Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cincinnati Bengals GM Report: Offense

The Bengals just finished a suprising season with a disappointing playoff loss. For some, and I'm included in this group, the future looks bright. For others it was a season with a soft schedule and the Bengals got lucky in a mediocre AFC and squeaked into the playoffs. I think a 9-7 record and a playoff appearance was more than acceptable considering the team had a rookie starting at QB and the number one WR positions, with no offseason due to the lockout. Hell a lot of the sportswriters across this country had the Bengals finishing with the worst record in the NFL heading into this season.

Mike Brown took over this franchise in 1991 and every since people in this city have been calling for him to hire a General Manager. There was a complete decade of football that was laughable. The Bengals couldn't do a thing right for over ten years due to an owner who doesn't know what he's doing, but is so stubborn that he thinks he does and won't relinquish power. Well for this article I'll act like I've been hired as GM. I'm in no way qualified for the position, but I think I could do as well as Mike Brown did for that decade plus.

This is a lengthy article for a blog, but if I was GM this would be my report on what the franchise's plan would be moving into the offseason.

Like I said previously I think the future looks bright for this team. There are a lot of good young players in key positions. That being said, there are definitely some holes that need to be filled, positions that need to be upgraded if the ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl is going to be reached. The team has two first round draft picks this coming April and five picks in the first three rounds. There is also an additional second round pick in the following draft so the window is going to be open to be one of the elite teams in the NFL for the next few seasons if the team handles the roster, draft picks and free agents, the right way over the next few seasons.

On the offensive side of the ball the biggest needs are finding a competant number two WR to play across from AJ Green and getting some interior line upgrades. The team has some extra draft picks and there are a lot of options as to what can be done in the draft. Also in free agency I think the biggest priority is to get a very good veteran Guard, maybe even two of them. Guards a relatively inexpensive compared to other positions plus I would rather have a veteran up front protecting Andy Dalton versus a rookie. As far as Wide Receiver goes, a top notch WR is costly in free agency. I never like the idea of going out and spending huge dollars on a single free agent because more often than not it doesn't work out.

Here's a look at the options for the positions on the offensive side of the ball.

Quarterback: Obviously it looks as if the team has found the future of the franchise in the most important position in all of sports. Andy Dalton had one of the best rookie seasons by a QB in NFL history. If not for Cam Newton breaking lots of rookie QB records Dalton would be a sure thing to win rookie of the year. He's the only QB to throw for 20 TD's and have at least 8 wins since the merger.
As far as the backup position goes you should always be looking to upgrade your backup QB's. Gradkowski only had to play one half the entire season and he was okay, he led the team to a win, but nothing spectacular. Obviously a high draft pick isn't going to be spent getting a backup QB. Late round selections are an option, if you find someone you really like that could be developed. If the team goes that route, bringing Gradkowski or another veteran in would be a good idea. Even though Dalton and other rookie QB's had success this season you don't want to find yourself starting a late round rookie QB if Dalton should go down. This position is always good to have some decent depth.
Draft: As mentioned earlier an early round QB is not going to be an option for this team. However in the later rounds there are some names that intrigue me. One of them is Kellen Moore from Boise State. His biggest concern is his size. Also he didn't exactly play against elite competition week in and week out. He was a winner though. He won more games than any QB in the history of college football. He is extremely accurate with the ball and is probably one of the smartest players in college football. Moore would be worth looking at if he is there in the late sixth or seventh round. If the Bengals keep the west coast offense he could be someone that with some develpment could be a viable backup to come in and manage things if Dalton were out for a few games or something.
Another guy is Nick Foles from Arizona. I think he ends up going in the 2nd round, but I have seen some projections that say 3rd to 4th round. The team has a comp pick coming for Jonathon Joseph at the end of the 3rd round. If Foles happens to stil be there I'd have to take a serious look at making that pick. He has all the tools to be a good NFL QB. He has the size and the arm strength. He is accurate. I don't see him making it that far, but I've seen weirder things happen.
There are several other QB's that are projected to go in the later rounds that should be looked at this offseason. Honestly I don't see this team taking a QB in the draft before the 6th round unless someone the team likes a lot falls too far and the value is too much to pass on.
