As free agency begins and the NFL Draft looms, now seems like a good time to look at where the Cincinnati Bengals sit in todays NFL. The Bengals are coming off a 10-6 season in which they were dismissed from the playoffs in the first round. While losing in the first round of the playoffs isn’t ideal, it was certainly a step in the right direction for a young Bengals team.
The Bengals made their way to the playoffs in back to back years for the first time in 30 years. While the 2011 team backed their way into the playoffs without beating a single team above .500, the 2012 team had quality wins and a young nucleus leading them to a wildcard berth. If the Bengals can reach the playoffs again in 2013, they will join the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons as the most recent teams to reach the playoffs in three consecutive years.
While it’s obvious the Bengals have the talent to reach the playoffs, there is no doubt there are question marks on the roster. The organization is reaching a point where simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough. Defensively, there are holes at linebacker and the secondary positions. Offensively, the Bengals could use more help on the line and a change of pace back to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. With four picks in the first three rounds of this years draft, expect Cincinnati to address some of these needs.
Since taking over as defensive coordinator in Cincinnati in 2008, Mike Zimmer has built one of the better defenses in the NFL. Consistently ranked as a top ten unit, the defense has set the tone for who the Cincinnati Bengals want to be. Breakout star Geno Atkins led a Bengals defense that ranked sixth in 2012. In addition, the Bengals set a franchise regular-season record for sacks in a season with 51. The defensive line appears to be in good shape with Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Domato Peko, and the recently tagged Michael Johnson anchoring the front four. Even though the defensive line is young and talented, don’t be surprised to see another piece added via the draft in April.
The linebacker corps needs to be addressed in the draft and free agency. Vontaze Burfict was a pleasant surprise in 2012 and looks to only get better in the future. Rey Maualuga is a free agent whom Marvin Lewis has expressed interest in resigning. While fans may argue, Maualuga has been an important part of a successful defense over the last four years. Unfortunately, he may be their best option going forward at the middle linebacker position.
The secondary has the most question marks going into the 2013 season. Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson seem to be the only two sure things for the upcoming season. Expect the Bengals to address the secondary through draft and free agency by hopefully bringing back Adam Jones and Terrance Newman. Second year defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick will look to make an impact after being injured for the majority of 2012. The secondary is a legit concern for a defense whose coordinator likes to utilize man coverage on the outside to more effectively get to the quarterback. The unit is getting old quickly and the front office needs to make a splash for another playmaker in the back end of a very talented defense.
Offensively, the Bengals will try to resign tackle and free agent Andre Smith. In addition, they need to find a running back in the later rounds of the draft to complement the methodical running style of Benjarvus Green-Ellis. However, this team will only go as far as Andy Dalton takes them. Todays NFL is dominated by the quarterback position. In order to win the Super Bowl, teams must have a quarterback who can make big throws and who know how to win on the road. Does Andy Dalton have what it takes?Andy Dalton has been a solid quarterback over his first two seasons in the NFL. He has improved statistically from season one to season two and has led the Bengals to consecutive playoff appearances. With that being said, it’s still tough to tell whether or not Dalton is the guy to lead this franchise to its first Super Bowl championship. Outside the numbers, Dalton has been erratic with throws and too often misses open receivers. Frequently zoning in on one receiver, Dalton seems to struggle when he needs to make plays on his own. Watching the playoffs unfold showed the type of big play talent needed to succeed in January, which Dalton has yet to prove.
There is a lot to be optimistic about when looking at this Cincinnati Bengals team. They have a dynamic duo in Andy Dalton and AJ Green on the offensive side, and a disruptive front four on the defensive side. They have a good blend of youth and experience and perhaps the best defensive coordinator in football. With that being said, they lack a big time playmaker on the back end of their defense and they need to establish a more consistent running game to have a balanced attack on offense. Furthermore, Andy Dalton has to take a big leap in his third season to become a quarterback who opposing defenses must respect. The Bengals are still a year or two away from seriously contending for a championship, but they have certainty made significant strides for a historically woeful franchise. Don’t be surprised to see this team make its third consecutive trip to the playoffs. After that, this team will go as far as Andy Dalton takes them.