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New-look, same-name offense

Posted Mar 4, 2014


With free agency slated to start Saturday and the campus workouts piling up in the run-up to the draft, we’re taking a look at the depth chart of the three units. It started with the defensive picture and now Tuesday’s focus is on the offense, where the major changes are going to come courtesy of the pen of new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

The biggest question is how Jackson’s style is going to impact personnel. There isn’t going to be a major shakeup on the offensive side of the depth chart. Indeed, it is just as intact as the defense. But there figures to be some fine-tuning as Jackson looks to develop a more physical brand of ball.

As The Eagles sang Monday night in another iconic performance for the faithful gathered on the river at U.S. Bank Arena, “Every form of refuge has its price,” and they could have been singing about the lying eyes of free agency and the draft.   

The Bengals are in flux at left tackle, but it’s more of a detail rather than a question. They’re trying to re-up left tackle Anthony Collins before free agency after he played so well this season when left guard Clint Boling was hurt the last month and Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth moved inside and played just as well.

But if Collins doesn’t return, they can simply put Whitworth back at left tackle, where he’s started 74 games in the last five seasons with a record of 41-33 protecting two different quarterbacks. If Boling isn’t ready for left guard right away as he recovers from ACL surgery, enter Tanner Hawkinson, 2013 fifth-round pick.

Much of Jackson’s approach revolves on big-play-take-the-top-off-the-defense abilities. So keep an eye on speed in free agency and the draft.

(Denotes how many players the Bengals project to keep at this position on the 53-man roster and years of experience in 2014)

QUARTERBACKS (2)

Starter: Andy Dalton (4)

Backups: Josh Johnson (6), Greg McElroy (3), Zac Robinson (4)

The question isn’t if Dalton is starting this year, but if he’s here for the long run as he heads into the final year of his deal. Word is the club has thrown around some concepts with his agent and while they’re doing that Jackson has indicated he’s going to get Dalton to throw it around less.

After watching Dalton suffer a career-high 20 interceptions this past season plus two more in the playoffs while going bombs-away 51 times to end a season he threw the eighth most passes in the NFL, Jackson is looking at ways to make him more efficient and consistent. While getting solid numbers coaching such quarterbacks as rookie Joe Flacco, journeyman Jason Campbell and just-off-the-couch Carson Palmer, Jackson figures to help a guy that won an AFC Offensive Player of the Month last year while setting a Bengals-record 33 TD passes.

There seems to be no debate if he’s the guy. Former Bengals franchise QB Boomer Esiason summed up the take-it-easy view of Jackson and head coach Marvin Lewis when asked about Dalton during Super Bowl week:

“I never had a season like he had this year. He’ll be fine,’ Esiason said. “The trajectory is like this, 9-7, 10-6, 11-5, 22 touchdowns, 27 touchdowns, 33 touchdowns. The guy is a really good player. Everyone just has to calm down.”

A few more stats on Dalton: He’s 21-3 when the Bengals run it at least 30 times. He’s 2-7 in prime time and playoff games with a 65.3 passer rating (6 TDs and 11 picks) and yet for his career he has thrown more TD passes than anybody but Dan Marino and Peyton Manning (80) in their first three seasons with a career rating of 85.7. It is Jackson’s job to mesh Doolin’ Dalton with Heartache Tonight and put a gap between the extremes.

One more stat from last year to mull courtesy of profootballfocus.com: Dalton dropped back 115 times on play-action passes and had seven TDs and three picks for an 85.8 passer rating on 906 yards.

Pretty good, but 13 quarterbacks threw more off play-action and he had more yards than three of them, Andrew Luck, Jay Cutler, and Alex Smith. Russell Wilson (171 throws for 95.8 passer rating), Drew Brees (176-103.7), Peyton Manning (173 for 107.7) used play-action in good stead and with Jackson preaching the running game, we may see more play-action from Dalton.

With all this talk about the Bengals drafting a mid-round quarterback, Josh Johnson, McElroy, and Robinson look to have taken a turn for the worse. They may need insurance as things play out for 2015, but before you pencil anything in remember that it’s been 11 years since a Bengals draft pick served as the backup and Johnson has the speed and NFL smarts and McElroy has the BCS title brain and arm as Robinson comes back from an injured elbow. At the very least, preseason should be interesting.

