State of the Team: Cincinnati Bengals
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that there are 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.
- Jury’s still out
- Just a guy
- Upgrade needed
- No longer on the team
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
The Bengals run a pretty conventional offense that, aside from A.J. Green, features pretty conventional players. With somewhat limited resources, Jay Gruden must deliberately manufacture yardage: he must constantly try to overwhelm a defense with things like formation wrinkles, rolled pockets, misdirection and other deception-based concepts. There’s nothing wrong with this approach –- it’s called "good coaching." But it’s important to understand that this offense, though not completely strapped for talent, is not good enough to simply line up and gash teams.
QB: Andy Dalton, Josh Johnson, John Skelton
RB: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman, Dan Herron, Chris Pressley (FB); Lost: Bernard Scott, Brian Leonard
Dalton had a lukewarm sophomore season. After turning the ball over too much in the first eight games, the Bengals scaled things back a bit and asked him to play more conservatively. Consequently, he protected the ball well but left a lot of plays on the field. There’s a fine line between playing judiciously and timidly, and it’s a line Dalton will have to tightrope his entire career. Average arm strength demands that Dalton be willing to pull the trigger on anticipation throws.
Green-Ellis is a very professional runner with limited explosiveness. He’ll gain the yards that are blocked, but if the Bengals want a truly high-impact ground game, they’ll have to find a quicker scatback to compliment the veteran.
WR: A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Andrew Hawkins, Marvin Jones, Brandon Tate
TE: Jermaine Gresham, Orson Charles
Green is special, and he needs more help around him to fully exploit that. It was remarkable how much attention opposing defenses gave him last season and how little attention they gave all of Cincy’s other wideouts. The imbalance in coverage faced between Green and his supporting cast last season was greater than anywhere else across the NFL, even including Chicago's one-man Brandon Marshall show. It was looking like that might change down the stretch, as Sanu was starting to come along before his season-ending foot injury. If he develops, the Bengals will have a solid possession-type No. 2. The coaching staff loves that Sanu can play outside and inside. This is what keeps him ahead of the more athletic, but less refined, Jones. Hawkins is a nice slot talent, but his lack of size requires his workload to be capped. At tight end, Gresham has the tools, but a poor understanding of how to use them. Focus and consistency are his bugaboos.
LT: Andrew Whitworth LG: Travelle Wharton C: Trevor Robinson RG: Kevin Zeitler RT: Anthony Collins
Backups: Clint Bolling, Kyle Cook; Lost: Andre Smith, Dennis Roland
Whitworth is either at the very bottom of the NFL’s "elite left tackle" list or the very top of the second tier. Wharton missed all of 2012 with a knee injury; if need be, the Bengals can once again survive with Boling at left guard. Robinson and Cook have been taking turns as the starting center. Robinson is younger and will have every chance to snag the job, but so far he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. Zeitler is not immune to mistakes, but consistently showed encouraging power as a playside run-blocker. Will that be the case again this year if the humongous Andre Smith is not beside him?
The Bengals defense gradually improved in 2012, finishing the season as one of the league’s top units. The four-man pass rush was lethargic early on, but coordinator Mike Zimmer did a tremendous job compensating with aggressive blitz packages. By midseason, with guys getting healthier, Cincy had one of the most dynamic front sevens in the league, which helped key many of Zimmer’s zone blitzes. Another improvement was the evolution of safety Reggie Nelson. His ability to make noise in the box offset a somewhat iffy linebacking corps and made this unit, as a whole, schematically complex.
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DE: Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Wallace Gilberry, Robert Geathers
DT: Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Devon Still, Brandon Thompson; Lost: Ma’ake Kemoeatu
If we’re calling J.J. Watt a defensive end, then Atkins is the best defensive tackle in all of football. It’s not even close. Outside, Johnson is a very good athlete, while Dunlap is a great athlete, and both are streaky players who can produce like stars. Inside, Peko allows all these stallions to thrive by taking up space and playing with great lateral strength. There is also good depth, especially after re-signing Gilberry. He's a productive veteran who can play inside or outside.
OLB: Vontaze Burfict, Dontay Moch, Emannuel Lamur, Aaron Maybin; Lost: Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson
ILB: Rey Maualuga, J.K. Schaffer; Lost: Dan Skuta
Moch is what everyone feared Burfict would be: a talented athlete who can’t get on the field. That has a chance to change this year, but it’s concerning that it didn’t change at all in 2011 or 2012. Burfict has turned out to be an outstanding college free agent signing. Improved physical conditioning allowed his superb athleticism to shine through. If he continues to hone his football IQ, he could become a star. Lamur is a lean, athletic No. 3 linebacker who surprised the team last season. Can he compete for a full-time role?
CB: Leon Hall, Terence Newman, Pac-Man Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Jason Allen; Lost: Nate Clements
S: Reggie Nelson, Taylor Mays, Jeromey Miles, George Iloka; Lost: Chris Crocker
Hall is very valuable because of his diverse cover skills. He can play man or zone both outside and in the slot. Kirkpatrick was a first-round pick who battled injuries throughout his non-impact rookie season. The Bengals hedged their bets on him by bringing back Newman and Jones, both of whom work well in Zimmer’s system. (Newman had very good game charting stats last season after being horrible in his last couple seasons in Dallas.) Allen has always been too finesse, but he’s able to play safety or corner, which is something this scheme really favors. Perhaps he can assume Clements’ sub-package duties. Nelson’s continually improving range and vociferousness in the box are vital to this defense. The stability he lends at safety is important considering his partner, the big-hitting Mays, lacks discipline. But Mays is a better fit for this scheme than critics give him credit for.
K: Mike Nugent P: Kevin Huber
It's been long enough that we don't have to make fun of Nugent for getting picked in the second round anymore. Huber was below average in 2010-2011, but very good in 2012.