by Greg DePalma, Ourlads.com contributor
2016 (6-9-1)…Did not qualify for post-season for the first time since 2010.
Owner/GM Mike Brown…Became the sole owner in 1991 when his father and Hall of Fame Coach Paul Brown passed away; Paul Brown founded the franchise in 1968; Mike Brown relinquished day-to-day control to his daughter Katie Blackburn and Coach Marvin Lewis in 2014.
Executive VP Katie Blackburn…Mike Brown’s daughter has been working with the organization since 1991; only woman in the NFL involved in contract negotiations; has been running the organization since 2014.
Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin…Hired in 1999; the ‘real’ general manager for the Bengals who also oversees their draft; his father was the GM at Indianapolis and Chicago.
HC Marvin Lewis…15th-year; first-time HC on any level; second longest tenured HC in the league (Bill Belichick); has made seven trips to the post-season including four division titles without a win; former Ravens DC who won SB in 2001; Idaho State Grad.
OC Ken Zampese…2nd-year; hired in 2003 as QB coach when Lewis took over and remained in the position until last season; his father Ernie was a 36-year NFL coach; San Diego Grad.
DC Paul Guenther…4th-year; replaced Mike Zimmer before the 2014 season; with the organization since 2005; coached with Lewis in Washington for one season.
LB Jim Haslett…2nd-year; former Saints HC for six seasons; DC for four separate teams during his coaching career, most recently with Washington in 2014.
RB Joe Mixon
WR Josh Malone
WR John Ross
OL Andre Smith
DE Jordan Willis
DT Ryan Glasgow
LB Carl Lawson
LB Kevin Minter
PK Jake Elliott
RB Rex Burkhead
OG Kevin Zeitler
OT Andrew Whitworth
DE Margus Hunt
DT Domata Peko
LB Karlos Dansby
LB Rey Maualuga
QB…Andy Dalton has been a solid regular season performer over his six-year career with the Bengals, posting a .615 win percentage over 91 career starts while completing 62% of his passes for an 89.1 rating. Unfortunately for Dalton his post-season accomplishments have not been on par. Over four winless playoff games he’s only completing 55% with one TD and six picks for a 57.8 rating. I think it’s becoming clear that if Dalton’s going to be able to make a deep playoff run he’s going to need a lot more help from his teammates. Former Alabama record-holder AJ McCarron is considered one of the top young backups in the league. The Bengals won’t let him go cheaply and nor should they. Even though it’s unlikely, if Dalton suffered an injury for several games this season and McCarron were to prove he’s starting material the Bengals could decide to move on from Dalton after the season and save millions. But if McCarron continues to rot on the bench in a league desperate for talent at the most important position in football, it’s just a matter of time before a team gives the Bengals the compensation their looking for. McCarron is a two-time national champion who performed well over his first four pro starts in 2015 when Dalton was sidelined with a thumb injury. McCarron led the Bengals to a 2-1 record down the stretch including a 66.4 completion percentage while throwing six TDs and only two interceptions for a 97.1 rating. Even more impressive was his first-career playoff start against the division rival Steelers when he directed a late TD drive with under two minutes remaining that gave Cincinnati a one-point lead. Pittsburgh would go on to kick a game-winning field goal with 14 seconds left for the win, but McCarron showed a ton of moxie for a second-year player and deserves an opportunity to lead his own team one day.
RB…Jeremy Hill will be given one more chance to revert back to his rookie form or he’ll be playing elsewhere next season.
Even though Giovani Bernard has returned earlier than expected following a torn ACL last November, he can’t be counted on as a major contributor. That’s why the Bengals selected another running back in the second-round when they added the much maligned Joe Mixon from Oklahoma. Early reports are very promising in camp and while there’s no denying his electric skill set it’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll be able to stay out of trouble again. If he does, Mixon has a great opportunity to take over as the primary rusher as early as September.
TE…Tyler Eifert has All-Pro ability when he’s healthy. Unfortunately he’s missed 27 of 64 regular season games since turning pro in 2013. Last season he was placed on IR after back surgery in late December. With one more year left on his rookie deal he needs to produce for a full season or all bets are off. A pair of 2015 draft picks are still developing behind Eifert in Tyler Kroft (3rd-round) and CJ Uzomah (5th-round). Kroft has the biggest upside based on his pass catching ability, but a knee injury early last season blew any chance he had of taking over a larger role with the offense. If anything happens to Eifert again, Kroft must be able to seize the opportunity if he’s to live up to his draft status.
WR…Brandon Lafell is coming off the second-most productive season of his seven-year career and is a reliable veteran. He was the team’s top wide-out last season when star AJ Green missed six games with a hamstring injury. Green is still a major force in the league and can make a world of difference with all the new team speed added at this position during the draft. Tyler Boyd was selected in the second-round last season to replace Mohamed Sanu from the slot. He had a solid rookie campaign that included 54 receptions. But with a pair of faster rookies added to the roster in April Boyd’s going to have to keep growing if he wants the production to continue. Cody Core is another second-year player who needs a big preseason to stave off the competition. He wasn’t nearly as productive as Boyd, but he’s fast and can stretch defenses which makes his role on the team much different than that of Boyd’s. Rookie first-round pick John Ross is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery so there’s no way to know what kind of an impact he’ll have in year-one. If he does get an opportunity with his 4.2 speed he can be an immediate help. Fellow rookie Josh Malone is another speedy downfield threat who adds good depth to a position that was thin last season.
