As the constant barrage of bloviating on ESPN and NFL Network make absolutely obvious, there is no offseason in professional football. Free agency is set to kick off in March, the draft is in April, and some notable gridiron star will be sure to commit a felonious act or embroil himself in a PED scandal come May or June. With that in mind, we’ve pooled a few of our esteemed Bengals writers and pontificators to set the table for this offseason and shed some insight on how the team should approach the 2013 slate. Our roundtable of colleagues includes: native Brit and blog stalwart Ben Bergin, blog contributors Matt Pentz (of the Longview Daily News) and Adam Flango (of CBS Sports), and the dynamic duo of Josh Kirkendall and Anthony Cosenza from the venerated Cincy Jungle blog of SB Nation. Are you ready for some football soothsaying?
What position should the Bengals be most concerned about upgrading this offseason?
Flango: For me, it’s running back. A 1,094-yard season may seem good on paper; after all, it was tied for 12th-most in the NFL. But you know what would have been better than 1,094 yards? 1,400 yards. Or even 1,300 yards. Or really any number over 1,094, which is what the Bengals could have had with an above-average running back. According to Football Outsiders, BenJarvus Green-Ellis totaled a whopping 7 yards above a replacement player (DYAR). That’s a significant drop from his 2012 totals and statistically represents the decline in production that was evident throughout the season. The Bengals have an offensive line that’s built for running the football, but need a running back that is able to hit the hole quickly.
Pentz: Running back. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a solid enough back with an endearingly complicated name, don’t get me wrong, but he isn’t exactly explosive. There are already enough “serviceable” skill position guys—looking at you, Andy Dalton—the franchise is committed to. The defense remains one of the team’s strengths. It is the offense holding the Bengals back from being considered a true contender. Adding a home run threat to the backfield could change that.
Kirkendall: There are enough holes on the defensive front, at linebacker and defensive end, largely because many of those that played in 2012 will enter free agency. So first the Bengals really need to sign the free agents that they want to keep, adjusting into the mindset of upgrading respective positions afterwards, especially in the secondary where the team needs a starting safety alongside Reggie Nelson and some stability at cornerback opposite Leon Hall. Will Dre Kirkpatrick be ready after having an offseason procedure on his knee? Can the team re-sign Adam Jones, or do they need to re-sign older veterans like Terence Newman and Nate Clements?
Bergin: Linebacker. Manny Lawson has been solid but not special and Rey Maualuga looks as though he may be moving on to pastures new. That leaves the only two Bengals LBs who’ve taken significant snaps as Thomas Howard (fresh of knee surgery) and Vontaze Burfict (nobody is exactly sure which linebacker position he’ll end up playing). With few stellar FA linebackers out there (it’d be nice to steal Ellerbe from the Ravens, wouldn’t it?) the Bengals need to be wise with their moves, and use the draft too.
Cosenza: I think the linebacking corps as a whole needs addressing. With Rey Maualuga, Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson entering free agency, at least two starting spots on the unit are open. It appears that Vontaze Burfict might be moving from the weakside linebacker position to the middle as a replacement for Maualuga, so that would leave vacancies at the two spots flanking him. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that the team makes a push to re-sign Howard and drafts either Alec Ogletree out of Georgia or Arthur Brown out of Kansas State.
Who is the most important free agent for the team to re-sign?
Pentz: Andre Smith. If bringing in a talented skill guy is a way to take the offense to the next level, undercutting the foundation up front is the way to see it plunge into the below average category. Executing the complex offense of “Let A.J. Green chase down deep balls” requires giving him enough time to get down field. And following my brilliant plan of throwing money at a top running back makes little sense if you let your best run-blocker walk.
Flango: Moobs aside, Andre Smith has been a solid right tackle for the Bengals and I think he still has room to grow (figuratively, of course) as a player. I am a firm believer in continuity breeding success on the offensive line. It’s a different position than skill positions in that you have to be able to communicate quickly and clearly to one another, and one blown assignment on the line blows up the play quicker than any other position can. If A.J. Green runs a fade instead of a hitch, Andy Dalton still has other options on the play. If an offensive lineman blows his assignment, there is rarely someone there to bail him out. And beyond that, Dalton is progressing, albeit at a modest rate, but a change to a key position on the line is a surefire way to halt that progression and hinder his development.
