After a surprising season in which the Cincinnati Bengals shocked the league, appearing in the playoffs when many predicted them to be competing for the first overall draft selection, the Bengals are a confounding team to project in 2012.
Granted, Andy Dalton and A.J. Green will continue to develop as a dynamic playmaking combination, but questions remain about Green’s supporting cast of receivers, holes in the secondary of their top-10 defense, and improvement in the offensive line.
If Marvin Lewis continues building upon the success with a roster full of his guys, look for a new contract
allowing his power within the organization to grow.
That, however, will be a tall order for a season in which the Bengals play the NFC East in addition to two matchups each against the Steelers and Ravens.
Who will help take the pressure off A.J. Green?
Although many pundits believe that the Bengals need to target free agent Braylon Edwards due to a largely unproven receiving corps, Cincinnati also ignored criticisms of building an offense around a rookie receiver in Green last season.
Many point to the loss of Jerome Simpson at wide receiver as a need to upgrade, but Simpson is a great player for SportsCenter highlights and a terrible player in regards to consistent production. Not to mention a four-game suspension to kick off the season.
The training camp battle to line up across from Green will be between Armon Binns, a former practice squad player who routinely impressed the coaching staff last season, and Brandon Tate, a smaller speed demon acquired off waivers from New England during last year’s cuts.
Tate never had a chance to learn the offense last season, being limited to kick and punt return duties, but has downfield threat potential. The Bengals would like to see him develop like another West Coast offense receiver, Jordy Nelson.
Binns is a precise route runner and technician of the position, but does not have the speed to beat a defense over the top. The pair could both see time to take advantage of vastly different skill sets, but if Tate’s chances of making the team might be dependent on whether he or Pacman Jones claim the punt return duties this season.
The elder statesman of the pass catchers is Jordan Shipley, although he truly only has one season of experience under his belt since he tore his ACL in the second game of 2011. He has recently been cleared to play, however, and should compete in camp to regain his old slot receiver position.
He will be pushed by third-round pick Mohamed Sanu, drafted out of Rutgers, who has a much larger frame to box out defenders and an exceptional catching radius to make targeting him easier on Dalton. Expect to see the two share time in the slot in a similar manner as Tate and Binns, with Sanu’s abilities being employed in the red zone to give Dalton another jump ball target outside of Green.
Drafting a “move” tight end, Orson Charles out of Georgia, along with the growing comfort of in-line tight end and Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham in Jay Gruden’s offense, will also help improve the red zone offense, as well, an area in which the Bengals struggled.
Marvin Jones, drafted out of California, brings polished route-running in the whole route tree from his time in Cal’s pro-style offense. He has better ability to work the sidelines on vertical throws than Tate and could blossom sooner than expected. A strong training camp from Jones could also spell trouble for Tate. His ability to return kicks could also help show Tate the door.
Gruden has never been afraid to rotate receivers situationally based on their strengths and weaknesses, so look for his ability to think outside the box to allow each to succeed in their own comfort zone. This will create room for Green to work and encourage Dalton from falling into the trap of locking onto one receiver, as he did last season after losing faith in Simpson.
Who will line up in the secondary in Week 1?
When cornerback Johnathan Joseph signed with the Texans, the Bengals had tried to retain him for his elite man coverage skills, but his durability issues over the years diminished their offer. Instead, they rewarded a favorite of coordinator Mike Zimmer, Leon Hall, with a new contract. The historically durable Hall tore his Achilles tendon against the Steelers in Week 10 and was lost for the season.
Hall has stated that he plans to be ready to go for training camp, but an Achilles injury severely hampers the ability to cut and change directions. Cincinnati had a tendency to give up big plays in the passing game without Hall and have tried to plan for the contingency that he will not be ready to play in Week 1.
Another holdover from last year, Nate Clements, is a physical corner that fits Zimmer’s scheme well but whose play fell off towards the end of last season. He will have to prove that age is not catching up with him. Clements will likely make the team if he proves he can start, his $4 million salary could be too large to place on the bench.
