Cincy Sports has given you the GM Report on the offense and defense and the state of both sides of the ball heading into the 2012 off season. This report is what the order of priorities for this team would be on filling the holes on the team. Filling these holes will hopefully make this coming season a better year than the 2011 season. Teams should always look to get better across the board. The better the 53rd guy is on your roster, the better your team will be.
The 2011 season was a pleasant suprise to most Bengals fans. Most pundits and even fans in this city thought this would be one of the worst teams in the NFL and might be the favorites to land Andrew Luck with the number one overall pick in the draft. Despite the good season, and abundance of talented young players on this team at key positions, there is still a long way to go if the ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl is to be reached.
Since Free Agency happens before the draft here's a list of what players and positions need to be filled and the order in which I would go about filling them.
1. LaRon Landry, Safety, Washington Redskins: Obviously you never know what free agents will be resigned by their former teams, but Landry would be a candidate to hit the open market. Safety is one of the tougher positions to fill via the draft in most years. The SS position needs to be upgraded. Chris Crocker was servicable for a few years, but he's getting old and we all saw how he struggled in the playoff game against the Texans. All the great defenses that are consistently great year in and year out have a top Safety. Like the Ravens and the Steelers have for years.
Landry is on his way to being one of the elite Safeties in this league. I'm usually not in favor of throwing big dollars at a free agent, but with this team's room under the cap and the talent of Landry I would make a strong push to get him here in Cincinnati. Wine and dine him, or whatever else you have to do. Getting Landry would go a long way in upgrading a secondary that really struggled the second half of the season. Since there is only one Safety with a 1st round grade, this would be my top priority in free agency.
2. The Guard Position: This may be a bigger hole than Safety, and a bigger need, but there isn't a player that is elite like Landry at this position. Plus the big name free agents seem to go quick so making a play at Landry would come before this.
The top two names at Guard in free agency are Carl Nicks from the Saints and Ben Grubbs from the Ravens. Guard is a position that is cheap compared to other positions on the offensive line. I think Nicks will be open for bidding because the Saints just paid Evans a lot of money last year and may not want to tie up that much money at one position. If Grubbs could be had that would be a double win taking him away from division rival the Ravens and filling a hole at the same time. The price would have to be right, but if either can be had I would make a play at them.
If you do sign Landry then you may have to look to cheaper options at this position because of the salary Landry will likely command. Derrick Dockery from Dallas, Ryan Diem from Indianapolis, and Will Montgomery from Washington would be three names to check into. Because of both positions being a need at Guard an early draft pick could be an option in addition to a free agent.
The first name I would look at here is Micheal Bush. He could probably be had relatively cheap and would be a perfect fit in this division with his power style in the physical AFC North. He's also a good compliment to Bernard Scott as he's about the exact opposite as far as style goes and would bring something completely different to the table. There's only one RB I would take with a 1st round pick and that's Trent Richardson. Since he's going to be long gone I think for this year free agency is the way to go to fill the RB position.
There are some big name RB's out there this year like Ray Rice and Matt Forte but odds are they end up back with their same teams. Rice for sure, Forte could be available based on his contract dispute with the Bears but he would carry a heavy price tag. You can't sign more than one or two big dollar free agents realistically. If the team is unable to get Landry or one of the top Guards would be the only way I could see going after someone like Forte.
There is also some names like Peyton Hillis, but I question his toughness with the whole strep throat thing. Either that or he got bad advice from his agent. Mike Tolbert would probably fall in the same dollar category as Hillis. He's an interesting name and if the dollars are available is another power back to take a look at. He can also catch the ball and pass protect very well and would be the next back I would look at after Micheal Bush.
If none of those players can be had you have Tim Hightower and Jason Snelling. Those would be players that could come in and compete, but would largely be backup plans. If it comes down to them taking a RB in the draft early would almost have to be on the table.
The secondary really started their struggles when Leon Hall went down. This is a position depth must be upgraded. The draft is loaded at CB and going after that position in the first two rounds is a serious option, which is why this position isn't listed higher. However if a quality CB can be added along with Clements and Jones resigned then you don't have to take a CB very early in the draft.
Cortland Finnegan is the top name, but the CB position is pricey, and he would likely cost too much. Unless this team is unable to attract any top free agents, I wouldn't want to spend that kind of money. Especially since the draft is so loaded at the position and Hall will be back next year.
After Finnegan, names like Brandon Carr and Marcus Trufant should be intriuging to this team. They are both quality CB's who would add an instant upgrade to the depth in the secondary. If Jones and Clements are both brought back a CB group of Hall, Carr/Trufant, Jones, and Clements would be one of the better 1-4 CB groups in the NFL.
