Team overview: Any consternation about life without Carson Palmer vanished early in 2011 when his then-rookie replacement Andy Dalton led the Bengals to a 6-2 start. Cincy eventually qualified for the playoffs, losing to the Texans in the wild-card game. In 2012, Dalton helped the Bengals to 10 wins and another trip to the playoffs … that ended with another loss in Houston.
But this is a young team with talented skill-position players, a solid offensive line, one of the league's most underrated defenses and gobs of salary-cap space. For an outfit historically referred to as the Bungles by supporters and rivals, Cincy has the makings of a perennial playoff team. The biggest issues are on offense; namely, can Dalton continue to improve (mostly with his decision-making in the pocket), and will the organization find a legitimate No. 2 receiver to take some of the double- and triple-teams away from all-world A.J. Green.
The Bengals used the franchise tag on defensive end Michael Johnson, which could allow right tackle Andre Smith to test free agency. And depending on what happens in the coming weeks, the secondary could move on without veterans Adam Jones, Terence Newman, Nate Clements and Chris Crocker. Former second-round pick Rey Maualuga hasn't lived up to his USC reputation, but he could return under the right circumstances. Returner and wideout Brandon Tate isn't expected back, however.
What the depth chart tells you: First, Green needs help, whether it comes from free agency, the draft or a player already on the roster. One popular in-house candidate: Marvin Jones, the second-year player out of Cal who personifies the "height-weight-speed" guys NFL coaches and scouts fall in love with. Jones had just 18 receptions as a rookie, but he's 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and can fly. If he can stay healthy while showing steady improvement, the offense could be dangerous. Tight end Jermaine Gresham is a legit downfield threat, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the steady-as-she-goes running back who provides balance to offensive coordinator's Jay Gruden's scheme.
A big part of that success -- in the passing and running game -- falls to the offensive line. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth anchors this group although right tackle Andre Smith, considered one of the best players in free agency, could sign a big-money deal elsewhere.
On the other side of the ball, defensive tackle Geno Atkins remains the best-kept secret in Cincinnati. And, along with Domata Peko, Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap (who will replace free-agent Robert Geathers), the Bengals have one of the most athletic front fours in the NFL. Undrafted free-agent middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict played like the first-round pick that many teams thought he was before on- and off-field issues saw him plummet down (and off) draft boards. Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer gave Burfict a chance, and he ran with it.
Leon Hall is the leader in the secondary, and the hope is that 2012 first-rounder Dre' Kirkpatrick can contribute after an injury-plagued rookie season. Depth could be a concern with the likely departures of Jones, Newman and Clements. Reggie Nelson returns at free safety. But with Crocker a free agent, the Bengals will have to decide if Taylor Mays can be a full-time player strong safety.
Ideal free-agent and draft strategy: Zimmer said last month that he wants Maualuga back. But even if that happens, the Bengals need to find a player who moves better in space and isn't a liability in coverage. NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang has Cincy taking LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo with the 21st overall pick, an acknowledgement of that reality.
Meanwhile, Rang's colleague, Dane Brugler, likes Alabama's mammoth tackle, D.J. Fluker, at No. 21 as a possible replacement for Smith.
The Bengals could choose to be big players in free agency with all that avaiable cap room, but that hasn't been their style. There were rumors last offseason that Cincy might make a run at then-restricted free agent Mike Wallace, but it didn't happen. Now that Wallace is set to hit the market again, the Bengals still seem uninterested. But there's something to be said for developing your talent through the draft while eschewing high-priced free agents -- it's a recipe that has served teams like the Ravens, Packers, Patriots and Steelers well.
What will happen in 2013: It's pretty simple, really: If Dalton makes strides and the Bengals find a No. 2 wideout (either through the draft or the emergence of one of their young players), the offense will be better. Just as important: shoring up the depth on defense. Assuming the Bengals can avoid a rash of injuries to key players, it's reasonable to think that they -- not the Steelers -- will challenge the Ravens as the preseason favorites to win the AFC North.
-- By Ryan Wilson
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