Roster Roundouts: A Cincinnati Bengals Camp Preview
If the stats vs. scouts debate is making it’s way to football, you can consider the 2009 Cincinnati Bengals it’s first unofficial case study.
The media may be down on the Bengals, but league insiders think that they have as good a shot at the playoffs as any non-playoff team from last season. It makes sense: the long-maligned defense looks very strong on paper. The defensive line might not generate much of a pash rush this year, but improvements in depth are forthcoming. The linebackers are as deep and as strong as any unit in the NFL, given the successful conversion of one USC linebacker (Maualuga) to the strong side and of Keith Rivers’ return from injury. The secondary is young and improving, and they feel like the addition of Roy Williams as an in-the-box safety makes them a complete defense.
And yet, what can you say about the offense? It’s full of talent at the skill positions, and with the return of Carson Palmer to health, it’s easy to look at the Bengals as a surprise contender this year. And compared to most power rankings I’ve seen, some likely will be surprised when the Bengals come out firing out of the gate and winning games.
The stats on them just suggest that they can’t hold up for 16 games at a high level of play. And looking at the Bengals, their flaws are painfully obvious. They’ve done everything on the cheap, grabbing even their building blocks with signability in mind. And when the Bengals have to build entire units through means that include the draft and free agency, they’ve usually failed to do so in a timetable that would warrant any sort of long-term success. The offensive line is a great example of this. The Bengals realized that their line needed help, so they drafted Andre Smith out of Alabama to provide a mammoth tackle with dual-blocking ability and to be a staple of the line. A week later, the team released oft-injured LT Levi Jones. Neither move was a wrong move, but the timing on the moves make it so that an immediate improvement of the line remains a pipe dream. The Bengals are still under-talented on the offensive line (particularly on the interior), and will rely on a career guard (Andrew Whitworth) to hold down the LT position over the next year or two until they can find a more permanent solution. Smith should fit well at RT, but it may not matter.
Similar concerns exist on the D-Line, but the development of young D-tackles Pat Sims and Domata Peko, combined with the signing of Tank Johnson, turns their defensive tackle situation into a strength. Of course, when the issue last year was pass rush, you may be wondering what the Bengals did to address that. They drafted Michael Johnson out of Georgia Tech, who profiles as a situational pass rusher in the NFL, but that’s it. The Bengals will again rely heavily on pressure packages called by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to get to the quarterback, which really didn’t work so well last year.
In our prior two Roster Roundouts, I identified the Bills as a team paced by it’s offense, and the Rams as a team paced by it’s defense. How do the Bengals identify? Well, from the numbers I’m looking at, there’s no clear trend. Generally, when the Bengals perform better than expected, it looks like the offense is overachieving those weeks. But when the Bengals under-perform, they seem to be led into the abyss by their defense first. It’s easy to conclude that both units need to play better, but that doesn’t tell us where their efforts should be focused.
When in doubt, offense seems to be a better indicator of things to come, so a single key to the Bengals’ season might lie in the health of an under-talented offensive line, and their ability to make good on the promise that Cedric Benson brought to the NFL when he was drafted by the Bears in 2005. Most significantly, the Bengals were a close to league average offense with Benson in the lineup last year, as opposed to one of the worst offenses in football with the departed Chris Perry. So much for homegrown talent.
The most promising thing you can take from last year’s Bengals is that you got a better than average effort from the Bengals more times than not. According to DVOA, the Bengals performed average or better 8 times in 16 games, but in the other 8 games, they were what I would describe as “catastrophically bad” 7 out of the 8. For the defense, their play got erratic as soon as Hines Ward knocked Keith Rivers out for the season in week seven. The 5 worst and 5 best defensive performances (again, according to DVOA) followed the Rivers injury. I have no idea what to make of that, but if I had to take a guess, I would gander that the Rivers injury caused the Bengals to change their bread and butter on defense, which led to more game changing plays, however, also to a disproportional amount of yards and first downs allowed by the secondary. If this is correct (and there’s little reason to think it is), getting Rivers back will make a large difference in the quality of the team’s defense.
