Bengals draft needs: Start with next QB, T.O.

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Pity the Cincinnati Bengals. They're running low on wide receivers. Their quarterback is on strike. Their star running back is a free agent. They can't rush the quarterback. Their starting cornerbacks are on the verge of a breakup. And they play in the same division as Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

It's enough to make you wonder why Marvin Lewis returned as head coach -- but he did, and caveat emptor. Yeah, I know, Lewis worked wonders in 2009, overcoming all sorts of adversity to take the Bengals to the top of the division. But he ran out of magic last season, and now he's running out of players.

Lewis will need plenty of everything this season -- talent, touchdowns, bounces, luck -- and he can start with players in next week's draft, where the Bengals sit at the fourth position.

There, he can upgrade his passing game with the first two picks -- with the Bengals probably waiting on a replacement for Palmer until the second round. Then Lewis can work his way through the draft trying to find something, anything, to make this year's team better than it was in 2010, and good luck.

The Bengals are ready for a full-scale makeover -- with quarterback and wide receiver two of the neediest positions -- and that will make it tough for them to crawl out of last in the AFC North. It's not that they don't have players. It's that they don't have enough good ones.

QB: Palmer is still considered the starter, but tell me who, other than maybe owner Mike Brown, believes he plays another down for Cincinnati. I know the coaches there don't. They're convinced Palmer means it when he says he won't return. So there's an enormous hole, and good luck, Jay Gruden. The next best options are Jordan Palmer, Carson's brother, and Dan LeFevour -- two guys with a combined 10 NFL completions and no TDs -- and now you understand why the Bengals are looking at a zillion quarterbacks in this draft. The Bengals could take one with their first or second pick of the draft ... and they should. Palmer's not coming back.

Five possibilities: Bengals
A.J. Green, WR, Georgia: He's the most logical choice. Terrell Owens is gone. Chad Ochocinco probably is, too. Green is a dynamic playmaker who could step in tomorrow and be one of the league's top 10 receivers.
Cam Newton, QB, Auburn: He's probably gone by the fourth pick, but if he isn't consider Mike Brown intrigued. The Bengals like what they saw of him and thought more after seeing him a second time.
Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri: One problem here: If you're going to pick someone with the fourth pick he better be ready to start immediately. Gabbert is not. That makes him a long shot at this position.
Andy Dalton, QB, TCU: Dalton is strictly a second-round consideration, and he could be there when the Bengals pick. They love his attitude, his history of success and his skills.
Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State: Another quarterback who's strictly a second-round possibility. Some scouts consider him the third-best QB in this draft, and the Bengals like him.
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RB: Cedric Benson is experienced, productive and the unchallenged starter. But he's also a free agent. I know, he says he wants to return to Cincinnati, and that's encouraging. But, for the moment, the guy is in no-man's land, a veteran who may or may not be with the team. For the first time in his career, Benson has consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and that's why the Bengals should want him back. But here's another reason: Without Palmer, where's the offense? You're looking at it. OK, so Benson lost five fumbles. That's the least of the Bengals' concerns. They need him, with Bernard Scott set up nicely as the backup. Scott is a good change-of-pace from Benson, but durability is a question. Brian Leonard is an asset on third downs, especially on short passes, and should be fine after recovering from an ankle injury.

WR: Most people have Georgia's A.J. Green ticketed for Cincinnati with the fourth pick, and when you look at what they have at this position you understand why. Terrell Owens isn't coming back. I can't imagine Chad Ochocinco is, either, although he has a year left on his contract. He and coach Marvin Lewis exchanged enough off-season air punches to make it clear where his future is ... and it's not Cincinnati or the MLS. So then what? Well, then we drop off to people like Jordan Shipley, Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson, and while they're basically second-tier receivers, the Bengals -- and Palmer -- seemed better when they were around, and Owens and Ochocinco weren't. Shipley especially looks promising. In his rookie season he had 52 catches, more than any NFL rookie wideout, and scored one less time than Ochocinco. He also had seven catches of 20 or more yards each, also one shy of Ochocinco.

