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Roster Roundouts ’10: A Cincinnati Bengals Season Preview

See all of the previous LiveBall Roster Roundouts articles: BucsBrownsChiefsJaguarsRams, Seahawks.

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Cincinnati Bengals (projected finish: 3-13)

Team synopsis: The Bengals went 6-0 in a difficult AFC North division to win it last season.  Saying that they won’t be able to do that again is the easy part.  But can they even get a single win in a division that figures to be tougher across the board?  The Bengals are the one team in the AFC North likely to decline in 2010, and that decline could be very, very steep.

Best Players

  • WR Chad Ochocinco (drafted — Oregon State/2001 2nd round pick)
  • C Kyle Cook (signed — Michigan State/2007 undrafted free agent)
  • RG Bobbie Williams (signed — Philadelphia/2004 free agent)
  • DT Domata Peko (drafted — Michigan State/2006 4th round pick)
  • CB Jonathon Joseph (drafted — South Carolina/2006 1st round pick)
  • CB Leon Hall (drafted — Michigan/2007 1st round pick)

Best Prospects

  • TE Jermaine Gresham (drafted — Oklahoma/2010 1st round pick)
  • RT Andre Smith (drafted — Alabama/2009 1st round pick)
  • DE Michael Johnson (drafted — Georgia Tech/2009 3rd round pick)
  • LB Keith Rivers (drafted — USC/2008 1st round pick)
  • LB Rey Maualuga (drafted — USC/2009 2nd round pick)

The Bengals’ success in 2009 occurred in the absence of a formula for success.  That doesn’t mean it was a complete accident: even the biggest doubter would admit that Cincinnati has an undeniably talented roster.  They’ve done a sound job of drafting with their first round picks, and while the Bengals are still cheap, their tendency to allow second and third chances for troubled (sometimes disgraced) but talented athletes allows them to bridge the gap between being cheap and having skilled players.

The Bengals would find it prudent to take this roster-building tendency and to turn it into a team-strategy: to build their team in the trenches on both sides of the ball, knowing that they will be able to acquire cheap, veteran players who are among the most talented at their position, simply because they are willing to extend an opportunity to someone who may not be deserving of it.  It’s winning ugly, but doing it year after year.  This year, the Bengals have brought in CB Adam Jones to be the nickel back, and WR Matt Jones to compete for a roster spot at receiver.  Both missed the 2009 season with various legal issues.

If the trenches are indeed the focus of the Bengals’ drafting strategy, they’ve done quite the job in the last three drafts.  They’ve added Cs Jonathon Luigs and Kyle Cook, as well as RTs Anthony Collins and Andre Smith on the offensive line.  They’ve added Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap at defensive end, Pat Sims and Domata Peko at defensive tackle, and Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga at the LB level.  Those are all Bengals system products via the draft, and they make up the strength of the Bengals.

The focus on the improving pass defense that led the playoff push last year has little to do with the young defensive lineman, who are run-first players (as are the linebackers).  It’s based around the strength of two cornerbacks they drafted in the first round: Leon Hall, who in his fourth season is quickly becoming the next shut-down corner in football, and Johnathon Joseph, a smaller ballhawk whose explosive skill set nicely complements that of Hall.  Joseph and Hall are really the basis of everything the Bengals do schematically with their defense, and losing one or the other for any length of time could affect more than just the defensive secondary.

That’s what right with the talented, but still raw Bengals.  What’s gone in the wrong direction since the 2005 Bengals won the division is the passing game.  Carson Palmer’s bounceback from his knee injury in the 2005 playoffs was impressive, as he posted career highs in various categories over the next two seasons.  But Palmer’s elbow injury in 2008 did not yield the same sort of resilience from the former USC signal caller: his comeback season in 2009 was played very much on the margin, where Palmer was able to use his veteran experience to pull a few wins from the jaws of defeat this past season: against the Steelers and the Bengals.

But play for play, Palmer was not the same quarterback he was back in 2006 and 2007.  My prediction is that: after four 20 TD seasons for the Bengals, Carson Palmer does not break 15 passing TDs this year, and he does not break 20 passing TDs ever again in his Bengals career.  Which, yes, is a computation which argues that Palmer’s best days are behind him in Cincinnati, and his 2010 season may be an obvious, painful, if not tragic 16 game struggle.