Rivers though, had no impact on the team’s pass rush, which was bad with him, and just as bad without him. The Bengals get relatively acceptable interior pressure, and linebackers such as reserves Brandon Johnson and Darryl Blackstock are capable of bringing the heat, as is S Roy Williams, but on the starting defensive line, only defensive end Antwaan Odom is going to get after the quarterback with any sort of consistency.
Bengals corner is, in itself, a tough position to play, and the Bengals have spent two first round draft picks at the position with nothing to show for it, yet. There’s plenty of time for young CBs Leon Hall and Jonathon Joseph to develop, and they have a strong group of safeties behind them to work with, so they are the key to the defense for Cincinnati.
Georgetown College Athletic Complex, Georgetown, KY
The Bengals will decide plenty of roster spots in camp this year, and I’ll outline a few of the more interesting ones below. Particularly, they have some interesting names in the UDFA department.
Running Back: Kenny Watson vs. Bernard Scott
Kenny Watson has been the team’s nominal No. 2 RB for as long as I can remember, but he was injured last year and got jumped on the depth chart by Cedric Benson. This year, the team dealt a defensive player (Orion Harris) to St. Louis for Brian Leonard, who will serve as the No. 2 back. So that leaves a spot to be won for either Watson or 6th round draft pick Bernard Scott. Scott is a fantastic talent, but his rap sheet from the last five years makes him look out of place with law-abiding citizens, even in Cincinnati. Scott is probably a favorite to force Watson out, but the team could keep 4 backs.
Fullback: Fui Vakapuna vs. J.D. Runnels vs. Jeremi Johnson
Johnson is the fullback of the past, Vakapuna is the present, and Runnels is the future. Of course, you don’t spend three roster positions on fullbacks, so someone is on their way out. It’s probably Johnson, but he will have training camp to win his roster spot.
Wide Receiver: Antonio Chapman vs. Quan Cosby
Cosby is the first of three undrafted players that has a legit shot to make the Bengals, but he’ll have to do it as a punt returner first and a receiver second. It would thrill the Bengals to be able to turn to Cosby on punt returns and have a developmental receiver with No. 2 type upside in the mix, but if he doesn’t prove apt on punts this preseason, he’s going to likely be pushed to the practice squad.
Guard: Evan Mathis vs. Andrew Crummey
Mathis was a run-of-the mill journeyman pickup from the Panthers, which means he’s easily replaceable. Crummey was plucked from the Redskins’ practice squad, and the Maryland product has a projection as a potential NFL starting lineman two years down the road. If he impresses in camp the Bengals can afford to hand him Mathis’ spot.
Center: Kyle Cook vs. Dan Santucci
This battle is for the starting center job in camp, but the loser could be off the team entirely if a switch to guard doesn’t go over well. Jonathon Luigs is the center of the future, but does not project as a day one starter. There’s no way the Bengals are going to leave him off the 53-man roster, so the best man in this battle wins, and the loser could be looking for a job.
Linebacker: Abdul Hodge vs. Dan Skuta
Skuta, undrafted out of D-II powerhouse Grand Valley State, had a late round projection in the draft after impressing at his pro day, but went undrafted where the Bengals signed him. Hodge, a third round pick of the Packers in 2006, now on his second team. Hodge is the favorite going into camp, but Mike Zimmer may opt for the higher upside of the two players if they are close in camp. That’s Skuta.
Cornerback: Morgan Trent vs. Rico Murray
There are two undrafteds vying for the final CB spot, and Trent’s likely a big favorite based on the Michigan-Cincinnati pipeline, not to mention Trent’s southern California ties, another Bengals’ pipeline. Murray is an in-state product from Kent State, a 4 year starter, but Trent comes with the name recognition that the Bengals value, and he’s the better cover player of the two, if not the better athlete.
Safety: Chinedum Ndukwe vs. Corey Lynch
Lynch was last seen by the public leading the App. State upset of ranked Michigan in 2007, back when beating Michigan actually meant something. Ndukwe is a Notre Dame product who has played very well since being the team’s 7th round draft pick in 2007, and is a strong favorite here. Perhaps I shouldn’t name a favorite though, since if Lynch has a better camp, I don’t see the team releasing him. Again, keeping 5 safeties is in the realm of possibility.
- WR Andre Caldwell
- TE Reggie Kelly
- DE Frostee Rucker
- DT Tank Johnson
- LB Rashad Jeanty