the most comprehensive group of assets he’s had, but I definitely don’t want to underestimate his ability to screw up. Another guy I wouldn’t want to underestimate is Marvin Lewis, who has proven to be one of the dumbest head coaches in the NFL. Anybody remember those idiotic challenges in the playoffs? So yeah, let’s see how well this organization handles success.

Key Free Agents:  RB Cedric Benson, WR Andre Caldwell, DT Jonathan Fanene, CB Kelly Jennings, CB Adam Jones, LB Manny Lawson, G Nate Livings, S Reggie Nelson, DE Frostee Rucker, WR Jerome Simpson, G Bobbie Williams

3 Key Questions:

#1 – Should they upgrade on Benson and Simpson?

First, let’s deal with Benson. He’s racked up three straight 1000 yard seasons, which sounds nice. Unfortunately, he’s needed an awful lot of carries to get those yards, and has exceeded 4.0 YPC just once in those three years. He’s also extremely limited in the passing game, which means he’s not usually on the field in third down situations. Football Outsiders DVOA rankings consistently place him in the lower rung of starting running backs, and Cincinnati would be wise to move on. Getting a more complete, explosive back could push the offense to another level and give Dalton a much more reliable safety valve should a play break down.

As for Simpson, I’m much more torn. Truthfully, the numbers don’t support retaining him. Amongst the 92 players who were targeted 50 times or more, Simpson ranked 64th in DVOA, and ranked even lower than that in catch rate (just 48% on 105 targets). The problem is he’s so darn explosive and talented that it’s hard to give up on him this soon. With A.J. Green drawing most of the attention, Simpson should see nothing but single coverage, which should turn into big play after big play. But it hasn’t. Perhaps if Simpson could find it in his heart to stop dealing drugs and spend more time working on football, he’d turn into the type of big play #2 receiver he should be.

#2 – What should Cincy do with all that money?

They have, by far, the most money to spend in free agency. While it’s more their style to pick up troubled and discarded talent off the scrap heap, Mike Brown needs to open up the check book and go hard after at least a couple guys.

A.) G Carl Nicks – I’ve mentioned Nicks’ name a couple times in these previews, and this is yet another place where he’d make sense. Cincy has a huge need at guard, and Nicks would be an amazing foundational piece for them. Again, the idea here would be to structure the deal so that the largest cap hits are at the beginning of the contract, giving the team enough flexibility to retain its young talent down the road.

B.) WR Mario Manningham – For starters, Manningham has almost assuredly dealt less drugs than Jerome Simpson. That alone makes him an upgrade.  And, of course, there’s also the fact that he’s a better player. Manningham wasn’t great last year (-4.2% DVOA, 51% catch rate), but a lot of that was due to injuries and the change in role due to Victor Cruz’s emergence. A better gauge of his ability as a #2 WR would be 2010, when Manningham posted 60 catches, 944 yards, and 9 TD’s (12.4% DVOA, 65% catch rate). With Green drawing most of the attention, and Jordan Shipley returning to man the slot, Manningham could have a field day with all the one-on-one downfield coverage he would see. (Robert Meacham would also be a solid option)

 C.) CB Brandon Carr – Leon Hall’s injury and Nate Clements age make CB a potential problem area if the breaks don’t go Cincinnati’s way. Instead of hoping everything turns out alright, Mike Brown would be wise to take a proactive approach to the situation and ink one of several young, talented #2 CB’s. Carr is my favorite of the group. He’s 26, he has excellent size, and he’s proven to be extremely consistent and reliable. Terrell Thomas would be another good signing, though there is definitely a some risk/reward involved with that.

D.) Promote Jay Gruden to Head Coach – No, seriously. Do it. Now.

#3 – Is Andy Dalton on the path to being elite, or is he the next Joe Flacco?

Nobody has the answer to this question right now, but it has to be brought up because it will be the single biggest factor in the team’s future development. Remember when Joe Flacco was a rookie, and we all marveled at how effective he was right out of the gate? Sure he had some things to work on, but there was no doubt he’d develop into a stud, right? Well…not so much. For comparisons sake, here are the numbers from both Flacco’s rookie season and Dalton’s rookie season.

QB Rating

I’ve brought this comparison up before because I wonder if Dalton is one of those guys who has already nearly maxed out his ability. I’m not saying he has. I’m just wondering. In Dalton’s defense, his rookie year DVOA was nearly 10% higher than Flacco’s, so maybe the comparison is totally invalid. All I’m saying is that Dalton’s development is THE thing to watch this year.

Draft Thoughts: 

With two picks in the first round (#17, #21), Cincinnati has a multitude of options to choose from. Let’s assume they keep both picks:

#17 – Even if they sign Nicks, I’d take either David Decastro or Cordy Glenn. The interior of the line was such a huge problem last year, and addressing it would provide a huge benefit to the offense. A sleeper option here would be Courtney Upshaw, who is apparently sliding down boards after a rough combine. DE isn’t a huge need or anything, but Robert Geathers isn’t getting any younger.

#21 – Janoris Jenkins, Janoris Jenkins, Janoris Jenkins. I’ve mentioned him about a million times in these previews, because he’s my favorite CB in the draft. And yes, that includes Morris Claiborne. If his personal baggage causes him to fall to #21, then I don’t know how the Bengals could pass on him. I mean, when have they EVER passed on someone with personal baggage?!

Here’s another option: Package the picks and get Trent Richardson. Cedric Benson is just not that good, and the Bengals offense needs a dynamic runner like Richardson to balance the attack. If he’s as good as advertised, then this team could be downright scary. (Please note: I’m very unsure of this strategy because drafting a RB so high scares the crap out of me.)

Yet another option: If neither Decastro or Glenn are available at #17, or if nobody is there for you at #21, trade out of the first round to get the RB you want and additional assets along with him. There are several intriguing prospects to be had the early part of the 2nd round or later, including David Wilson, LaMichael James, Lamar Miller, and Doug Martin. Do your scouting, figure out who you like, and make a play for him. Just an idea.

Summary Thoughts:

The distance between ‘good’ and ‘great’ is expansive in the world of sports, and Cincinnati is now faced with the task of bridging that expanse. The foundation is there, and the opportunity is definitely presenting itself. The first step comes this offseason, when Mike Brown can quiet the doubters by utilizing all that cap room he has amassed. If they can pull the right strings and bring along Dalton and the rest of the Baby Bengals, then this team could very well find themselves in the thick of things this coming year. Then again, knowing the Bengals, it’s probably more likely that Kimo von Oelhoffen slams his helmet into Dalton’s knee and A.J. Green changes his name to Uno-ocho.

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