What we have: Andy Dalton is now an experienced and a productive NFL starter entering his fourth NFL season. He processes information quickly and can make snap decisions when the bullets are flying. Add in a fast release, and Dalton has routinely played the role of a point guard in this offense by distributing the ball to the Bengals talented weapons. He has improved deDunning accuracy and now throws a nice vertical pass with good touch.
What we need to see: Dalton now must start to cut out his mistakes, but how? As I said, he makes quick decisions, but that’s not always a good thing. Dalton must read defenses better after the snap. He gets into trouble when his presnap reads don’t align with his post–snap reads. Defenses have found ways to confuse him with different looks and it only gets worse against common opponents and 3–4 defenses. I think most of his problems stem from this as you’ll see inaccurate passes and miscommunication as a result of not seeing the field correctly. I would like to see improvements in Anticipation and Accuracy in the intermediate range. If you don’t have an above average arm, you must be able to compensate by throwing early and having great accuracy. Dalton‘s 2012 pocket presence was horrible, but he has much better in 2011 and 2013. Let’s hope 2012 was an aberration.
What we have: In Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill, the Bengals have two of the three highest drafted runners over the past two years. The talent is there. I think Bernard is an all around back that can run any play and be a legit weapon in the passing game. His vision and deceptiveness makes him very hard to line up and tackle for defenses.
Jeremy Hill is the big bruising back with surprising top speed. He can really run through tackles at full speed. He’s the more physically gifted of the two runners.
The depth chart rounds out with special teams captain Cedric Peerman and a battle for the fourth spot will be between veterans Benjarvus Green–Ellis and Rex Burkhead. I expect Rex to win the job and possibly carve out a role in the passing game.
What we need to see: How much has Gio Bernard prepared himself for a larger role? Did he add weight/muscle? Did that slow him down? He has dealt with nagging injuries since college and keeping an eye on his health will be the only thing we can really be cautious of.
In Jeremy Hill, we need to see how he runs without a fullback in front of him. I don’t expect the Bengals to carry one and when watching LSU, he was noticeably different when he could follow his lead blocker and make a move off of him. Hill’s vision, patience and acceleration make him a candidate for losing yardage on many carries. He’s still raw, so he can improve on some of that, but his going to be used by Hue Jackson early in 2014, he needs to progress quickly. If he can improve as a pass blocker, it’ll only help the Bengals disguise their rushing attack more. Hill’s weaknesses are areas where Gio separates himself. Right now, they have two opposites and they could end up telling defenses what they’re doing based on who’s in the game.
What we have: This is a talented unit with some depth questions as they lost Andrew Hawkins and didn’t acquire anybody worth noting in free agency or the draft.
A.J. Green is the crown jewel of the offense and as he goes, the passing game and Andy Dalton goes. He can run any route and catch almost any ball thrown his way.
Marvin Jones is very talented and after a breakout year, I believe we still haven’t seen his best football. He has deep speed, can run after the catch, has a knack for the big play and is their best blocking receiver. If this offense ends up passing like last season, expect a big season again.
Mohamed Sanu may have reached his peak already. He’s a very smart player with good hands, concentration and toughness. We know he doesn’t have the athleticism to consistently beat man coverage and most of his catches come from the slot against zone coverage or he ends up make a contested catch. He can be used in many different areas of the field and that’s where he’s most valuable.
The rest of the depth chart yields a group of depth and role players. Dane Sanzenbacher may be able to get playing time in the slot and he offers more speed than Sanu. Brandon Tate plays all three spots and has been a steady return man. Cobi Hamilton has high upside, but needs to run better routes and catch the hard passes.
What we need to see: AJ Green needs to put the finishing touches on his overall game; less concentration drops, communication errors and show the toughness required to run those inside routes and have the QB trust you’re going to be where he expects you to be. If he runs these inside routes with conviction, Green will find more room to run on the outside. I don’t think Corners respect his inside moves.
