Yesterday, Bengals 101 examined what's going right with the Cincinnati Bengals franchise. As considerable as those things are, there are still several glaring problems with this team that need to be addressed in the off season if the Bengals are going to go beyond the level of "young upstarts."
While this year's playoff appearance was both surprising and welcome, it's doubtful Bengals fans or anyone in the organization will be satisfied with merely the status quo next season. A third place finish and a playoff berth are nice when the rest of the league expects you to go winless. Next season the Bengals will be considered by some to be favorites in the AFC North, if not the AFC. In order to live up to those lofty expectations, some changes are in order.
1. Interior line play. When veteran guard Bobbie Williams left with a broken ankle, so did any real hopes of the Bengals going very far in the NFL playoffs. While Williams performance wasn't exactly Pro Bowl worthy, it was immensely better than anything we saw out of Nate Livings or Mike McGlynn. Setting up a cardboard cut out of Williams might have slowed down the Texans' linemen more so than they did, and there's the off chance that they might have tripped and fallen over the cutout instead of being allowed to freely jump in the passing lanes like JJ Watt did when he picked off Andy Dalton. Both Livings and McGlynn are unrestricted free agents and the team would be best to offer them plane fare to wherever they'd like to go, as long as it is far away from Paul Brown Stadium.
The team let Evan Mathis go to Philadelphia in the off season and paid dearly for it as Williams missed almost half the season between injury and suspension. Mathis was named by Pro Football Focus as the best guard in football as he helped pave the way for LeSean McCoy's breakout season. For the Bengals, running between the tackles was ineffective at best, downright foolhardy at times as they got absolutely no push from their guards. As good as some of their recent personnel moves have been, this one was really bad.
Rookie Clint Boling started early in the year, but was ineffective and never played again. It's hard to fathom he was worse than Livings or McGlynn. If he's not ready to start next season, the Bengals need to cut their losses and move on.
If the Bengals have a shot at either Stanford's David DeCastro or Georgia's Cordy Glenn, one of their first round picks should most definitely be spent there.
2. Secondary. It's hard to believe after watching the last few weeks of the season that the Bengals actually upgraded their secondary in the off season. What we saw was the serious lack of depth behind Leon Hall after he went down. Kelly Jennings showed improvement and promise as he got more acclimated to the Bengals' system, but beyond that there wasn't much.
Adam Jones is an unrestricted free agent and should be given the same plane ticket offer as Livings and McGlynn. It's not just that he lost coverage at key moments in the last two games against Baltimore and Houston, allowing back-breaking scores, it's how he responded. Both times he was seen either yelling or sulking on the sideline. WCPO's Dennis Janson reports that Jones further blatantly defied the team's "coat and tie" dress code on the charter back to Cincinnati. Marvin Lewis and his staff got rid of that kind of behavior the past off season. Jones should be the next to be shown the door.
Nate Clements played tolerably, but is on the back end of his career and a free agent. The Bengals would be better served to spend that money on a player closer to his prime. It's also an area where the Bengals should be looking to add depth in the draft, especially not knowing how well Hall will come back from his injury.
At safety, Chris Crocker's service to the Bengals should be celebrated… then he should be asked to leave. Crocker took more bad angles and made more wrong reads than any member of the Bengals' secondary this season. While he's been great against the run and was definitely a welcome upgrade from what the Bengals had before, the team needs a free safety who plays more consistently. Crocker will also turn 32 before training camp, not prime time for an NFL safety. Watch Alabama's duo tonight in the BCS Championship game. Getting either of Mark Barron or Robert Lester would be a boon to the Bengals' secondary.
3. Free Agents. The Bengals have a ton of free agent decisions to make with their own players. Some should be easy, like Livings. Others might be more difficult. Should Cedric Benson be brought back? What about Andre Caldwell? Those decisions will affect the Bengals' direction in signing opposing teams' free agents and draft strategy.
Besides Benson and the running back situation, the key area here will be adding quality depth at wide receiver. While AJ Green has Hall of Fame written all over him, it's clear that Jerome Simpson isn't the answer at number two. He could still be a valuable contributor, but he doesn't run routes consistently enough to take the pressure off Green. Both Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley will be coming back from injuries. Both were solid contributors before getting hurt. One of the big "what ifs" to this season was how it would have played out with a healthy Shipley in the slot for Andy Dalton.
There are some great wideouts coming out of college this year, but whether they will be available to the Bengals at 17 and 21 is questionable.
The 2011 season for the Cincinnati Bengals was magical in lots of ways. Whether it ultimately becomes a turning point in the franchise's success or is just a blip on the radar will be determined by how the team addresses weaknesses in the off season.
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