NFL Cincinnati Bengals

5 Cincinnati Bengals Who Mean the Most to the Team’s Future

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5 Cincinnati Bengals Who Mean the Most to the Team's Future

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals are an up and coming team in not only the AFC, but the NFL as a whole. This past season the Bengals relished in their AFC North division title only to be knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the wild card winning San Diego Chargers. The Bengals, who entered the game with an 11-5 overall record, were looking to make a serious run at the AFC Championship title but played one of their worst games of the season in which nothing seemed to go their way.

The Bengals and their fans just can't seem to catch a break. Whether it is Joe Montana leading a game-winning touchdown drive in the Super Bowl or Carson Palmer blowing his knee out in a playoff game, the Bengals have struggled where it matters most in recent decades as they have not won a playoff game since 1990. Despite all of the negativity that surrounds the team and their fans, the Bengals have a young, talented nucleus of players that they have developed through free agency and mainly the draft.

The level of talent on the Bengals' roster is comparable to any other team in the league, but there are five players in particular who mean the most to the team's future. These five players are key to keeping the Bengals moving in the right direction and delivering the franchise, city and fans their first Super Bowl championship.

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5. LB Vontaze Burfict

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Vontaze Burfict is the perfect example of what someone would refer to as finding a diamond in the rough. Burfict was a highly-rated linebacker prospect coming out of college in the 2012 NFL Draft, but a rough time at the NFL Combine led the potential first-round draft pick to go undrafted.

Thankfully for the Bengals, they signed Burfict in 2012 as an undrafted free agent, and in his second season in 2013 he led the NFL in tackles with 171 and was the only Bengals player to be selected to the Pro Bowl.

Every team needs a leader on the defensive side of the ball, particularly at linebacker, and the Bengals have a star in the making for years to come in their linebacking corps.

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4. RB Giovani Bernard

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One of the biggest and best bright spots for the Cincinnati Bengals this past season came from rookie running back Giovani Bernard. The second-round pick proved his worth throughout the season as he rushed for 695 yards and five touchdowns while also specializing out of the backfield in the passing game by hauling in 514 yards and three touchdowns through the air.

At just 5-foot-8 and 200-pounds, Bernard proved that he is much more than just a third down back. He has the potential to be a full-time, every down playmaker for the Bengals moving forward in his career with the franchise.

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3. DT Geno Atkins

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Geno Atkins proved in 2012 that he was the most dominant defensive tackle in the NFL, and that held true in 2013 until a torn ACL on Oct. 31 ended his season.

The Bengals got a steal when they drafted Atkins in the fourth-round of the 2010 NFL Draft as the two-time Pro-Bowler has garnered 136 career tackles, 29 sacks and six fumbles in just over three seasons.

Before Atkins' torn ACL in October, the Bengals made a great franchise decision and re-signed him to a long-term deal worth $55 million over five years. Atkins will help anchor the Bengals' defense moving forward, especially on the defensive front against the run and as a pass rushing presence as well.

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2. WR A.J. Green

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By far the most prolific and exciting player to watch on the Cincinnati Bengals team is A.J. Green. Green has made his presence felt on the franchise's offense since day one when the Bengals selected him in the first-round of the 2011 NFL Draft with the No. 4 overall pick. They got a player who had an immediate impact and has made the Pro-Bowl in each of his first three seasons.

In his career through just three years, Green has already accumulated over 3,800 yards receiving and 29 touchdowns. Receivers like him do not come around often, and the Bengals need to do whatever it takes to keep Green happy to make sure he stays in the orange and black for as long as possible.

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1. QB Andy Dalton

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Andy Dalton was selected by the Bengals in the second-round of the 2011 NFL Draft and has been the starter since day one. Although he made the Pro-Bowl in his first season and has led the Bengals to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, there is just something that seems to be missing. He has struggled in the playoffs with three losses where he has thrown just one touchdown compared to six interceptions and three fumbles.

Dalton is surrounded by nearly more talent than any quarterback in the league. The last year of his contract is coming up in 2014, and he must prove that he is the man of the future at a position that must be great to win a championship in the NFL.