The Bengals will be playing for a spot in the playoffs Sunday against Baltimore here in Cincinnati. It's simple, win and they're in! If they lose, they still may get in if the Jets and either the Broncos or Raiders lose. It has basically been a dream season. Almost every, if not every, sportswriter or talking head picked the Bengals to do nothing this season. A lot of them said the Bengals would be the worst team in the NFL and one of the favorites to land Andrew Luck in the draft. Now they control their own destiny heading into the last week of the season, who would've thought?
Not only has this dream season happened, but the Bengals are also one of the youngest teams in the NFL. At most of the key positions they are very young including a rookie QB and rookie number one WR who both look to be future pro bowlers for years to come. Add to that the top teams in the AFC North are the Steelers and Ravens and both of those teams are getting old and will need to retool here soon.
Also they've traded Carson Palmer for a 1st round pick in 2012 and a likely 2nd round pick in 2013 which could become a 1st round pick. Plus Jonathon Joseph left via free agency to the Houston Texans so the Bengals should get a 3rd round compensatory pick for losing the talented Cornerback. So that means the Bengals will have 5 picks in the first 3 rounds in 2012 and at least 4 picks in 2013 within the first 3 rounds. That's 9 picks in the first 3 rounds in the next 2 drafts.
With the young talent on this team that has already assured themselves of a winning season and all of the draft picks coming early in the next two drafts the Bengals find themselves with a window to make a Super Bowl run here in the next few years if they can do as well in these future drafts as they have in the past couple.
There are some holes still to fill so I'm going to take a look at what the roster could look like coming next season and in the future. Look at potential free agents they can sign and who they have that will be a free agent. Everyone wants Mike Brown to hire a GM, so I'll take the job and here's what I would try to do.
Lets start with the offense.
Quarterback: Obviously Andy Dalton is the man at this position. He is having one of the all time great rookie seasons and it has been overshadowed by Cam Newton putting up slightly better numbers. Dalton is the only rookie QB since the merger that has at least 8 wins and 20 TD's as a rookie. The future looks bright at Quarterback.
As far as backups go Gradkowski is servicable, but you can always look to upgrade either with a late round gem in the draft or via free agency. A couple available free agents would be Brady Quinn or Dennis Dixon. I would be interested in Dixon. I always would like to have a backup who could be dual threat and hurt you with his legs. Backups aren't as good of passers as starters, that's why they're backups. If you can get one that can hurt you with their legs, you bring a different element and can keep yourself in contention if your QB isn't out for the rest of the season.
Runningback: Cedric Benson has been okay since he's been here. It seems like he's declined each year though. I wouldn't resign him if I were calling the shots. I like what Bernard Scott brings to the table but he can't shoulder an entire season's load. Cedric Peerman has shown flashes but I'd definitely look to upgrade.
As far as the draft goes, I'm usually against taking a RB in the first round. However if somehow Trent Richardson is still available I would take him in a second. If he starts to fall I would even consider moving up a couple spots to get him, I think he's that special of a player and will be a back like Adrian Peterson. That's how highly I think of him. If you could get AP in his rookie year you bet you would use that 1st round pick on him, especially if you have 2 picks. It's unlikely Richardson falls that far, but I've seen a couple mocks that have him that low and you never know teams don't value RB's like they used to. There are other quality backs that can be had in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. Some names such as Lamar Miller from Miami or Chris Polk from Washington come to mind.
Free Agents include Matt Forte, maybe dreaming but he's been feuding with the Bears about a contract. If they don't franchise tag him and Mike Brown is willing to pony up some big cash then maybe it will happen. Mike Tolbert or Micheal Bush may be some more realistic options. I really like the thought of Bush as he's a big back that would be a good fit in the AFC North. Others: Peyton Hillis, Tim Hightower, and Chester Taylor.
Wide Receiver: AJ Green is the man. He may be the best WR in the NFL within a couple of years. As early as going into next season I would say he is definitely top 5 and arguably top 3. With Andre Johnson battling injuries I'd go Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, then AJ Green and Andre Johnson. After Green is where there are some questions.
I think they are set in the slot. I really like Andrew Hawkins quickness and between he and Jordan Shipley the slot is taken care of. The number two spot belongs to Jerome Simpson right now and while he has shown flashes and is a freak athletically, he is inconsistent. He got alligator arms in the first Pittsburgh game and gave up the game losing interception. He has disappeared in games if he doesn't get involved early. It's taken him 4 years to "get it" and get on the field. Also there is the trouble with the weed being sent to his house. I'd like to see the number two WR upgraded and take some heat off of Green. They do have Gresham at TE to do some of that.
As far as the draft goes they aren't likely to use a 1st round pick on a WR. If Alshon Jeffrey is still on the board when they pick I would consider taking him if it was me. He may be the most talented WR in this draft. He definitely has top ten ability. His numbers have been down this year but the QB play has been terrible at South Carolina. Adding Jeffrey would give the Bengals two stud, talented, number one WR's and that would be impossible for defenses to cover, especially with Gresham and the slot guys in the middle. Actually yeah if Jeffrey is there when the Bengals are on the clock I'd have to pull the trigger on that. Especially having the two first round picks, I wouldn't do it otherwise. Having two WR's like that and Dalton at QB could give you the best offense in the NFL.
