The Cincinnati Bengals are on the cusp of being one of the NFL’s best teams. They remind me a lot of the Houston Texans in terms of being a team that I think could really break out. They have an outstanding defense, outstanding coaching, and a young nucleus of players that appears to be mature well beyond their years. This is a team that finished in second place in the AFC North, and saw breakout seasons from A.J. Green and Geno Atkins on both sides of the ball. They have a nice mix of veterans and youth, and if you ask me they are only a few pieces away from a potential big time playoff run.
Dare I say it, the Bengals are the biggest sleeper Super Bowl contender coming out of the AFC in 2013.
Here are my top needs for this talented young team, in no particular order.
1. Running Back
BenJarvus Green-Ellis was solid for the Bengals this past year, but nothing spectacular. He found a way to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark at under four yards per carry, and he finished the season with six rushing touchdowns. Behind him, though, the Bengals had absolutely nothing. This is a team with not many needs, and I could see them feeling like they have the luxury to go after an elite back in this year’s draft, and then add another one later on. They don’t have a lot of pressing needs for starters, like I said, and their running back rotation is a definite weakness in my opinion. Brian Leonard and Bernard Scott are free agents.
Here are some of the Bengals’ impending free agents at the linebacker positions: Rey Maualuga, Manny Lawson, Thomas Howard, and Dan Skuta. I’m not sure how many of these guys the Bengals will be bringing back, to be honest with you. Michael Johnson and Andre Smith are BIG free agents for this team, and they will obviously be given top priority. The good news is, the Bengals have some guys waiting in the wings at the LB position, but they could still use a premium draft pick on the position this year. Former third round pick Dontay Moch–who has incredible speed and athletic ability–is waiting to take over Manny Lawson’s spot in the starting lineup should he depart, but who will take over for Rey Maualuga? There are some who think that Maualuga is an overrated player, but he was still second on the team with 122 tackles. Undrafted linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who was a huge steal for the Bengals, led the team with 127.
3. Defensive End
Interestingly enough, the Bengals have a starting defensive line rotation made up entirely of home-grown players. Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Domata Peko are still under contract, but star pass rusher Michael Johnson is set to hit unrestricted free agency. You have to think the Bengals are going to look to make re-signing him a huge priority this offseason. Aside from him, Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry are free agents, and the only other backup to speak of is former Atlanta first round bust Jamaal Anderson. This will be a position the Bengals look at in 2013.
4. Special Teamers
The Bengals’ special teams situation is in a bit of a shambles. Punter Kevin Huber, kicker Mike Nugent, long snapper Clark Harris, and return specialists Pacman Jones and Brandon Tate are all set to hit free agency. Cincinnati, we have a problem. Consistency is really important on special teams in the NFL, and the Bengals have a pretty good unit here. It will be important for them to keep this crew in-tact, but if they are unable to, I think this will be a huge priority on draft day.
**Re-signed P Kevin Huber**
5. Strong Safety
Chris Crocker is a free agent, and Taylor Mays has been a bust thus far in his NFL career. Despite his excellent athletic ability, Mays has been unable to earn a starting job in the league for a consistent period of time. The Bengals do have former fifth round pick Robert Sands waiting in the wings, but there’s also a reason why he hasn’t been able to get on the field much. He may grow into a starting role, but I think this is a position of priority for the Bengals.
6. Backup Quarterback
Even though Andy Dalton appears to be the starter for the foreseeable future, the Bengals’ backup QB situation is unsettling. Bruce Gradkowski is a free agent, and likely knows his role in the NFL at this point. I am sure he’ll be re-signed, but if not, this will be a position for the Bengals to address. Keep an eye on what they do with this situation.
7. Right Tackle
I don’t foresee this being a problem, but the Bengals have to re-sign Andre Smith, their starting right tackle. Franchise tag at worst.