There was little in the way of hope for the Bengals coming into the season. After looking lost in the preseason, with the rookie tandem of Andy Dalton and AJ Green having little time to familiarize themselves with the pro offense during the abbreviated training camp, many expected the Bungles to continue their reign near the bottom of the standings.
But the rookies were not about to let that happen. After suffering through years of Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, with Terrell Owens making a loud appearance for a year, it was time for a fresh start. Dalton was given the ball from the start of the season, and Marvin Lewis trusted the fiery ginger to make the plays from Week 1.
Speaking of Mr. Palmer, the deal that saw him leave town in the middle of the season in exchange for a pair of first round picks from the Raiders could very well set them up to be a contender in the AFC for the next decade.
They already have a solid young core of players, and adding two first round picks in the next two seasons could put them among the elite teams in the league if done properly.
While they played well this year, there are still holes on the team. Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott are not much of a 1-2 punch in the league today, and some fresh blood would be much appreciated. The defense is also a work in progress. Leon Hall went down late in the season with a torn Achilles, and without him the Bengals struggled to shut down opposing teams passing games. Nate Clements and Pacman Jones are not exactly a feared set of corners.
Not only do the Bengals have a pair of first round picks this year and next, but they have some players that are still first round quality that have yet to play up to their ability. After a hot rookie season, Carlos Dunlap struggled this year and managed just 4.5 sacks on the year. Former 9th overall pick Keith Rivers has struggled with injuries since coming into the league, but when healthy he can be an elite outside backer. Then there are Michael Johnson and Taylor Mays. The epitome of combine players. Great measurables, but little in the way of production. If somehow their skills can be honed into becoming productive players on the defensive side of the ball, look out.
Then there is Andre Smith. The right tackle is finally rounding into form that made him a sixth overall pick. If he can keep it up he could become a elite bookend. Jermaine Gresham is part of the new generation tight end. Bigger and more athletic than anything that purists are used to seeing, and he is developing into an excellent safety valve when AJ is locked up down the field.
So who do they go after this year in the draft? They are picking 17 and 22 in a solid draft class. While the big name pivots, Barkley and Landry Jones, have decided to return for another year, most of the other top prospects have committed to the draft. If Bama corner Dre Kirkpatrick, or former Gator and current North Alabama Lion Janoris Jenkins is available with their first pick, expect them to bite. One of Lamar Miller or David Wilson would be a great back to take over for Benson. Both have a good mixture of size and speed and will have a jump in their step that the Bengals lacked out of the back field.
Next year could be more of the same for Cincy, and they might be in a position that they can draft the best player available, rather than based on need. First round picks are extremely valuable, especially with the rookie wage scale in place. No longer are first rounders the highest paid players on the team, and instead they can be managed and worked into the line up slowly.
Playing in the AFC North is going to make life difficult for the Bengals as they try to contend with the Ravens and Steelers. They were able to take down all of their weaker opponents this season, but a 0-7 record against teams with a winning record stood out. If they are going to take the next step in coming years, getting past division rivals will be paramount to their success.
Playing these staunch defensive teams four times a year in divisional battles forces the Bengals to build their teams in such a way that make it possible for them to prevail at least a few times in these matchups. Strong defense and somewhat conservative offense has brought great success to the Steelers and Ravens in recent years. So don’t expect Cincinnati to try to build a run-and-gun team. They will be solid on both sides of the ball, with the ability to hit home runs when need be.
AJ Green can stretch the field when they need to air it out. The running back of the future will hopefully bring a spark to an ugly running game. The defensive line will continue to mature and reach their potential. The slew of USC linebackers can hopefully stay healthy and swarm to the ball. The secondary will do their best to limit the big plays with a mix of players that used to be good.
If the Ravens or Steelers dare take a step back, the tiger-striped team formerly known as the Bungles will be ready to pounce. And pounce they will.