After that there are names like Eric Wright and Rashean Mathis that would add good depth to the position, but an early round CB would need to be added as well.
5. A 2nd Wide Receiver:
Jerome Simpson showed flashes over the last 4 games of 2010 and throughout 2011, but his play was not consistent enough. I don't know if he has the mental game. The team has it's WR1 and two good slot guys along with one of the most talented TE's in the NFL, WR2 is the missing piece. I wouldn't sign a free agent unless I thought they could bring more to the table than Simpson. Maybe drafting someone in the 1st round could be the way to go and have a WR group of Dalton and Green, along with the new WR that are all about the same age and could all develop together.
There are lots of big name WR's that are going to be free agents in 2012. How many resign with their old teams is yet to be determined, but there should be some big names out there.
Desean Jackson could be one of those names. He's not happy with what Philly has done signing all these big dollar contracts and not offering him one. Having Jackson to go across from AJ Green would give defensive coordinators headaches. Do you roll coverage to AJ and leave Desean one on one to beat you deep or do you cover deep and have a CB try to defend AJ Green one on one? Neither one of those would work. If you try to take both away then you have a LB trying to cover Jermaine Gresham. This would be a huge signing, but would likely cost a lot of money.
There are other names that could be available like Vincent Jackson or Brandon Lloyd. The most intruiging other name to me though is Robert Meachem. He has the ability to beat CB's deep and has shown he can get the job done when defenses try to take away teams better options like in New Orleans with Colston and Graham. Meachem also does a great job in the red zone which this team needs. He could be had at a reasonable price.
After that I would look to getting Simpson a 1 year deal and drafting his replacement.
This is the most puzzling position on the team. There are plenty of good players at LB, but I don't know what to do about getting them in the right spots. Thomas Howard definitely needs to be brought back and be the starting Will LB in 2012, he played outstanding this season. Keith Rivers can either take a pay cut or play somewhere else, because he has lost his starting job. Can Rey play the middle? Some games he played like he owned the field and some he was out of place. I think giving him one more year in the middle is in order. This was new for him in the NFL and I think sometimes he was thinking too much instead of just playing because he had new responsibilities. I like Manny Lawson as well, but if it looks like Rey isn't working out early in next season he would go back to the strong side and Manny would be the backup. That would leave a hole in the middle then. Maybe Skuta could man the position or do you find a free agent that would start the season as a backup and then if Rey struggles he would be the starter.
Would London Fletcher assume that role at 36 years old? I seriously doubt it because despite his age he's still playing at a high level. The team could make the decision now to move Rey back to SAM LB and if Fletcher is willing to come here make him the starter. With his age injuries could be a concern, but if that happened Rey is better than any backup in the middle in the NFL and Skuta is more than servicable.
Looking at some lesser talented LB's is an option also because they can always contribute on Special Teams with their combination of size and speed.
Every team has a big board heading into the draft. This would be my big board of players this team would look to draft. When you see this big board you won't see Andrew Luck on there because he's not someone the team could realistically look at drafting. You will see Trent Richardson, now realistically the team probably won't get him because he'll be gone, but he fills a need and would be an option to trade up to get. So this big board is a big board of players that the team could go after.
1. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
2. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
3. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
4. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
5. Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina
6. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
7. David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
8. Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama
9. Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College
10. Mark Barron, SS, Alabama
11. Micheal Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
12. Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
13. Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia
14. Devon Still, DT, Penn State
15. Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina
16. David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech
17. Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor
18. Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois
19. Lamar Miller, RB, Miami
20. Chase Minnifield, CB, Virginia
21. Kelechi Osemele, OG/OT, Iowa State
22. Chris Polk, RB, Washington
23. Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama
24. Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech
25. Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
26. Kevin Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin
27. Casey Heyward, CB, Vanderbilt
28. Markelle Martin, SS, Oklahoma State
29. Derek Wolfe, DT, Cincinnati
30. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
31. Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State
32. Dwight Jones, WR, North Carolina
33. Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson
34. Ray Ray Armstrong, SS, Miami
35. Billy Winn, DT, Boise State
36. Ryan Miller, OG, Colorado
37. Cliff Harris, CB, Oregon
38. Isaiah Pead, RB, Cincinnati
39. Mike Brewster, C, Ohio State
40. Ben Jones, C, Georgia
That list of names should get them through three rounds. Again this is not a list of all the top players, just the players the team should have interest in.