Marvin Jones needs to continue improving his release off of the line of scrimmage and most of all, his hands–catching. He likes to body–catch and often double clutches passes required to catch with extended arms. This is a confidence thing and can be fixed, but some never do; Chad Johnson never fixed this and it hurt him a few times throughout his career.
If there’s a breakout candidate in the depth chart, it’s Sanzenbacher in the slot. He has just enough athleticism to beat man coverage with the intelligence and concentration to make tough catches against zone coverage.
What we have: This is another position where the Bengals have loaded up through the draft. In Jermaine Gresham, you have a tight end with enough athleticism and strength to play all over the field and create mismatches. His raw power after the catch is beautiful and can ignite the team and fan base when he runs through several tacklers. On the flip side, Gresham isn’t a natural hands-catcher and has dealt with his share of drops. This also leads to fumbles as he never looks totally comfortable with the ball in his hands. Throw in the penalties when blocking, and fans have become disenchanted with Gresham in year five. He’s reached his potential.
Tyler Eifert is the shiny new toy. He’s the complete opposite of Gresham. Eifert is as natural catching the ball as AJ Green is. He can make the spectacular catch and really stretch the field from inline or split out wide. He’s an effort blocker that doesn’t have the strength to be more than a nuisance for defenders.
The depth include veteran blocker Alex Smith and two guys that’ll double as H-Backs in Orson Charles and Ryan Hewitt. Charles hasn’t shown the athleticism we saw at Georgia and he needs to mentally find himself before we may ever see that player again.
What we need to see: How does the Eifert and Gresham combination evolve. Does Eifert become the lead guy? I see Eifert more as the move-TE and Gresham will continue to be the Y-TE and consume most of the snaps because of it. If Eifert can show he’s improved his strength and blocking, that’s his key to playing an expanded role and stealing snaps from Gresham.
If Charles mentally takes off in his H-Back role, he can be another weapon for the offense. I think he’s been playing slowly because he’s learning a new position and doesn’t want to make a mistake. It’s do or die time and he needs to go full bore now because rookie Ryan Hewitt could enter this role and run away with it. As all young players do, Hewitt needs to add strength and he can be a serviceable player.
What we have: This is a veteran group with a lot of experience and talent. The offensive tackles are dependable in Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. Neither are very athletic, but with the Bengals quick passing, defenders don’t have time to beat them around the corner. That leaves bull rushes and inside moves, and that’s where both OTs are at their best. Behind them, Marshall Newhouse is experienced and can play when needed. Tanner Hawkinson is an athletic backup that can also play inside. He has nice potential.
The interior offensive line is where things get interesting. Kevin Zeitler should be back to speed at RG after a sophomore slump that wasn’t helped by injuries. They say he’s in great shape and I expect a breakout year. At LG, if Clint Boling is healthy (knee), he’s a serviceable NFL starter. He doesn’t make many mental errors but Boling doesn’t create many plays either.
At center, we’re either going to see veteran Mike Pollak, who played very well at guard last season, or rookie Russell Bodine. I think they want Bodine to play and that scares me more than any position on the team. Pollak was probably their best lineman in space last year and without him in the lineup, the offense is missing a vital piece. Bodine needs plenty of work and is a liability in pass protection right now.
What we need to see: Health at OT and in Clint Boling. All three now have an injury history and it’s something with monitoring. I want to see this new body Zeitler has. Adding just a touch more athleticism to him could be the difference in a Pro Bowl year.
If Bodine is the guy at center, we need to see better hand usage, patience and balance. In one on one, he was routinely beaten and these were the reasons why. As a run blocker, we need Bodine to be that guy in the second level that they’ve lacked since Eric Steinbach, but that definitely isn’t Bodine’s strength.
What we have: If healthy (knee), Geno Atkins is the best player on the Bengals. He makes the entire defense tick and his play makes everyone around him better. Carlos Dunlap is their best edge rusher now after the departure of Michael Johnson. Wallace Gilberry has become a reliable and versatile tool that seems to make plays he shouldn’t. Domata Peko is a veteran leader at NT and is only used in sub packages to defend the run.