Cosenza: I think that Michael Johnson is the top priority for the team to retain. Most would probably disagree with me and say Andre Smith, but Johnson had a monster year and has seemingly gotten better every year that he has been in the league. Furthermore, the strength of the Bengals team in 2012 was their defensive line and the pressure they were able to get on the quarterback. Aside from Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson was the biggest part of the success of the defense with his 11.5 sacks. Why Johnson over Smith? Frankly, Johnson has proven to be a more reliable player on and off of the field, on capacities ranging from injury issues to questionable off-field actions. I’m more comfortable giving Johnson a big payday than Smith because of that.
Which free agent is worthy of being overpaid?
Bergin: Because of the paucity of LBs in the FA market, I’m tempted to say Howard if he’s healthy. However, I’m going to go a little rogue and pick Kevin Huber to be overpaid. The Bengals have so much cash to play with that penny-pinching on a specialist position is simply bad business. Huber has developed into an elite punter and wasting a draft pick or finding an unreliable free agent for the sake of skimping on the position is inadvisable.
Flango: Andre Smith should be paid like a starting right tackle, but if he demands to be paid like an elite tackle, then there’s a problem. Now I don’t like the idea of overpaying any player; that’s how you turn into the Raiders. But if the Bengals are going to make it rain a little more for one guy, which they can afford to do with roughly $50 million in cap space, I think the money should be spent on Adam Jones. (See what I did there?) It came down to Terrence Newman or Jones for me and Jones is five years younger than Newman. His return skills are still there and he is able to handle physical play. It may seem crazy to even suggest it, but Jones outplayed his one-year, $950,000 contract and deserves a pay increase. Even with a healthy Dre Kirkpatrick waiting to see more action, I think the Bengals would be wise to keep Jones around.
Kirkendall: Ideally, teams pay players what they feel that they’re worth prior to negotiations entered by multiple teams. So if the Bengals can seal Andre Smith and Michael Johnson to long-term deals right now, the contract would be less without other teams forcing Cincinnati into a bidding war. Unfortunately we don’t see that happening before the start of free agency with either, because these guys are young enough to really score big and have agents whispering things like this in their ears. Cincinnati will probably use the franchise tag, but it depends on whom they feel is closer to signing while the other presumably reaches the overpaid territory or, God forbid, an area completely unreachable.
Should the team invest in Mike Nugent or Josh Brown as the kicker for next year?
Cosenza: In comparing the resumes of Mike Nugent and Josh Brown, and given Brown’s late-season heroics, I think that that the Bengals should re-sign Brown. Nugent’s injuries in two of the past three seasons are a concern, as is his accuracy on longer kicks in comparison to Brown. I think from a consistency standpoint, Josh Brown is the safer choice moving forward.
Pentz: It all comes down to the price tag. For me, kickers are like closers in baseball—yes, it’s a welcome boost to have a reliable one, but the cost often outweighs the benefit. Money spent chasing a top shelf kicker is almost always better spent elsewhere. Nugent, Brown, or other? I vote for the least expensive option.
Kirkendall: Before Josh Brown, the craze in our post-Shayne Graham world was Mike Nugent. Then Nugent, on a franchise contract, suffers a season-ending injury and Brown comes along and drills every field goal, save for an insane 56-yard attempt at a stadium that rarely experiences anything over 50. That being said, I believe that the team would be wise to sign both and make both kickers battle it out during training camp to find the better fit. No matter who wins, though, I feel relatively comfortable with either guy.
Who do you see as a potential dark horse or the most undervalued of the team’s impending free agents?
Kirkendall: Adam Jones. With the attention clearly focused on Andre Smith and Michael Johnson, we can’t forget about Jones, who is a tremendous contributor not only as a third cornerback on a defense that lined up in a five-DB formation over 50 percent of the time, but a play-maker on punt returns as well.
Flango: Wallace Gilberry and Cedric Peerman are two names to keep an eye on. Peerman had an excellent 7.2 yard-per-carry average, but that number is slightly deceiving since Peerman rarely saw a meaningful snap on offense. Gilberry may not be the most physically-gifted pass rusher, but he plays hard on third downs and tallied 5.5 sacks over the final eight games of the regular season. Over that same stretch, Michael Johnson, who many scouts and writers view as the Bengals’ most valuable free agent-to-be, had—you guessed it—5.5 sacks. Johnson unquestionably has more upside but his production per snap was not overwhelmingly different than Gilberry’s numbers.
