If you value continuity, then Cincinnati is your squad. Marvin Lewis is one of only two NFL head coaches who have held their current jobs for 10 seasons, and coordinators Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden have been alongside since 2008 and 2011 respectively. The Bengals have made the playoffs in back-to-back years, too, so this staff has demonstrated a degree of competence.
Cincinnati is solid in the trenches on both sides of the ball, with a particularly ferocious D-line —Geno Atkins is basically a Balrog playing three-technique. The Bengals' offense features freakishly talented third-year receiver AJ Green, plus it added a pair of high-upside rookie playmakers in Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert. Bernard was the first running back selected in the 2013 draft (deservedly so), and Eifert was the top tight end.
Really, there are no glaring weaknesses on this roster. Bengals fans should expect a multi-game postseason run. If they don't get it, they have every right to complain.
The biggest question facing this franchise in the near term is whether quarterback Andy Dalton can make the leap from not-bad to Super Bowl-caliber. Dalton now has two playoff games on his resume — both of them on the road at Houston — and we're still waiting for his first postseason touchdown pass. He struggled in the closing weeks of the 2012 regular season, tossing five picks and just four TD passes over Cincinnati's final five games.
Back in March, when Gruden was asked which aspects of Dalton's game needed work, he responded with this:
“Everything. There’s not one part of his game that he doesn’t need to improve. … Hopefully some of our guys are working out with him and they’re throwing. But really, within the offseason, your arm strength, your strength, your footwork, basically your fundamentals of football. And obviously he needs to get better with his deep ball accuracy and touch, and there’s not really one part of his game that he can’t really improve upon. He has to get better in every phase — scramble ability, foot quickness, accuracy, deep accuracy, short, anticipation. He’s got a long way to go. He’s done some great things for a second-year quarterback, won a lot of games and thrown some good touchdown passes, but we feel like he has not come close to his potential."
So that's an unusual level of honesty. It's also a daunting list of action items for Dalton.
Gruden is certainly correct to call out his quarterback's deep accuracy, since Dalton posted terrible numbers in 2012 on throws traveling 20-plus yards downfield. According to Pro Football Focus, Dalton went just 18-for-67 on deep attempts, passing for 588 yards, four TDs and five picks. (Just to give you another data set, Russell Wilson went 28-for-64 on deep balls, throwing for 949 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions.) You'd think Green's jump-ball ability would be enough to at least make Dalton league-average as a bomber, but apparently not.
Despite his faults, Dalton did finish with 27 touchdown passes last season, tied for the seventh-highest total in the league, so he wasn't a complete fantasy bust. He was actually averaging better than two TD passes per game through the first 11 weeks of the season, before his fade. Dalton costs very little at the draft table (Y! ADP 123.5) and he's surrounded by talent; plenty of NFL quarterbacks could deliver a 4000-yard, 30-TD campaign if given this setup. He's on the approved list as a QB2, and he'll surely have a handful of excellent games.
Green has been nursing a knee issue, but the MRI was clean, so we're considering it only a tweaking. Don't be alarmed if we see very little of him in the preseason. Green was an absolute apex predator last year, feasting on pretty much every opponent. He caught 97 balls for 1350 yards and 11 scores on 164 targets, plus he gave his owners a nine-game touchdown streak. He's nearly uncoverable, talented enough to escape and/or out-jump double-teams. Green is the No. 2 receiver on my pre-draft board, and there he'll stay.
It seems unlikely that a second Bengals wideout will emerge as a must-own fantasy asset in standard leagues, but Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones will do their best. (Sanu threw the best deep ball of Cincinnati's season, by the way, not Dalton.) Andrew Hawkins is still around, too, but he suffered a high ankle sprain in camp, leaving his opening week availability in doubt.
The 6-foot-6 Eifert is going to be a matchup nightmare for defenses, and an appealing red zone anywhere target for Dalton this season. He's had a terrific camp thus far by all accounts, likely seeing additional targets with Green sidelined. Eifert is clearly a player to snag in dynasty drafts, and I'd expect him to enter the discussion in standard leagues, too. Check the highlights. You'll like this guy. Tight end may not have seemed like a position of great need for the Bengals, since they have two-time Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham on the roster. But the team simply needs difference-makers at the skill spots, and Eifert qualifies.
If you're not buying my hype, maybe listen to one of the rookie's teammates...
''He's got a different skill-set than a lot of tight ends, I think, as far as the way he runs routes,'' cornerback Terence Newman said. ''He's a big guy, but he moves kind of like he could be a big wideout. It's kind of like the 49ers, what they do with Vernon Davis."
Again, Gresham is still around, coming off a year in which he set career highs in catches (64) and receiving yards (737). Of course Gresham also had eight drops last season, then he had a rough game in the playoff loss to Houston. But he's a talent. Cincy will no doubt run plenty of two-tight end sets this season. For now, neither Gresham nor Eifert ranks as a consensus top-15 tight end, so public leaguers can just look elsewhere on draft day without feeling too terrible.
The Bengals backfield should be quite a bit more entertaining now that Bernard is sharing the load with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Bernard rushed for over 1200 yards in consecutive seasons at North Carolina, averaging 6.7 YPC in 2012. He also caught 45 passes for UNC in 2011, then another 47 in 2012. He's legit, another interesting addition to an already interesting offense. His collegiate highlight reel won't disappoint. Expect Bernard to be an impact back in PPR leagues, with a clear shot at an expanded role by the end of the year. Pass protection reportedly hasn't been a problem for Gio, so that's not a worry at this stage. With a late-round price tag (ADP 112.1), Bernard carries plenty of profit potential. He's much more than a handcuff.
Green-Ellis will be at least the nominal starter for Cincinnati, but he's a flash-less runner who could have a tough time achieving fantasy relevance if he's not a volume ball-carrier. BJGE averaged 3.9 yards per carry last season and 3.7 the year before. He's obviously done some fine work at the goal line, however, and he should continue to see inside-the-5 carries in 2013. Thus, you can't write him off. I'll be surprised if this backfield doesn't remain a committee, perhaps tilting Bernard's way in December.
As we mentioned at the top, this team's defensive line is outstanding, fully capable of pressuring quarterbacks without the aid of blitzers. Atkins had 12.5 sacks last season, Michael Johnson had 11.0, Carlos Dunlap had 6.0, and Wallace Gilberry had 6.5. It's a quality group. The Bengals ranked third in the league in sacks last season (51.0) and eighth in takeaways (30). This is clearly a top-10 defense — a playoff defense — both in fantasy and reality. Own and enjoy.
2012 team stats: 24.4 points per game (12), 237.9 passing yards per game (17), 109.1 rushing yards per game (18)
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