Free Agents: Bringing back Gradkowski or another veteran being brought in is a good idea, almost a must. Dalton is still a very young NFL QB and needs that veteran to be able to lean on and be mentored by. I've always been in favor of bringing in someone that can run the ball fairly well, but that wouldn't be what's best for a mentor for Dalton unless they have a strong understanding of staying in the pocket and being a west coast offense pocket QB.
Matt Flynn and Jason Campbell are both free agents, but may want starting jobs and would probably cost too much to bring in as a backup QB. Dennis Dixon is a QB who can run which I really like that would bring a different element to this offense if he were forced into action. The two names I like the best are Shaun Hill and AJ Feeley. I think Hill played well when he was forced into action on a bad Detroit team, Feeley was a starter at one point. I think both could provide good support for Dalton as well.
Recomendation: Try to bring in Shaun Hill, if he's not available then bring back Gradkowski. Also look hard at QB's that could be a diamond in the rough in the 6th round. A developmental project maybe.
Runningback: This is a position that needs to be upgraded. I don't think Benson is bringing it like he used to and wouldn't bring him back. Bernard Scott was outplaying Benson at the end of the season and really has shown some flashes of being a very good RB. However this team plays in the AFC North, the most physical division in the league. Scott isn't built to shoulder the load of an AFC North schedule by himself. Bottom line an upgrade must be made, the running game wasn't where it needed to be.
Draft: I am not a fan of drafting a RB in the first round at all. The player would have to be special and the only player I'd consider spending a first round pick on in this year's draft would be Trent Richardson. There's a couple other backs that have first round grades, but I wouldn't take them. Runningbacks aren't valued nearly as much as they used to be so there's a chance Richardson could slip some. This team's first pick is the 17th pick so if he falls to 13th or so I would look into trading up possibly as long as it doesn't cost too much to do so.
There's a couple names that could be of interest in the 2nd round such as David Wilson and Chris Polk. Wilson from Virginia Tech is one I really like and would definitely put strong consideration into taking him if he's there in the 2nd when this team picks. Also trading back one of the first round picks and picking up some extra selections would be an option. Wilson could stand to add about ten pounds, but he's explosive, can pick up yards after contact, and can hit the home run. Chris Polk from Washington is a bigger back that could be suited well for the AFC North with his power running style. He has good speed as well. The Bengals had some good luck with another back from Washington named Corey Dillon and I see a lot of similarities in the two.
There's a couple other backs that could be had in the 3rd or 4th round in Doug Martin of Boise State and Isaiah Pead from Cincinnati. Martin is a well rounded back with decent speed. I just wonder if he's a product of playing at Boise where the team dominated lesser competition. Most in the city know about Pead. He's a good pass catcher, but like Polk his concerns are his upright running style. With Scott here the two could split carries though and might be a good RB by committee. If either are available in the 4th I would probably pull the trigger, the 3rd it would be a tough choice.
For the late rounds there's two players I really like. Tauren Poole from Tennessee and Brandon Bolden from Ole Miss. Both players could have higher draft stock but battled injuries in 2011 which is a concern. If Poole is around in the 5th round that would be something to look at depending on how the draft has played out and the need at the position for this team. If by the 4th round there still isn't a RB brought in here then I would even consider taking him then. He had a big 2010 season in the SEC on a Tennessee team that wasn't very good against elite competition. Poole is a bigger power back that is good in short yardage and would be a good compliment to Scott. Bolden is projected to go in the 7th round or be an undrafted free agent. The injuries this last year are a concern but in 2010 he averaged six yards a carry on an Ole Miss team that isn't as good as it's competition in the SEC west. He also had 32 catches that season which makes him a complete back and could be a steal as someone projected to go that late.
Free Agents: There are some big name free agents at the RB position this off season. Most of them will end up back with their old teams like Ray Rice and Matt Forte. Although Forte could leave the Bears if he's unhappy with their offer. Peyton Hillis will likely be available, but I wouldn't want to pay him the kind of money he's probably looking for, especially with the questions about his commitment to his team.
One name I really like that could be had at reasonable cost is Micheal Bush from the Raiders. He's a big powerful back that would fit in well in this division. I doubt he goes back to Oakland to play behind McFadden. He's probably looking to go somewhere he can get more carries. This would be a good get if the team could land Bush.
A couple other names that could be last resorts are Tim Hightower and Jason Snelling. Both have shown flashes when put in starters roles.