TE: Jermaine Gresham was a solid draft pick, a dependable pass receiver who gave the club a short- and mid-range option. Reggie Kelly is more of a blocker, especially in two tight-end packages, and is a good mentor for Gresham. But he's also 34 and a free agent. Chase Coffman spent most of the season on the practice squad but worked his way to the 53-man roster by season's end and might stick in Gruden's scheme.

OL: There's a concern here at right tackle, and not because Andre Smith can't cut it. He can ... when he plays. But Smith has a two-year history of foot injuries, and nobody is certain he's OK after his latest surgery. If not, that means the position is in the hands of Anthony Collins or Dennis Roland again, and let's be honest, people: Smith is the preferred choice. Collins is better than Roland, but the Bengals need to upgrade that spot if Smith can't make it. The hope, of course, is that he can. The Bengals are set at left tackle with Andrew Whitworth, but he's the only rock-solid choice. Center Kyle Cook was good as a run blocker but inconsistent in pass protection. Right guard Robbie Williams is decent, but he's in the last year of a contract, while left guard Nate Livings is a weak link who needs to be replaced -- with the draft the most logical spot.

DL: There isn't much wrong with this position, other than depth. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap was a second-round surprise, leading all rookie pass rushers in sacks with 9.5 and becoming the first Bengal rookie to lead the club since James Francis did it in 1990. Dunlap and third-year defensive end/linebacker Michael Johnson are promising young talents, but Johnson needs to add consistency to his game. Veteran Antwan Odom was a dominant player the first half of 2009, but he's been beset by injuries and a banned substance suspension the past two years, and I'm not sure what to expect from him anymore. Neither are the Bengals. Geno Atkins was another surprise, a defensive tackle who produced three sacks (second best on the team) and helped push the Bengals to 19 sacks the second half of the season -- or over twice what they had in the first eight games. Domata Peko is a decent run plugger in the middle of the line, while Pat Sims is a pass-rushing force from inside.

LB: There's indecision here, mostly because middle linebacker Dhani Jones is likely to leave. Jones, 33, led the team in tackles for the third straight season, but he's a free agent whose departure would open a vacancy at his position -- with outside linebacker Rey Maualuga the logical candidate to replace him. I don't know if he's ready for the switch, but I do know it makes sense. So let's say Jones leaves, and Maualuga replaces him. Then what? Well, then there's a possibility that the Bengals move defensive end Michael Johnson to OLB. Johnson played there before, but if the Bengals are hesitant they could always choose someone like backup Dan Skuta. Another linebacker who could leave is Brandon Johnson, who was productive off the bench. The Bengals tendered him with a second-round pick, but there's a feeling he could be gone. Keith Rivers is the starter on the other side, and, like Maualuga, he improved last season vs. the run. Both, however, could work on their pass coverage. Bottom line: There are questions at middle and outside linebackers that need to be resolved.

DB: Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall comprise one of the league's top cornerback tandems, but it's a pairing that may soon break up. Joseph is a restricted free agent who may, depending on what happens with a new CBA, become unrestricted, while Hall has one year left on his contract. Both are mentioned when talk gets around to the league's top cornerbacks, yet both could be gone by this time next season -- with is why Adam "Pacman" Jones already is mentioned as a potential replacement. Jones played well last season until he was hurt, and either he or nickel back Morgan Trent are options if Joseph leaves. Safety is the bigger concern, with veteran Roy Williams a free agent who may not return. Chris Crocker is a logical replacement, but he's coming off a knee injury. Chinedum Ndukwe is another possibility, but he, too, is coming off a significant knee injury. Reggie Nelson was a nice pickup, the only Bengals' safety to play all 16 games, and Cincinnati seems happy with him. So that leaves one safety spot that appears set. It's the other that is the question mark. The Bengals would like someone here who does for them what Ed Reed does for Baltimore and Troy Polamalu for Pittsburgh. So far nobody does.


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