Although Zimmer has been high on new starting strong safety Taylor Mays since he was at USC, if he struggles in camp Clements could possibly be moved into that position. Zimmer made the same move with Chris Crocker, extending his career as his cover skills disappeared.
Pushing him will be Brandon Ghee, who has turned heads in practice and is a talented physical specimen. Ghee has been hampered by injuries since being drafted out of Wake Forest for his rare combination of size and athletic prowess. This is a prove-it year for Ghee, which is extra motivation for an eye-catching performance in camp.
As stated earlier, Pacman Jones will be fighting to make the team. He has played adequately in coverage and is a superior returner to Brandon Tate, but he will not make the final cuts unless he finally shows the ability to stay on the field. His tenure in Cincinnati has been largely on the sidelines. Chances are that he will get the ax due to his inconsistent play and not being one of Lewis’s “guys.”
The other wild card to push for serious playing time is Terence Newman, formerly of the Cowboys. He had an up and down year last season, often playing well but with a tendency to give up the big play. His best years were under Zimmer in Dallas and Zimmer thinks he can boost Newman’s play by fixing flaws in his technique.
The Bengals also signed Jason Allen, a former Texan who Joseph recommended to sign with Cincinnati. He inked a two-year deal and will likely hang around as a veteran backup.
Why wait this long to discuss first-round draft choice Dre Kirkpatrick? Zimmer plays a good deal of press-man coverage, an area in which Kirkpatrick excelled at Alabama. He played so much, in fact, that he has stated that he never backpedaled in coverage during his collegiate career. Zimmer likes to mix in zone and off-man coverage with his basic press-man, so look for Kirpatrick to be a situational player while he spends a year learning to expand his skill set.
Will the offensive line show significant improvement?
The men that make the offense move, the linemen, were not an effective unit last season. Cedric Benson is the type of back who will gain as much yardage as an offensive line gives him, though not much more, and last season he was not given much. Free agent signee BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a very similar player, albeit with much greater success in the red zone and better ball security.
The Bengals will finally employ a running back by committee this season to give more touches to dynamic backup Bernard Scott, an approach in which Benson clearly refused to participate. He not only complained publically, but also flipped off Gruden during an attempted substitution against the Titans.
Regardless, no running back will be successful without a productive offensive line. Their horrendous pass coverage allowed opposing defenses to drop extra men in coverage and still get pressure with four rushers. The Bengals allowed human turnstile Nate Livings to sign with Dallas and replaced him with former Panther Travelle Wharton, clearly an upgrade.
The team then spent a first round choice on guard Kevin Zeitler out of Wisconsin, a mauling right guard and heir apparent to long-time Bengal Bobbie Williams. Zeitler possesses better agility than Williams did as age caught up to him and will improve blocking in both phases from the right guard spot.
Andre Smith, a 2009 first-round selection, was thought to be a bust until his breakout 2011 campaign. After the Bengals declined to pick up an extension option on his contract, Smith showed up in shape for the first time to camp and showed why he was so dominant at Alabama.
Smith's bookend on the left side is Andrew Whitworth, graded by Pro Football Focus as one of the best left tackles in the game over the past three years. Whitworth had a subpar, for his standards, season in 2011 as he was hampered by a knee injury that robbed him of his ability to drive defenders in the run game and stand up to the bull rush when pass blocking.
He is reporting to camp at his lightest weight ever and claims to feel great, but will that help improve his power? Anthony Collins, a starting-caliber backup tackle, at least provides a safety net.
The “best shape of my life” phenomenon is often a harbinger of doom for a player. For many years Whitworth has been the Bengals' best and most consistent performer, and if he does not return to form then the Bengals are in for another subpar year rushing the ball.
For the Bengals to be successful, the team needs a more well-rounded offense, which all starts with Whit.