Recomendation: Getting a quality RB is a must for this team. Benson did not get the job done this year. While Bernard Scott has shown some flashes and I like his ability, I wouldn't want to go into next season with just him as the only quality RB on the team. Since free agency comes before the draft I would like to make a run at signing Micheal Bush from the Raiders. If he can't be brought in I would test the waters with Hillis, but I wouldn't over pay for him. The next choice would be to try to get Hightower here, only at a reasonable price and he would serve as an insurance policy in case the team is unable to find a back it likes in the draft to contribute immediately.
If Bush or Hillis is brought in then drafting a RB early is not a priority. If neither can be or no one else of at least their caliber then I would really consider trading up, not too much, to get Richardson from Alabama. After that, if no quality free agents are brought in the team would have to make sure they secure either Wilson from Virginia Tech, Polk from Washington, or Miller from Miami in the 2nd round.
Wide Receivers: The Bengals hit a home run with AJ Green in the first round of last year's draft. He is going to be an elite WR in the NFL for the next decade if he can avoid a devestating injury. Jerome Simpson showed some flashes of his athleticism, but overall he is inconsistent and I believe if he isn't involved early in a game he disappears. I don't think he has the intelligence or drive to be a consistent number two that will help take some pressure off of Green and would like to see the WR2 position upgraded. Jordan Shipley has shown he has the makings of a good slot WR and now days ACL injuries usually don't hinder a career. Andrew Hawkins was a pleasant suprise and when put in the slot is too fast for Safeties or LB's to even try to cover. Also I think he would be a good punt returner and would like to see him get some work there, he can be an asset to this team. I also like what I've seen from Ryan Whalen and hope he doesn't get squeezed out in a numbers game, but if he does it's a good problem because that means the team has too many quality WR's.
So basically the team is good at WR1 and in the slot with two good slot players so the depth is there for the slot. I don't see either Simpson or Caldwell being brought back after their contracts are up and could be cut before if the roster space is needed. There are some quality WR's in the draft that could fill that WR2 spot if it falls that way and we can get good value early. If the team doesn't think that can happen then it should look to free agency. An elite WR doesn't need to be brought in so it shouldn't cost too much, but the team needs to spend the dollars to make sure a quality player that can win one on one match ups is brought in for when teams focus too much attention on Green.
Draft: The top WR is Justin Blackmon, but there's no way this team will be in position to draft him unless it wants to spend like the Falcons did last year and I don't think that would be wise. An interesting thing has happened this year. Going into the season most draft experts had Alshon Jeffrey as the top WR slightly ahead of Blackmon and projected to go top 10. Now most have Jeffrey in the 15 to 25 range. He is a big, physical, talented WR who could be a number one WR on a lot of teams in the NFL. His numbers dropped off from 2010 to 2011, but that was more due to really bad QB play at South Carolina, and a team that underachieved overall in my opinion.
I think if Jeffrey is there when this team picks at number 17 you pull the trigger. That would all of a sudden give a young offense, possibly the most talented group of WR's/TE's in the NFL right up there with the Saints and Packers. When you have a chance to put an offense like this together, it's rare and you have to take that opportunity and find another way to fill other holes. Remember this team also has two first round picks which makes it somewhat of a luxury. With the way the draft is projected to fall, I would say he'd be the most talented player on the board if he's still there at 17 and the WR position would be set for a long time. The team would basically have two number one WR's and the best one two punch in the league.
There is also Micheal Floyd, and I would consider using a 1st round pick on him as well. He's projected to go somewhere around 20 to 29 or so and would be more than competant as a number two. He has been more consistent throughout his college career than Jeffrey but isn't as talented. I do think as far as Jeffrey goes he should take off some of the weight he added this year to get a bit faster. And Floyd should add about 5 lbs to get a bit stronger. Both are good prospects, big physical WR's, but Jeffrey's a bit bigger and Floyd just a bit faster with Jeffrey at his current weight. At this point I'd take Jeffrey no doubt in the first and Floyd there'd be a decision to make depending on how free agency went. I would prefer to upgrade over Simpson so if Jeffrey is gone, taking Floyd would be a strong possibility.
After that there is Kendall Wright from Baylor. He is a burner but only 5-10 which is on the small side. He'd be able to stretch the field, but press coverage could be a problem for him. He is projected to go in the early 2nd so trading back one of the first round picks could be an option. He is comparable to Mike Wallace which could you imagine Wallace and Green on the same team.
