The Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals surprised a lot of people with their success on offense last season. Veteran QB Carson Palmer declared he would retire if he wasn't traded before the start of the season, leaving the Bengals with 2nd Round Rookie Andy Dalton as their starting quarterback and #4 overall pick wideout A.J. Green as his #1 target. Green was considered a sure thing coming out of college and some considered him the best WR prospect since Calvin Johnson. Green actually put up better numbers in his rookie season than Megatron did with 65 grabs for 1,057 yards and 7 touchdowns. Green will only get better which is a scary proposition for opposing defenses. Dalton was considered more of a project coming out of the draft. Despite a fantastic college career there were concerns about his size, ability to adjust to a pro game and coming out of a shotgun-only system. Dalton stunned everyone throwing for almost 3,400 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. That he did this as a rookie in a strike-shortened preseason is a testament to his mental facilities as a QB and his leadership abilities as well.
There is some concern about Dalton however. He began to trail off towards the end of the season with a low completion percentage and more interceptions (including 3 in the wildcard playoff game against the Texans). With a full preseason and more experience there's no reason to think Dalton can't improve even more. There are some other concerns with the Bengals offensively however. They had a weak-running game last season and it might actually get worse this year. Replacing the declining Cedric Benson was a good decision but who they replaced him with might turn out to be a big mistake. They signed former Patriots RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the offseason and he will presumably take over the #1 RB role. Green-Ellis is a nice player; he almost always gains positive yardage and he's never fumbled in his career. On the other hand, he has no breakaway speed, doesn't run for big games, and his success as a runner for the Patriots may have had a lot to do with defense having to focus in on New England's pass happy offense. While I don't think Green-Ellis is a detriment, he's never shown he has what it takes to be a #1 back. He will be spelled by rookie Dan Herron who is limited athletically.
Outside of Green, the WR position could be a concern for the Bengals as well. Last year's #2 wideout Jerome Simpson left for the Vikings in this offseason. Slot receiver Jordan Shipley is coming off a torn ACL and might not be able to produce right away. 2010 First Round Tight End Jermaine Gresham is very talented but has struggled with drops and staying healthy. The Bengals drafted two WR's in this year's draft, Mohamad Sanu and Marvin Jones. Sanu looks to be a quality slot receiver and Jones is raw but athletically gifted but both are likely to suffer some growing pains as rookies, and both are likely to be pushed into action sooner than they might be ready for.
Good news all around for the Bengals offense is their line, one of the more underappreciated units in the NFL. Pro Bowl-caliber LT Andrew Whitworth will return to protect the blindside. Solid but unspectactular Center Kyle Cook returns in the middle, and 2009 6th overall pick RT Andre Smith finally got into playing shape and produced a solid year in 2011. The weak links in the Bengals line were at the guard position which they managed to upgrade in the offseason. Former Carolina Panther Travelle Wharton will step in at left guard and offer an immediate upgrade over Nate Livings who struggled mightily with both pass and run blocking. Cincinnati used their 27th overall pick in the draft to take Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler, a powerful run-blocker with a mean streak who will place 36-year-old incumbent Bobbie Williams. With the guard positions improved this line could be even better than last season which will cover up for some of their offensive inefficiencies.
The somewhat "no-name" defense for the Bengals were another major part of their success in 2011. They ranked eighth in overall sacks with 47 and ninth versus the pass. It starts with a very quality defensive line. 2010 fourth-rounder Geno Atkins made the Pro Bowl last season, notching 8.5 sacks and being a force against the run as well. He's one of the better 3-technique defensive tackles in the NFL. Nose Tackle Domata Peko doesn't provide much of a pass rush but shuts down the run admirably. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap (a situational pass-rusher last season who will take on a much bigger role this year) and Michael Johnson offer speed on the edge and rookie draft picks Devon Still and Brandon Thompson will add-quality depth to what is already a solid rotation.
There are some issues at linebacker. Middle Linebacker Rey Maualuga played through injuries last season and struggled some but had ankle season this offseason. If he comes back healthy (which all signs indicate) he could be a dominate player in the middle of the Bengals D. Strongside Linebacker Manny Lawson is good against the run on first and second down and can support the pass-rush on third down but he is a liability in pass coverage. The Bengals traded the talented but never healthy Keith Rivers to the Giants this offseason, so the weakside position will be manned by Thomas Howard, a solid player who also struggles in coverage.
The defensive backfield is a mixed bag. Leon Hall is a Pro Bowl-caliber, lockdown cornerback but he tore his achilles in November and migth not make it back onto the field this season given the nature of the injury. Nate Clements did a very good job manning the other side but he just turned 33 and is on the downside of his career. The Bengals used the first of their two first-round selections to obtain Alabama CB Dre Kirkpatrick, a very talented corner who shutdown opposing WR's regularly in a championship season last year. Kirkpatrick would have been a top-1o selecction if it weren't for offseason arrests. Kirkpatrick has the talent to contribute right away but cornerbacks almost always have an adjustment period from rookie to pro and it's hard to say whether he could start opposite Clements right away. The Bengals safeties are like polar opposites of one another. Free Safety Reggie Nelson is solid against the pass but is a liability in run support. Strong Safety Taylor Mays can support the run but can't cover anything. Mays probably shouldn't be starting but the only backups at the safety position are rookies.
The Bengals did manage a surprise 9-7 season and a wildcard berth last year, but there is a major caveat; they had a tremendously easy schedule and didn't score a victory over any teams with a +.500 record. Playing in a tough division with a more difficult schedule will likely just keep them out of the playoffs this year. While there is a lot to like about the team; solid on both lines of scrimmage, a talented young QB and a stud WR, I think the Bengals will come back down to earth a little bit and end up in some hard-fought losses. While I don't think they can repeat their playoff success, this is a team very much setup for greatness in the future.