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Biggest roster questions

Posted May 9, 2011


Rey Maualuga

Let's take the biggest question at each position for the Bengals since the biggest question again didn't get answered Monday as the NFL and the players continue to wait for an appeals court to rule on a temporary stay of the injunction that lifted the lockout almost two weeks ago.

More questions arose Monday about what rules would be used if the lockout is lifted with no collective bargaining agreement. The league said in a statement that it is "considering a wide range of alternatives depending on developments,” which means they may not play under 2010 rules after all.

No matter what rules are in place, here are the Bengals' biggest questions:

QB: Guess who's coming to dinner at a training camp table for four.

In the Bengals' mind, Carson Palmer is retired and it is sounding like second-rounder Andy Dalton is the projected Opening Day starter. After that, they are mulling two different paths.

Even though there are just 15 NFL passes from backups Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour combined, the Bengals could very well go to camp with just three quarterbacks. They've done that a few times the past few years and if there is a short-circuited preseason, it's going to be harder to get work for four QBs.

But a shorter preseason could mean a veteran presence is needed more than ever, so the other path is to pursue a free agent. And, it's got to be someone either with experience in the West Coast or has the tools to fit in with what new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants. Either way, it's all speculation until free agency commences.

Let the guessing games begin for a veteran backup. Gruden had Bruce Gradkowski in Tampa. Two of Gradkowski's six wins in 20 NFL starts have come against the Bengals. Tarvaris Jackson, a West Coast guy from the Brad Childress School, can move in and out of the pocket. The Bengals set up a free-agent visit with Rex Grossman a few years ago, but it looks like he's going to be the starter in Washington and he's a guy not identified with the West Coast scheme.

And if there is a fourth guy, he may not have an easy run. Jordan Palmer has a relationship with the offense and is an easy, familiar presence in the locker room while LeFevour has some athletic skills that show well in a West Coast.

WR: Who will be first-round pick A.J. Green's running mate in the starting lineup?

If you go by The Ocho's tweets and Marvin Lewis' words not-so-sweet, Chad Ochocinco, the club's all-time leading receiver, isn't exactly the favorite.

That would make Jerome Simpson the leading candidate and while the last three games make up a skinny résumé, he showed he has the requisite flash and dash. And don't forget Andre Caldwell. His tweets have shown he's not forgetting the Bengals greeted his strong finishes in '08 and '10 by signing Laveranues Coles and drafting Green, respectively. But he has shown at times he's more than a slot receiver.

With 20 catches last season, Simpson averaged 13.9 yards while Caldwell logged 13.8 on 25. The Ocho did better that that once in the last three seasons.    

RB: How many touches for Bernard Scott?

Assuming Cedric Benson and Brian Leonard are back, this is still the huge question. In his two seasons Scott has averaged 4.6 yards on his 135 carries and he's coming off a year he averaged 4.9 on a team that averaged 3.6. And he's caught just 16 NFL passes. The Grudens love to throw to their backs. Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman averaged 47 catches per his six seasons under Jon and Jay Gruden and Jay has indicated he'll have no fear throwing even to his bell cow Benson.

So what could that mean for the slippery Scott, a guy that averaged 15 yards per 93 catches in two college seasons while making a run at the Division II Heisman and winning it as a senior?

FB: What do you like?

Gruden also likes fullbacks. He's got an athletic one in Fui Vakapuna, a guy whose ability to move and catch could catch Gruden's eye. But he's also got a pounder in Chris Pressley. Who can remember the last time the Bengals kept two fullbacks? Plus, assuming Brian Leonard is back, he can also take some fullback snaps.

TE: How many blockers?

In Jermaine Gresham, Gruden has a gamebreaking pass catcher who is turning into more than a pretty good blocker. But that's not his calling card. There could be an intriguing competition behind Gresham from two superb college catchers in Chase Coffman and Garrett Mills. When Coffman left Missouri after the 2008 season, he was the NCAA's most prolific receiving tight end ever. When Mills left Tulsa after '05 his 201 career catches were second in Division I. Mills arrived in Cincinnati Dec. 22, his third team in 2010 after playing four seasons for the West Coast Vikings and Eagles.

