Andy Dalton (Getty Images)
Andy Dalton (Getty Images)
2013 record: 11-5
Projected current salary-cap space (according to OverTheCap.com): $30.4 million under the cap
Draft situation: The Bengals will draft 24th in the first round and own all their original picks.
Revisiting 2013: After a wild and up-and-down opening month of the season, the Bengals and Andy Dalton got hot in October and sprinted to the lead in the muddled AFC North. Dalton was the NFL's Offensive Player of the Month for October with some of the best play of his career, but things fell apart starting on Halloween night in Miami. After a brutal Thursday night loss there, the team lost its balance a little bit, and questions persisted about Dalton's ability to take the team to the next level, even as the team took the division by winning four of five games in December heading into the playoffs. And that's when the recurring dream became a nightmare, as for the third time in Dalton's three seasons, the team lost its opening postseason game, this time an embarrassing home setback to the San Diego Chargers, who barely sneaked into the game in the first place. Even though this is a young, talented team, the loss cast doubt about Dalton's long-term future with the team among fans, even as the club publicly has discussed an extension for him.
Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. They also have a game-breaking back in Giovani Bernard, a talented project at tight end in Tyler Eifert and a strong offensive line that doesn't always get its proper due. The defense features playmakers on all three levels and will receive a boost from the return of defensive tackle Geno Atkins, whose midseason injury really took the air out of the group up front. New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who takes over for Mike Zimmer, is as talented and well-qualified as any defensive assistant out there, and he's ready for his promotion.
Glaring hole to fill: With no one pressing need, we'll pick a few spots on defense that could use a little sprucing. The defensive line needs another injection of talent, even with Margus Hunt being groomed for a bigger role. Atkins' injury, Johnson's free-agent status and a lack of depth are concerning up front. Both outside linebacker spots could use some competition, even if Vincent Rey vies for more time. Harrison is well aged, and Rey Maualuga is not a long-term answer. Corner also is an area of worry, given Leon Hall's and Terence Newman's ages and injury histories, and the unreliability of Pacman Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick, and it's a tough role in this defense with as much single-high safety as the Bengals tend to play. It's likely the team will spend its first-round pick on defense.
Toughest decision: Should the Bengals try to keep Johnson? He'll command big bucks in free agency, especially for a team such as the Atlanta Falcons or Zimmer's Minnesota Vikings. Johnson isn't an elite defensive end, and his play seemed to level off once Atkins was out of the lineup, meaning he can't carry a unit. But he was a tone-setting force on this defense, too. With plenty of salary-cap space this year (and likely next, before any Dalton extension), the Bengals could make a play to keep Johnson, knowing the Hunt isn't likely to be an even-sum swap on ability or snaps played. The gut feeling remains that Johnson will not be franchised and that he'll hit the open market and go elsewhere. But the Bengals could have a last-minute change of heart on this front if they are worried about their talent and depth.
Best-case offseason scenario: Most of the resources should be spent on repairing multiple spots on defense. Guenther knows that he must make his stamp early, and he'll plead with head coach Marvin Lewis and owner Mike Brown, who makes most of the draft picks, to get him some help. This team is ready to compete now, and it will be fascinating to see how the team approaches Dalton's contract status; they clearly are showing him support this offseason, following another playoff bow out. If there are additions on offense, expect them to be at positions where depth and new blood are needed such as offensive tackle (especially if Collins exits) and tight end, and perhaps running back, where someone such as Darren McFadden could be an intriguing option.
Previous Blueprints: 32. Houston Texans; 31. Washington Redskins; 30. Jacksonville Jaguars; 29. Cleveland Browns; 28. Oakland Raiders; 27. Atlanta Falcons; 26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers; 25. Minnesota Vikings; 24. Buffalo Bills; 23. Detroit Lions; 22. Tennessee Titans; 21. New York Giants; 20. St. Louis Rams; 19. Chicago Bears; 18. Pittsburgh Steelers; 17. Dallas Cowboys; 16. Baltimore Ravens; 15. New York Jets; 14. Miami Dolphins; 13. Arizona Cardinals; 12. Green Bay Packers; 11. Philadelphia Eagles; 10. Kansas City Chiefs
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