RUNNING BACKS (4)

Starters: Giovani Bernard (2)

Backups: BenJarvus Green-Ellis (7), Cedric Peerman (5), Rex Burkhead (2)

Green-Ellis had 50 more carries last season, but Bernard had two more touches and, according to PFF, took 155 more snaps. After a spectacular NFL Rookie of the Year finalist season, Bernard is only going to get more work and no doubt is going to border on 300 touches.

Finding Bernard’s complement may be the first hint of Jackson’s Life in the Fast Lane playbook. He covets speed and no one is going to be surprised if the Bengals think about another back early in the draft after taking Bernard No. 35.

FULLBACK (1)

Starter: Orson Charles (3)

Jackson has said he’s looking for a fullback and usually that’s just a hired hand but he‘d be a little bit more important in this scheme given Jackson’s desire to run the ball more consistently and be physical.

The 6-3, 245-pound Charles, a tight end, isn’t your prototypical fullback and is listed as an H-back. That’s not to say Jackson isn’t a fan of Charles’ athleticism and hands and that he could make Charles the guy. But look for a veteran fullback matching more of the norm to compete with Charles for the fullback job.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

Starters: A.J. Green (4), Marvin Jones (3)

Backups: Mohamed Sanu (3), Andrew Hawkins (4), Brandon Tate (6), Ryan Whalen (4), Dane Sanzenbacher (4), Cobi Hamilton (1).

Free agents: Tate (unrestricted), Hawkins (restricted), Sanzenbacher (restricted).

Last year the Bengals came out of training camp with seven receivers, but that doesn’t look to be an option now with a spot reserved for a fullback. Figure Sanu and Hawkins are in as the top slot receivers and Tate has a leg up as the kick and punt return man for the past three seasons, and there’s a wild scrum for the final spot as there always is.

 Hamilton, last year’s sixth-round pick, is trying to make the jump off the practice squad. But all signs are they’ll tender Hawkins and Sanzenbacher and make a run to re-sign Tate. No reason to draft a wide receiver at this point, but they probably will since they figure to have nine picks at the least and 10 at the most.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9)

Starters: C Kyle Cook, RG Kevin Zeitler, LG-T Andrew Whitworth, LG Clint Boling, LT Anthony Collins, RT Andre Smith.

Backups: G-T Tanner Hawkinson, RT-G Dennis Roland, G-C Mike Pollak, G-C Trevor Robinson, G-C T.J. Johnson.

Free agent: Collins (UFA), Pollak (UFA), Roland (UFA).

Collins is coming off a remarkable season he didn’t allow a sack working against the NFL Defensive Player of the Year (Robert Mathis), a double-digit sacker (Olivier Vernon), a future Hall-of-Famer (Jared Allen), and a former No. 2 pick in the draft (Julius Peppers). It’s an interesting dynamic. They probably can’t pay him more than Whitworth and Andre Smith, but this is also a year where Collins has a lot of competition on the free-agent market (Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe, Zach Strief, Michael Oher) and from a draft class where as many as six tackles have been projected to go in the first 30 picks.

Plan B can be as simple as moving Whitworth back to a left tackle spot that he says he prefers, leaving the bigger question how quickly Boling rehabs. Hawkinson, last year’s fifth-round pick, has impressed with agile feet that have been compared to a left guard from the previous decade, Eric Steinbach.

Pollak, who came off the bench to perform well at guard, is a guy they’d like to re-sign. His ability to play center makes him attractive with Cook coming back from a rough late-season run when he played hurt in the playoff game.

Even if Collins comes back, in the draft it's time to start thinking about age at tackle and they could be on the lookout rather early. Since taking Andre Smith with the sixth pick in 2009, they've drafted only one tackle and it wasn't until their next-to-last pick of last year's draft when they took Ohio State's Reid Fragel in the seventh round, since poached from the practice squad.  

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Starter: Jermaine Gresham (5)

Backups: Tyler Eifert (2), Alex Smith (10), Orson Charles (3), Kevin Brock (2)

Free agent: Smith (UFA)

Yes, Gresham was up and down with 11 penalties and three fumbles to lead all NFL tight ends, according to PFF. But he remains an important figure in the offense because of his in-line blocking in the running game and his big-play capability split out, and he’ll be in the conversation about extensions for players heading into the final year of their deals.

That said, Eifert should get more than his 56 targets from his rookie year, but we’ll have to see if Jackson plays as many double tight end sets as predecessor Jay Gruden. Charles is an intriguing guy that now has a ton of experience blocking at two spots and has a growing role on special teams, where he had nine tackles last season. If they re-sign Smith, it’s going to be late. He broke his wrist at the end of last season and is 32 at the start of this one.

 

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