The only other WR in this draft that I think would be an upgrade over Simpson is Mohamed Sanu of Rutgers. He is another big WR that carried the Rutgers team in a lot of games. He dominated a North Carolina defense full of NFL caliber talent on an inferior team. He is a good route runner, has decent speed for his size, and excellent hands. If he's available with the teams 2nd round pick that would be great value.
Two other players I would consider in the 3rd round or earlier is Rueben Randle from LSU. He doesn't have the numbers of some of these other players, but plays on an LSU team that can't throw the ball very well. He could be a steal in the 3rd round. He has good height at 6-4 and would be another big red zone threat. Nick Toon from Wisconsin is the other, another player with good size and an ability to stretch the field.
Free Agents: There are a lot of big name free agents this year, but as usual most will end up back with their teams. Big name free agent WR's cost a lot of money as well. If Philly is unable to get DeSean Jackson signed I would take a hard look at him depending on the cost. He'll cost some money, but this team is well under the cap. Jackson would definitely make defenses play honest. If they wanna cloud AJ Green, he'll make them pay. If the running game can get going this team would be impossible to defend because you can't put 8 in the box with Green and Jackson's ability to beat you deep.
Colston and Meachem from the Saints are both free agents. I expect Colston to be resigned, but maybe not Meachem. He could probably be had for a more reasonable price and has show ability to beat teams deep and is a red zone threat. Meachem would be a good pick up and then a WR wouldn't need to be drafted early at all.
The only other WR I think could be available that I feel would be an upgrade over Simpson is Pierre Garcon, but he will probably be back in Indy.
Recomendation: Although Simpson isn't consistent, there aren't a lot of options that would be better to replace him. If someone isn't brought in via free agency to be the number two WR and Jeffrey is available I would take him. As long as there isn't a clear cut choice that the team feels is better and would fill a hole or significantly upgrade the position.
Tight Ends: The Bengals are set with a talented 1st round talent in Jermaine Gresham. However you are seeing teams have success with two TE sets like the New England Patriots. A two TE set is hard to defend because defenses usually stick with their base defense so they don't get run all over. That means the TE's are being covered by slower LB's or smaller Safeties, either way a mis match. I think Donald Lee and Colin Cochart did a good job contributing to this team and wouldn't mind seeing either of them here in 2012.
Draft: As far as drafting goes this team isn't going to spend an early round pick on a TE. There are too many other holes to fill on this team. There is a bigger TE from Alabama that could be had in the late rounds, Micheal Williams, who would provide the team a good blocking TE for the run game. Other than that the team should look at late round players and see if they can find any diamonds in the rough.
Free Agents: The biggest named free agent is Jermicheal Finley. He is going to command top dollar, and will likely end up back with the Packers. I don't think this team should spend big money on the TE position there are too many other holes where the money would be better served.
Offensive Line: I am a firm believer in winning football starts up front whether it's pop warner football or the NFL. For the most parts the teams with the most depth and best players up front seem to be the consistent winners. On both the offensive and defensive side of the ball I would never have a problem with the team using an early draft pick on a lineman. If you can push people around up front and move the line of scrimmage you will win. Look at the Giants in 2007, they won the Super Bowl against a Patriots team that was 18-0 by beating the Patriots offensive line the entire game and never giving Brady time to throw.
As far as the Bengals offensive line goes, it is solid. There is definitely room for improvement, epecially at Guard. I think they are pretty well set at Tackle. They have two quality starters and a good back up if they can retain Anthony Collins. Whitworth played at an all-pro level this year and Andre Smith showed major improvement and finally started to show he may be capable of living up to his number six overall pick.
Guard is where the issues are the biggest. Nate Livings has been a success story as far as being undrafted and playing his way to a starter. However his play is below average if you ask me. Too many penalties, mainly holding, which tells me he's getting beat too often. I think he's got to be upgraded if the line is going to reach it's full potential. If Guard can be upgraded the sky is the limit for this team with all of the good young skill players and the promise Andy Dalton showed at QB. At the other Guard spot Bobbie Williams may have played his last game as a Bengal. He has been a good player here for a long time, but he is aging and starting to decline as injuries are catching up to him.