The depth includes a bunch of potential in Margus Hunt, Brandon Thompson, Devon Still and Will Clarke. Veteran Robert Geathers is a coach’s favorite and should find his way onto the team again.
What we need to see: The health of Geno and Can the Bengals replace Michael Johnson? Carlos Dunlap will start playing more RDE in an effort to do so, but will he find the same success? Not only will he now play against the traditionally better OT, he will now play in space more and will need to use his athleticism rather than power. Dunlap is a power-rusher with just enough athleticism to beat Right Tackles. Putting him on the other side creates a whole new situation.
Who plays the other DE spot? Wallace Gilberry will play it on base downs, but he plays DT just as much on passing downs. So is Margus Hunt ready to take this role and become a reliable player? He need to play with better leverage and aggression in order to be that guy. If not, I could see the Bengals falling back on Robert Geathers, and nobody wants to see that.
What we have: Vontaze Burfict has become the heart of the defense with his passion, aggression and motor. He’s an intimidating force, but also has the brains to line everybody up and recognize offensive designs. Rey Maualuga has been relegated to run downs and as expected, we have seen a better player. He’s not who we thought he was going to be, but when we step back and look at him, he’s a serviceable starter that plays the run well. The breakout player of this group will be Emmanuel Lamur, but we’ve been saying that since last year when Lamur suffered a shoulder injury that wiped out his season. He’s their most athletic linebacker and his length only makes him even better in coverage. I can’t wait to see him play.
The depth offers some upside in Jayson Dimanche, Marquise Flowers and Sean Porter. I think Porter could carve himself a role if he shows he can rush the passer and if Margus Hunt doesn’t develop. Like last season, we could see more 3-3-5 Nickel defense with Porter playing the James Harrison role. This was done after the loss of Atkins, but could be used if another edge rusher isn’t found. Veteran Vinny Rey can play all three positions, but his value comes on special teams as he’s the other captain.
What we need to see: We would all love if Burfict could but down the negative plays in the form of penalties, rage-plays and over aggression, but we also love his play style.
Can Lamur stay healthy and is he what we saw in brief flashes in 2012?
If they only keep six linebackers, who’s the odd man out? It may come down to Porter, DiManche and Flowers. I could see any of them getting cut and I can see each one of them becoming role players if they develop. Should be interesting.
What we have: If he’s healthy (Achilles 2X), Leon Hall is probably the best Nickel CB in the NFL. On the outside, Adam Jones and Terence Newman have been playing well, but on borrowed time. The career cliff will strike for one of these two this year. That’s where Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick come in. One will need to play in order to replace Leon Hall and the other will need to be ready for when Jones or Newman fall off.
What we need to see: Outside of Hall’s health, the focus is on Dennard and Kirkpatrick. Neither are athletically gifted, but they play physical and aren’t afraid. When healthy, I’ve seen enough in Kirkpatrick to believe he’s not a bust and can be serviceable. Dennard could start as a rookie and probably will see plenty of playing time. If he can walk the line with his hand usage, he should be a solid starter.
What we have: Starters Reggie Nelson and George Iloka don’t have to worry about their jobs. Nelson is athletically gifted, but has had his share of mistakes. He plays FS and SS equally and I think he’s better when he’s closer to the LOS. Iloka played the deep FS role mostly and kept his head above water in his first year starting. If he can add some aggression and anticipation to his game, Iloka can start creating turnovers.
The position has quality depth with Daniel Manning, Shawn Williams and Taylor Mays. Williams is a SS with special teams upside. If Williams is to challenge Iloka, it would be because he shows the ability/range to play deep FS. Mays plays the Nickel LB/S role and has found a home there. Manning was signed to backup both spots and play as needed.
What we need to see: Does Iloka take the next step? If he can go from safe option, to impact player, it’ll be because he starts defending the run better and playing the ball in the air better.
As mentioned above, if Williams expects to compete for playing time, I think his best bet is on special teams. He’s a smart player that lacks the athleticism to be a play-maker on defense, but he definitely can lock up a roster spot for his special teams work.