After two seasons in the playoffs, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about within and surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals. However, with two first round losses since Andy Dalton took over as the franchise’s starting quarterback, there are also reasons to feel anxious and uncomfortable moving forward with this roster.
Striking a balance between improvements and continuity within the doors of the locker room is the greatest challenge of any general manager and his coaching staff. Even though the Bengals have ended their seasons earlier than initially hoped for the past two years, there is no need for radical changes this off-season.
Although the last two years will go down as the first in the Dalton era, the reality is the two teams were very different from season to season. None of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Trevor Robinson, Terence Newman, Kevin Zeitler, Wallace Gilberry, Vontaze Burfict or even Leon Hall carried the roles with this franchise that they did last year, the previous season. In fact, of that group only Hall was actually on the roster at any point during the season.
The Bengals had a very active off-season in 2012 that saw the roster endure much turnover, adding new faces to both sides of the ball. With plenty of cap space and a similar result to the 2012 season, one would be forgiven for expecting a similar season of change this year.
Instead of adding free agents, whether they be big name or lesser additions, the Bengals’ primary focus in free agency will focus around re-signing their own starters. Andre Smith, Bernard Scott, Bruce Gradkowski, Pat Sims, Robert Geathers, Gilberry, Michael Johnson, Manny Lawson, Rey Maualuga, Thomas Howard, Nate Clements, Chris Crocker, Newman, Adam Jones, Kevin Huber, Mike Nugent, Clark Harris and Josh Brown are all coming free of their contracts.
It’s plausible that the Bengals have varying levels of interest in re-signing each of those players. Obviously within the draft the Bengals will bring in new faces to fill roles, but free agency should be much of the same players signing contracts.
That may initially underwhelm fans who are hoping for big name additions, but the reality is that the Bengals roster is set up for development from within rather than addition from outside. Last year’s draft offered a huge amount of promise from top to bottom, but the production in year one was relatively small compared to that promise.
Players such as Zeitler, Sanu, Jones and Burfict did perform, but there were many rookies who barely saw the field. Dre Kirkpatrick, George Iloka, Devon Still, Brandon Thompson, Orson Charles, Shaun Prater and Dan Herron will all be expected to perform more in their second seasons.
In order to do that, the Bengals coaching staff must focus much of their off-season work on developing each individual player into the roles that fit the team. While they are limited in the time they can spend with their younger players, they can simply help their development by being confident enough in them to not bring in replacements or superstars who drain any optimism that they need to work for the positions.
There is no doubt a lot of raw physical talent in that class, so the Bengals won’t be scared of pushing the players towards their potential and making use of them early on in their careers. Should even one third of those players step up, the Bengals would have a very different looking roster. So if they all do, as unlikely as that is, the Bengals will once again have a completely new team in 2013.
A completely new team not made of completely new faces.