At Center Kyle Cook has been a good player. It's a far cry from the days of Eric Guicec who was terrible. He's solid but I am worried if he went down who would the team turn to. There isn't a proven back up. At Guard's back up I think Clint Boling has a promising future. As Lapham has said many times he needs to work on lowering his pad level but that can be fixed with some coaching and he may be a starter at Guard in 2012.
This team is going to have to add some offensive lineman either via free agency or the draft. They have to be better up front if they want to take the next step and advance far into the playoffs. A perfect example is the first time they played the Ravens. After coming back from down 17, they were down 7 and driving down to the Ravens 5 yard line. After Hawkins dropped a ball on first down the Ravens were on Dalton the next three downs before he had time to do anything and secured the game. The line has to be better as they showed they were outmatched when the game was on the line.
Draft: Depending on how this draft falls a 1st round Guard could be in order. Like I said earlier the two biggest holes are Guard and CB. This draft class is loaded at CB so waiting til the 2nd round to get one could still net them a very good CB that would go in the first round in other years.
There is a Guard prospect who may be one of the better interior lineman to come out of college in a long time, David DeCastro from Stanford. DeCastro can do it all. He pushes defenders back in the run game, he can pull, and he is an excellent pass blocker. He was a force in college football all season long and has been consistent throughout his college career. Taking him with one of the two first round picks would have to be under strong consideration, if he lasts that long. Once teams watch all the tape on him his stock could rise and he could be gone before 17.
Cordy Glenn is another top Guard prospect. He plays Tackle at Georgia, but will likely be moved inside in the NFL due to his size. He has the perfect body type for Guard, not really Tackle. He's projected to go late first early second round. I don't know if I'd use one of the picks the team currently has without trading back because I don't think it'd be the best value. I think finding a Tackle projected in the 2nd to 3rd round that is more athletic and moving him inside would net the team just as good of a player.
Which gets to my next point. Lots of teams are taking middle round Tackles and moving them to Guard because Tackles are more athletic. Usually they have to put on about ten to fifteen pounds but that's not a problem with these big guys. Teams are finding that a player that is a 4th or 5th round Tackle that moves into Guard usually ends up being just as good as a 2nd round Guard. Now in DeCastro's case, he's a special player and is well worth the 1st round pick.
Kelechi Osemele is a Tackle from Iowa State that is projected to play Guard in the NFL and is a projected 2nd rounder. He weighs 347 pounds but actually has great athleticism for his size and maybe could play RT in the NFL. That versatility alone makes him valuable. With only so many roster spots getting a guy that could play 3 or maybe even 4 positions makes him a hot commodity. With the need at Guard, if the position isn't filled and he's available in the 2nd round it'd be an excellent pick.
There are also a few good middle round Guards such as Kevin Zeitler of Wisconsin and Ryan Miller from Colorado. This team could take two Guards in this draft. If a starter isn't brought in in free agency one will have to be within the first two rounds. Really I think the team is looking for two new starters unless they think Boling is ready to start right now.
Free Agents: Carl Nicks from the Saints is the top free agent Guard in 2012. The Saints just signed Evans to a big money deal last year and may not want to pay another Guard that type of money. If Nicks is available this team should make a serious run at him. Free Agents will be more willing to come to Cincinnati with the young talent and promise on this team.
Another top free agent Guard is Ben Grubbs from the Ravens. This would be a double win if he isn't back in Baltimore and comes here as it takes a top lineman away from one of your division rivals and makes your line better. Taking a run at both Nicks and Grubbs would be in the best interest of this team. There is plenty of room under the cap and if somehow you landed both you would instantly have one of the best lines in the NFL to go along with a talented young offense with talented young skill players. This would also open up the draft to adress WR2 and the defense.
Recomendation: I would take a serious run at the two top free agents. There are a couple other free agents I would look into as landing both is unlikely. If the team feels like Boling is ready to take over one Guard spot then you only have to fill one. If not, you've gotta get a starter via free agency. You don't want to go into the draft looking for two starting Guards. If DeCastro is available he's gotta be on the short list to be drafted first by this team. DeCastro and Jeffrey the WR for the offensive side would probably be my top two candidates for first round picks.
Offensive Summary: Overall the offense looks to be in good shape moving forward. There are a lot of young pieces that are going to improve on this offense, especially with a full off season. The two biggest holes to fill are Guard and WR2 and there are some prime candidates to fill those holes either via the draft or free agency.

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