But Gruden wants a solid and reliable blocker and there is no better place to look than The Reverend, Reggie Kelly. At 34, his contract is up and unless the Bengals can find a young one he'd be an ocean of calm for an offense that has been suddenly entrusted to a rookie with Caron Palmer's retirement.

OL: Besides the obvious, which young guard is going to emerge?

The mystery of Big Foot continues. The Bengals won't be able to get a foothold on right tackle Andre Smith's second straight offseason surgery until the lockout ends and, as head coach Marvin Lewis has said, they need better play at that position. The other mystery is Anthony Collins unable to get into the lineup with Smith shelved. In the nine games Collins has started the past two years, the Bengals have rushed for an average of 110 yards and are 7-2.

Until Smith's foot gets figured out, the big question is how hard do 2010 fifth-rounder Otis Hudson and 2011 fourth-rounder Clint Boling push incumbent left guard Nate Livings? Or does Livings get more consistent in his play? The Bengals are going to want to work on Boling's technique, but they like his brains and versatility. Still, the last rookie lineman to start Opening Day for the Bengals was second-rounder Eric Steinbach at left guard in 2003.

DL: Is it time for the young guns?

The kids are pushing the vets. Left end Carlos Dunlap is coming off a 9.5-sack season that led all NFL rookie ends. After playing SAM linebacker all preseason, injuries forced Michael Johnson back to right end in his second season and he had 2.5 sacks to go with four tipped passes.

Right end Antwan Odom, in the fourth year of the most lucrative free-agent deal in Bengals history, has been limited to just 22 games and is coming off another injury-plagued season. Left end Robert Geathers heads into his eighth season off another all-purpose productive year in which he was second on the line with 55 tackles, but had just one sack.

If the kids continue to look as good as they looked the last month, the Bengals could start Dunlap at left end and move Geathers around in special situations, including inside on third down. Tackle Domata Peko returns as the anchor of the line while yungins Pat Sims, Geno Atkins and Clinton McDonald push Tank Johnson. The acid test for Atkins and McDonald is if they can stop the run.

Even without throwing in the versatility of end/tackle Jon Fanene, assuming he returns, it's the most competitive spot on the roster.

LB: What happens when Rey Maualuga goes to the middle?

It's not set in stone, but with Dhani Jones a free agent Maualuga looks to be the heir apparent as he seeks a smashing return to his natural position. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is going to challenge Maualuga, but he likes the guy's competitiveness and willingness. Not many guys in the league could handle what Zimmer gives Jones as far as calling signals, but don't look for the Bengals to heap all of it on Maualuga as they unleash him to roam and see how he responds.

And, if Jones doesn't re-sign and Maualuga moves over from SAM, special teams ace Dan Skuta is poised to make a run at that spot after racking up 26 special teams tackles in 24 games over his two seasons. Assuming Brandon Johnson is back, he could also be a candidate to fill the SAM spot, as is Michael Johnson depending on what happens on the line. Roddrick Muckelroy ended the season backing up Jones in the middle. The Bengals are hoping third-rounder Dontay Moch is eventually the SAM, but not for a year or two.

SECONDARY: How deep are they behind left cornerback Johnathan Joseph?

No one knows if Joseph is going to be a free agent. Not only that, no one really knows how healthy the guys are behind him. Adam Jones is coming off a herniated neck disc that cost him the last 11 games, Morgan Trent is coming off a knee injury that shelved him for the last eight, and rookie Brandon Ghee could only get on the field in six games and is still a relative unknown.

There are those that believe seventh-rounder Korey Lindsey out of Southern Illinois is going to be a factor in the roster battle, but the club hopes only at the bottom. The first priority is to re-sign Joseph.

 

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