Free Agents at Wide Receiver, the position is loaded in next year's class of free agents. You have Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker, Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston, Steve Johnson, and Brandon Lloyd are the big names. Now most of these will be resigned but I bet one or two will be available. That's unrealistic though as you would have to outbid other teams to get them. However the Bengals future looks bright so players won't just say no to the Bengals no matter what like in the past. If Mike Brown is willing to pay, players will come here because the Bengals have a window where they could win a championship. There's also players that would be decent number two's in Mario Manningham or Robert Meachem. Two names that intrigue me are Pierre Garcon and Ted Ginn. Ginn is a burner who will stretch the field opening things up for AJ Green, Gresham, Hawkins, and Shipley. With Ginn defenses will have to keep at least one Safety deep or he will beat them over the top.
Offensive Line: The offensive line has been decent, but some upgrades can definitely be made as they fell apart at the end of the first Baltimore game. They had 1st and goal on the 5 and Dalton didn't have time to throw on any downs. Whitworth is one of the best Left Tackles in the league and he'll stay there. At Left Guard, Livings has to go. He gets penalties all the time and gets beat all the time. Center Kyle Cook is a solid player and he will remain the Center. Right Guard Bobbie Williams has been a good player here for years. He is old though and I don't think his contract will be extended. They have Boling waiting in the wings to replace Williams. At Right Tackle Andre Smith has improved ten fold this year, he had trouble with Sheard in Cleveland but he'll be the RT for years.
In the draft there is a stud Guard, David DeCastro and he could be an option in the first round. If Cordy Glenn is there in the 2nd round he could be the pick there as well depending on how the draft falls. Another option is to take a bigger Tackle in the 2nd or 3rd round and move him to Guard. I like this line of thinking as Tackles are usually more athletic and you can get a 3rd Round Tackle that likely has the athleticism of a 1st round Guard.
In free agency Guards usually can be had relatively inexpensive. Carl Nicks from New Orleans is probably the best option of all the free agent Guards. If the Bengals could get him or someone comparable, that would open up an early round draft pick for another position. Or the pick would be for depth, something you always need along both lines of scrimmage. Winning football starts up front and the more good lineman you have the more consistently you'll win.
Defensive Line: The Defensive Line has been excellent this year. They have played with an 8 man rotation and that has kept them fresh and healthy for the most part. It starts with the pass rushing of Carlos Dunlap. Things fell off a bit when he was out with a hamstring injury, but when he's in there he's been all over the QB's. Geno Atkins should have made the pro bowl as he led all DT's with 8 sacks so far this season. If he keeps up his play he will make the trip to Hawaii several times.
As far as the draft goes, like I've said you can never have too many good players up front. Injuries happen to lineman all the time. That said, I doubt an early pick is used on a D lineman unless there's someone there that they feel is can't miss and is too good of a value to pass on. The Bengals have a good team and they don't have to take any position in the first round based on need they can take the best player on their board. If someone like DE Melvin Ingram happens to fall to them they could pull the trigger and give themselves two stud DE's to rush the passer.
In free agency I don't really see the Bengals spending big dollars to bring in someone on the line. They could use a big fat run stuffer to go next to Peko on running downs. Jonathon Fanene is a free agent after this season and they need to make sure they get him resigned. His versatility is huge for this line. Antonio Garay from San Diego is a free agent Nose Tackle. If they could get him in here for the right price that line would be almost impossible to run against.
Linebackers: I like what the additions of Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson have meant to this team. I would like to see them brought back. This isn't exactly a strong position group, but it's not weak either. Keith Rivers hasn't lived up to his top ten draft status. Maualuga needs to improve on his angles since taking over at middle LB.
A mid round draft pick could be in order to help with some role players at LB. Dontay Moch may be ready to contribute next season. He has excellent speed and could be huge on passing downs at the SAM LB spot across from Brandon Johnson. Maybe some depth could be added at the outside LB spots for run support. There aren't really any free agents that fit the Bengals 4-3 defense that should be brought in.
Secondary: The secondary has struggled since Leon Hall went down with the achilles injury. It's starting to play better now that Adam Jones is healthy. Nate Clements has been a good addition, and although he's aging a bit he brings good veteran leadership. At Safety Reggie Nelson is having a breakout season and finally living up to the hype of his first round draft status. Chris Crocker has been solid for a couple years, but is getting old and an upgrade could be in order.
As far as the draft goes, most think the Bengals will take a CB maybe Janoris Jenkins or Dre Kirkpatrick with one of their first round picks. If they do and retain Jones and Clements they may have the best group of CB's 1 thru 4 in the NFL. However, they do not have to take a CB in the first round. This draft class is absolutely loaded at CB and good ones can be had into the second and third rounds. When a certain position is loaded with talent teams tend to pass on that position sometimes thinking they can land a quality player later in the draft and they focus on another position of need instead.
Brent Grimes, Tracy Porter, and Brandon Carr are some quality free agents that would be in the price range that Mike Brown would be willing to pay. If the Bengals can retain their own and land one of these three then they definitely can wait in the draft on a CB if they choose. That will basically open up their draft to take whoever they think is the best player overall with each pick. That would be a huge thing because for the first time since I can remember the Bengals will be drafting players for depth, not because they have to have that player to fill a need. If they can do that, that's when they can focus on building a championship team because they will be able to get the best player available and not just someone they need.