OL…With top lineman like Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler exiting in the off-season, this position group becomes the team’s biggest question mark heading into the new season. That means it’s time for a pair of top 2015 draft picks to take a major step forward in left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi (first-round) and right tackle Jake Fisher (second-round). Neither player has proven themselves at this point, but if the Bengals offense is to make big strides this season they’ll need their third-year bookends to play an important part. The interior of the line has a more veteran presence with center Russell Bodine being flanked by guards Clint Boling and Andre Smith. Smith returns to the team that drafted him in 2009 after playing a season in Minnesota. All three players are ordinary talents which emphasizes the importance of the two young tackles. The player who has the best chance to push his way into the starting lineup is second-year guard Christian Westerman. Westerman has all the physical tools you want from the position and if he has a good camp he might very well pass Smith on the depth chart. Smith’s injury history also comes into play which could open the door a bit wider for Westerman. 12-year vet Eric Winston is the team’s most reliable backup while rookie JJ Dielman’s versatility could make him a valuable three-for-one player.
DL…The Bengals are led up-front by a pair of elite players in tackle Geno Atkins and left-end Carlos Dunlap. It’s a good thing too because the rest of the rotation has questions. Nine-year vet Pat Sims might start by default alongside Atkins at tackle unless rookie Ryan Glasgow can steal away the position in camp. Glasgow has the talent to make it a reality, but will he be able earn the trust of the coaching staff in time for Week 1. Fellow tackle Andrew Billings is also in the running, but he’s coming off a serious knee injury last season and can’t be counted on just yet. At right-end, Michael Johnson was downright awful last season and it appears father time may have caught up to him which is why another rookie, Jordan Willis, could also fight his way into the starting lineup. Will Clarke, who registered four sacks last season and newly acquired Chris Smith will compete for meaningful snaps as well.
LB…The Bengals just got a lot deeper at this position thanks to adding Kevin Minter in free agency, drafting Carl Lawson (4th-round) and Jordan Evans (6th-round) and signing rookie free agents Brandon Bell and Hardy Nickerson Jr. Minter will be an upgrade inside over the inadequate Rey Maualuga even though he’ll need to learn how to play in a 4-3 base for the first time as a pro. But he’s a good leader for the position and has top coverage skills. The additional depth will be a big help since Vontaze Burfict, the straw that stirs this group, has missed 22 games the past three seasons combined. Vincent Rey is an unheralded, durable player who can be relied upon to line up anywhere the Bengals need him. They’re also holding out hope that Marquise Flowers can make a difference as a hybrid after playing safety at Arizona State. Flowers has just one start since entering the league in 2014. Nick Vigil was taken in the third-round last year and might be ready to take a big step forward after only playing 111 snaps. The real excitement for this unit though lay with the rookies and it starts with Lawson. Lawson slid in the draft due to an injury history at Auburn, but he’s here to apply an outside pass-rush presence the team sorely needs. Meanwhile, Bell and Nickerson Jr. are trying to follow in the same footsteps as Burfict who went undrafted when he came into the league five years ago. If they make the team they’ll most likely earn their chops on special teams like Vigil did a year ago.
DB…Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick and Josh Shaw form a solid trio at corner, but the Bengals secondary can really use a top-tier player there. They haven’t been lucky so far by using first-round picks recently with Darqueze Dennard looking like a 2014 bust and last year’s top-pick William Jackson III missing all season with a torn pectoral injury suffered in camp last August. Unlike Dennard though there’s still a great deal of hope that Jackson will be a major contributor. Bene’ Benwikere has fallen fast after a promising start to his career in Carolina three years ago. Now he’s trying to resurrect his career with a third team since being released last October. If he’s looking for a resurrection he might have come to the right place. Like the corners on this team, starting safeties George Iloka and Shawn Williams are respectable players, but aren’t feared, and there’s no adequate depth besides Derron Smith, who’s been mainly a special teamer during his first two seasons. If anything were to happen to Iloka or Williams the Bengals would have some issues.
Former Lou Groza award winning place-kicker Randy Bullock is on his fifth-team in six years since turning pro. He was signed last December to replace the disappointing Mike Nugent and will battle rookie fifth-round pick Jake Elliott in camp. Kick-returner Alex Erickson is coming off an excellent first season and will have his hands full holding off several rookie newcomers for the position.
After missing the post-season for the first time in seven years, many expected the time was right for a coaching change. But Lewis doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon and now with a fresh exciting rookie class added to the roster maybe the Bengals can return to the playoffs and attempt to actually win a game. The talent is definitely here and better than last season, but it’s always a wild-card when relying on young players in this league and only time will tell if and when they can make a major difference.