|Among the NFL's best as a rookie, Green averaged 16.3 yards per catch on 65 receptions. (US Presswire)|
It's all in front of the Cincinnati Bengals, who in one season went from dead last in the division to the playoffs.
Much of the credit goes to team owner Mike Brown for overseeing a draft that netted quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green and for trading away Carson Palmer for draft picks that will help the club close the gap with Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC North.
Cincinnati has three of the first 53 draft picks, and look for the Bengals to solidify their offensive line, secondary and receivers. The Bengals are young and improving, and they're a threat to return to the top of a division that produced three playoff teams in 2011.
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QB: Mike Brown gave up on Carson Palmer, drafted Andy Dalton and look what happened -- the Bengals returned to the playoffs. Dalton isn't just a promising quarterback; he's a quarterback who led his team to the playoffs as a rookie. More than that, he's a quarterback who held up despite facing nine top-10 defenses, one reason some touted him for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. And Palmer? The Bengals traded him for a two draft choices -- one a first-rounder, the other a conditional second -- and tell me who's laughing now. Bruce Gradkowski not only is OK as the backup; he came off the bench in the second half of the opener to beat Cleveland.
RB: Adding BenJarvus Green-Ellis means letting Cedric Benson go, and, granted, there's a gamble there. Benson was productive while with Cincinnati and last year completed his third straight 1,000-yard season with the club. But he fumbled five times, bringing his total to 12 over the past two seasons. One thing about the Law Firm: The guy does not fumble. In fact, he lost none in his four seasons with New England and produced 24 touchdowns in the past two years -- or more than Benson did in the past three. Bernard Scott is a flashy backup who is perfect as a change of pace to Green-Ellis. He is quick. He is fast. And he is waiting to be called. Brian Leonard is a solid third-down option, mostly because of his blocking and receiving skills.
WR: A.J. Green wasn't just good. He was one of the top receivers in the game. And that's as a rookie. Imagine what happens with a year's experience and an offseason of work with teammates and coaches. He was by far Dalton's most dangerous receiver, averaging 16.3 yards per catch, with 43 of his team-high 65 receptions resulting in first downs. Green is the franchise receiver Dalton needs to be successful. The problem here is: Who's No. 2? For the moment, no one. Jordan Shipley is the best of what's left, but stay tuned. The Bengals have two first-round draft picks, and this is an obvious area of need. With Jerome Simpson seemingly out of the picture, Brandon Tate and Andrew Hawkins are the next options, and that's a 911 call for help.
TE: Jermaine Gresham just produced his second straight season with 50 or more catches, and while that doesn't seem notable in itself, it does make him the first tight end in franchise history to get there. Gresham is a reliable short-to-intermediate target for Dalton, while Colin Cochart served as a blocking tight end when the Bengals had two of them on the field. Still, Cincinnati would like to add a veteran backup here.
OL: There is nothing wrong with tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. Both played well, especially the oft-criticized Smith who put his weight issues and foot problems behind him and became an effective pass blocker. Anthony Collins is a decent backup who started twice in place of Smith and can play tackle or guard. If there was a concern, it was with the interior of the line, with the Bengals moving to replace left guard Nate Livings with free agent Travelle Wharton. Wharton is versatile -- someone who can and has played tackle -- and is an effective run blocker. More important, the Bengals consider him an upgrade. Clint Boling takes over for Mike McGlynn on the right side, and let's see how that goes. He's not a mauler in the Bobbie Williams mold. Kyle Cook returns to center, where he struggled at times in run blocking. He's not a mauler, either, but he's smart and moves well. Guard Otis Hudson, who was hurt in camp last year, is someone coaches would like to see emerge.
DL: The losses of Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene were significant, with Fanene producing a career-high in sacks (6.5) and Rucker having the most consistent season of his career. The Bengals tried to allay their losses by adding pass rusher Derrick Harvey, but the guy's been a bust since Jacksonville picked him in the first round. Carlos Dunlap was a consistent force pressuring the pocket, but he battled injuries for much of the second half of the season. Left end Robert Geathers is solid, tough and effective. Geno Atkins was so good at defensive tackle that he just missed the club record for sacks by an interior lineman, with 7.5. He was the perfect complement to Domata Peko, who excelled as a run stuffer -- crucial when you're in a division with Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Michael Johnson, Jamaal Anderson and defensive tackle Pat Sims add depth to a position that should be able to overcome the losses of Rucker and Fanene.
LB: Thomas Howard was the team's leading tackler and its most effective and consistent linebacker -- a three-down linebacker who was good in coverage. But he needs help. Rey Maualuga is the logical guy to answer that call, but he struggled vs. the run and missed too many tackles after returning from an ankle injury in mid-October. A bounce-back season is needed. Manny Lawson was decent in pass coverage but didn't provide the necessary pressure off the edge -- which is one reason San Francisco let the guy walk. Roddrick Muckelroy, who ruptured his Achilles on the first day of camp, could be a backup, and Keith Rivers ... who knows? The guy can't stay healthy.
DB: Retaining safety Reggie Nelson -- who was close to leaving for the Jets -- was important for continuity, and the Bengals maintained it at this position by re-signing both him and controversial cornerback Adam Jones. Nelson is a starter; Jones is good for depth -- provided he's good. The loss of Leon Hall last season demonstrated how vulnerable Cincinnati is at cornerback, one reason the club signed free agent Jason Allen. With Nate Clements and a healthy Hall, the Bengals should be OK at a key position, though Clements struggled in pass coverage late in the season. Brandon Ghee is young and promising, and the Bengals would like to play him more. Safety Chris Cocker was decent vs. the run but struggled in pass coverage, particularly on deep routes -- and that's a problem when you're in a division with Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Torrey Smith. The Bengals have young players like Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles behind him, but coaches like Crocker's experience.