After Palmer, the next questions are at the wide receiver position.  There’s Chad Ochocinco, who spent two offseasons ago publicly clamoring for a trade to a city where his personal brand might be more valuable.  He then played a disastrous 2008 season that sapped him of all trade value at age 30, and spent last offseason making virtually no headlines and quietly preparing to remain Cincinnati’s premier passing target.  He did rebound, but would take this offseason to Dance with Stars, and appear in multiple reality shows.  There’s Antonio Bryant, who is coming in to play across from Ocho, but whose most successful career years have come as the lone receiver in rush-first offenses.  Then there’s Matt Jones, Jordan Shipley, Quan Cosby, Jerome Simpson, and a cast of thousands seemingly trying to win a spot next to Bryant and Ochocinco in the Bengals receiving corps.

After all that, the only opportunity for the Bengals to avoid offensive disaster this season could lie with the last two first round picks they’ve added: Andre Smith, a 22 year old who will start at right tackle this year for the Bengals, a position of strength last season, and TE Jermaine Gresham, who is the x-factor in the Bengals passing game, the interior element that could restore Palmer’s passing proficiency if he picks up the pro game and excels from day one.  Gresham did not play at Oklahoma last season, suffering a preseason knee injury that required surgery.  That probably means a slow start to Gresham’s career, and could spell doom for Palmer moreso than Gresham.

Palmer’s non-guaranteed contract is going to pay him like an elite player through the 2013 season as long as the Bengals wish to keep him, but as soon as the team feels that he can be improved on, the Bengals can save a lot of money going in a different direction.  If the team ends up with the first overall pick in the draft next year, something that wouldn’t be unreasonable with a 3-13 projection, that could accelerate Palmer’s departure in favor of the next first overall draft choice quarterback.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

After spending all of last season as a second receiver out-of-necessity, Andre Caldwell could be a training camp release in 2010.  Caldwell brings little to the table offensively that kick returner Quan Cosby cannot also bring, and the team drafted Cosby’s more prolific college teammate Jordan Shipley specifically to replace Caldwell in the offense.  The team also drafted Dezmon Briscoe out of Kansas to be the long-term Ochocinco replacement, and he should slide in as the 6th receiver.  The reason that this pushes Caldwell to the chopping block is because now Matt Jones and 2008 2nd rounder Jerome Simpson have only Caldwell’s spot to compete for in the receiving corps.  Jones is probably the favorite.

Otis Hudson is a popular name among Bengals camp bodies this year.  The rookie from Eastern Illinois could be in the mix to start at either guard position.  The Bengals are one of the few teams that could justify keeping ten offensive lineman, but still, that probably means that Evan Mathis is pushed to the curb.  Dennis Roland should back up/push Smith at RT, and Anthony Collins will make the switch over to LT to backup Andrew Whitworth.

Frostee Rucker has been on the Bengals for four seasons now, but he’s probably going to have to take his act elsewhere, once Carlos Dunlap signs.  The Bengals are much thinner on the interior, behind Peko and Sims. Orien Harris, Tank Johnson, and Geno Atkins could all win one of two spots as backup DT.

Rashad Jeanty and Brandon Johnson are the backup LBs on this team, and will remain in that role, and then the Bengals are likely to carry a couple of special team LBs, including 2009 UDFA Dan Skuta and 2010 draft choice Roddrick Muckelroy.  That means Abdul Hodge, once a high draft pick for the Packers, is out if he can’t unseat Jeanty.

3rd round pick in 2010 Brandon Ghee (Wake Forest) is expected to move to free safety to back up Chinedum Ndukwe.  If he moves off cornerback, that pretty much locks in Adam Jones, David Jones, and Morgan Trent as the bench players at corner, i.e. one doesn’t have to give up that spot for Ghee.  Ghee slides into the spot that Tom Nelson held at free safety, but that limits the Bengals to keeping just two veteran strong safeties (not that you’d ever need more than two).  But between Chris Crocker, Roy Williams, and Gibril Wilson, some veteran is going to be released from the Bengals.  Crocker has been there the longest, so that either makes him the favorite to be released, or the untouchable, depending on where coordinator Don Zimmer’s loyalties lie.

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