Bergin: Adam Jones. His play at CB is solid, but his value to special teams (not to mention fans’ moral) is incalculable. Assuming that the puzzling and mediocre Brandon Tate is let go, Jones will hopefully have even more responsibilities returning kicks, especially if Dre Kirkpatrick is healthy at defensive back. Jones can turn a game on its head in a moment, while getting the crowd roaring and knocking the heart out of the opposition with the electric pop he brings to his returns. Just don’t line him up against Andre Johnson or, you know, let him go to any parties. Or bars. Or really social events of any kind after 8 p.m.
Pentz: Chris Crocker. He’s not the flashiest name and he may never be a star, but I’m telling you, the secondary is on shaky ground. Crocker won’t cost much and can provide a veteran’s influence as the Bengals start to build for the future.
Cosenza: The most undervalued impending free agent has to be Brian Leonard. The third-down specialist always had a knack for making a clutch play in the passing or running game. His role on the club diminished under the new Jay Gruden offense, but he still had contributions on special teams and in pass protection. If a club needs a third-down back and special teams ace, Leonard will be a good pickup.
In terms of positions, what are the top three areas the team should look to improve on in the 2013 NFL Draft?
Kirkendall: With the pre-draft process and free agency on the horizon, it’s hard to decipher what the team could do from now until late April. But early projections have to be running back, defensive back, and defensive end…and maybe linebacker—unless the team is comfortable with an Aaron Maybin/Brandon Joiner battle at strong-side. Then again, if the organization doesn’t bring Thomas Howard or Manny Lawson back, that leaves linebacker as an extremely vulnerable position, especially if the team chooses not to bring Rey Maualuga back either—which appears likely with Vontaze Burfict’s expected move inside.
Pentz: Secondary, running back, wide receiver. I touched on the first two areas earlier, but it is also imperative to find a viable sidekick to A.J. Green. Mohamed Sanu was growing into that role, but his stress fracture ended his promising season and raises the question anew. There has been plenty of talk about scratching the Dalton-as-a-franchise-QB experiment, but bringing in a more talented supporting cast could provide an answer that is both cheaper and without the growing pains that come via starting from scratch.
Flango: Without knowing which free agents will re-sign with the team, it’s difficult to predict Mike Brown’s draft strategy. But based on the crop of prospects in this year’s draft, the Bengals would be wise to look at some front seven players. If the team lets Michael Johnson walk, defensive end should be a priority. If not, there are also a solid group of linebackers available. Tight end and running back should also be a top concern, though the latter should be addressed with a later round pick. A few mid-round running backs to keep an eye on: Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle and Clemson’s Andre Ellington could contribute immediately while South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, who is recovering from a horrific knee injury, could be worth taking a flyer on.
Which player should the Bengals being praying will drop to them at the 21st pick in the draft’s first round?
Cosenza: There are a couple of guys that you can point to. Cornerback Dee Milliner would be a great haul at No.21, as he’s widely-considered a top-ten talent. Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro would be a nice player to bring in at that spot as well, but he could go high because he’s arguably the best player in the draft at the position. Ultimately, I think that linebacker Alec Ogletree from Georgia would be the one that they have to hope falls to them. Marvin Lewis loves linebackers and Ogletree is a good one. He’s a bit smaller, but is rangy and can both cover and tackle well.
Pentz: Xavier Rhodes, DB, Florida State. Rhodes could be just the injection of fresh blood the secondary needs. His M.O. as a big, physical cornerback blends seamlessly with Cincy’s top-notch pass rush. A 2011 knee injury raises questions both about his speed and durability, but his potential makes him worth the risk. Rhodes is projected as a mid-first-round pick—Tampa Bay seems to be the main danger to take him early—but it’s not completely fantastical to think he could still be there at 21.
Bergin: Barkevious Mingo (DE, LSU) gets my vote as the first top-drawer player in years to really, truly sound like a professor from Hogwarts, but he’d only be in play if Michael Johnson and Robert Geathers both went unsigned. Kenny Vaccaro (safety, Texas) and Georgia’s Alec Ogletree are both realistic possibilities at 21 if a few things go the Bengals’ way.
Thanks to our roulette of writers that chipped in. Postings will be a bit less frequent on the blog during the offseason, but be sure to check back in the coming months for offseason notes and draft previews/reactions. Also, with baseball season drawing near, be sure to keep an eye on our Cincinnati Magazine Reds blog.