Like the 31 other franchises in the NFL, the Cincinnati Bengals have plenty of needs to fill this off-season. Unlike most of those franchises entering free agency or the draft, the Bengals have a huge amount of flexibility financially. That flexibility allows the team to approach the off-season in a variety of ways. Marvin Lewis could look to lock down his current stars to long-term deals or bring in superstars to help maximize the team’s chances of winning a Super Bowl in the short-term. Typically, the Bengals aren’t the type of franchise to make major splashes in free agency or be overly aggressive in the draft.
However, this season they could at least consider that approach. Only Andre Smith and Michael Johnson will be considered major free agent losses should they leave and neither are irreplaceable. Re-signing Smith and Johnson would still leave the Bengals with plenty of space to maneuver. Along with that space, the Bengals have relatively few needs. Needs that need to be addressed are running-back, wide receiver, defensive end, defensive tackle, outside linebacker, cornerback and safety. Even though that seems like a long list, many of those positions can be filled by players currently under contract.
At running-back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis may not be a superstar, but he is a capable back at the very least. He and second year player Dan Herron are the only current backs under contract for the Bengals. Herron is a physically gifted back who needed to develop greater discipline with the football after being selected in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. Much like an Arian Foster or even a Jonathan Dwyer, the Bengals will be hoping that the 23-year-old running back develops more as a professional than he did during his college career.
Two rookies from last season offer the Bengals plenty of potential at wide receiver. Both Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu showed enough in their first seasons to be considered starters entering next season, but even if neither player puts his stamp on the position in training camp and the pre-season, the Bengals could solve the issue indirectly. Jones and Sanu came into the league with a tight end by the name of Orson Charles. The 2012 fourth round pick is just 22 years of age and had eight receptions for 101 yards in his rookie season. Charles came out of college with a big reputation as a receiving tight end and will be expected to do more for the Bengals next season. Running with two high quality tight ends would take the pressure off of the team’s second starting receiver.
The Bengals don’t have any real options on the roster at defensive end, but the defensive tackle positions could be set if two second-year players step up. Brandon Thompson and Devon Still were taken in the 2012 draft. Still was a second round pick, while Thompson came one round later. Neither player made much of an impact during their first seasons, but expectations should crank up significantly entering next season. Thompson was drafted to be a run-stuffing presence inside, while Still is a more rounded player who is more likely to be a part of the rotation next season. If neither Still or Thompson prove themselves capable, the Bengals will need to venture into free agency to find a third option on the inside of the defensive line.
With Rey Maualuga leaving in free agency, unlikely to return, the Bengals appear happy to move Vontaze Burfict into the middle of their linebacking corps. The team’s current crop of starters are all very young with Dontay Moch, Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur atop the depth chart. Moch was a third round pick two years ago and is still waiting for his career to start after missing essentially all of his first two seasons through injury. Lamur was an undrafted free agent last year who found his way onto the roster at the expense of Moch. He offers the team a very athletic option but doesn’t have the experience or proven abilities of past starters on the outside.
In the secondary, the Bengals need players to step up at both positions. Starting safety Chris Crocker is a free agent, as is starting cornerback Terence Newman. Newman’s natural replacement is last year’s first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick played very little as a rookie because of injury, but is a very talented and tough replacement for Newman who fits the mold of the defense. At safety, Taylor Mays was the team’s backup last year, but another second-year player, George Iloka, will be fighting to get onto the field while Robert Sands, a fifth round pick in 2011, will also look to force the coaching staff’s collective hand.
Not all of these players are going to step up, that is too unlikely, but even if just a few do then the Bengals will be in an excellent position to maximize their Super Bowl chances next season.