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Springing into summer

Posted Jun 20, 2012


BenJarvus Green-Ellis

With six weeks between practice snaps, all that's left to do is speculate on the Bengals 2012 season and there is no dearth of lists.

Projections for head coach Marvin Lewis's two-deep depth chart. A 50-50 raffle for the final 53 plus, the bonus, the practice squad.

Five things we learned about the Bengals. Four things we don't know about the Bengals.

Ten reasons why the Bengals will fall on their faces. Ten reasons why the Bengals will win the AFC North.

Seven scenarios where A.J. Green and Andy Dalton won't succumb to the sophomore jinx. Six storylines where A.J. Green and Andy Dalton play like high school sophomores.

Here's one more for the list of the lists for your perusal.

Are the Bengals are coming off their best and busiest offseason in history in their bid for back-to-back playoff berths?

» After placing an NFL-best four players from the 2010 and 2011 drafts in last January's Pro Bowl, the Bengals followed it up with three trades that helped make the 2012 draft grade out as one of the best in the league.

» The Bengals tuned up their Pro Bowl passing combo in its first year of spring camps, and unlike their AFC North rivals, suffered no major injuries, setbacks or holdouts during the offseason workouts or practices.

» They signed or re-signed 14 free agents and were among the league leaders in UFA deals.

» The Bengals decided to move their training camp from Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky., to Paul Brown Stadium.

» They built a new playbook system into their computer network so each coach and player would have it on the 120 iPads the club purchased.

» The Bengals installed three new grass practice fields along with a new synthetic game field in the stadium.

» They added two young scouts from the college game following the retirement of director of football operations Jim Lippincott.

When it comes to football, former NFL general manager Charley Casserly of NFL Network says, "I like what the (Bengals) have done in the big picture the last two years. They've become bigger, faster, more physical, and are all on the same page with no distractions."

When it comes to the big picture since the Texans routed the Bengals in the playoffs back on Jan. 7, Cincinnati Channel 5 sports anchor Ken Broo, the club's former radio play-by man, says it’s the most productive offseason he can remember during his quarter of a century in town.

"I think it all began in last year's draft with Green and Dalton," Broo says.

How good?

"The last couple of weeks when I've made calls around the league I've asked who they thought was the team to watch and two guys told me to look out for the Bengals," says Peter King, the NFL guru for Sports Illustrated. "We'll see. I think a lot depends how (rookie cornerback) Dre Kirkpatrick plays early, but they've got a franchise receiver in A.J. Green and I like Andy Dalton. I think they're going to be a team that some people fall in love with this summer."  

John Clayton, ESPN's The Professor, is holding out on that final grade, but he definitely thinks the Bengals are going to be in the hunt thanks to another big draft.

"They're not as good as Pittsburgh and Baltimore yet," Clayton says. "(But) let's put it this way: I think they're going to be contending for years."

How healthy?

There's a good shot no starter is going to begin the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) and there were no veteran holdouts when franchise kicker Mike Nugent arrived during the voluntary workouts.

In Baltimore, the Ravens lost a Pro Bowler to the offseason in linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles) while the Browns lost run-stuffer Phil Taylor with pectoral surgery, and both look like they could be gone for the year or, at the very least, much of it. And in Pittsburgh, running back Rashard Mendenhall looks to be headed to PUP.

Plus, major weapons of Cincinnati's top division rivals, Ravens running back Ray Rice and Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace, didn't show because of contract squabbles. The soap operas have changed channels in the AFC North.

In contrast the Bengals got a huge rehab from cornerback Leon Hall in his recovery from a torn Achilles and there is optimism that he'll be on the field for the first snap of training camp. Jordan Shipley is a PUP candidate, but he's not in the running for the No. 2 wide receiver job, and he's dueling with the likes of Andrew Hawkins and third-rounder Mohamed Sanu for the slot job.

The Bengals under Lewis have never come off a playoff appearance in such good shape. In 2006, they didn't know at this point if quarterback Carson Palmer could start the year because of his torn ACL, and in 2010 they were reeling at wide receiver in the wake of the death of Chris Henry, the bad knee of Antonio Bryant, and the signing of Terrell Owens on the eve of training camp. In '10, right tackle Andre Smith had foot and conditioning issues that kept him out of some snaps in the spring followed him into camp, where he wasn't cleared for a few weeks. No one seems to have those kinds of problems now, particularly Smith.

"There is a positive in that because it's a young team," Casserly says. "Those guys were able to line up and get the snaps they needed. And you have to figure that Green and Dalton are going to be better for having that (spring) of work."

Not only are the Bengals healthy, but national pundits like Casserly and Clayton have raved about the draft class the minute it was announced, a selection augmented by the trades of Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco and Keith Rivers for picks.

"That really hit to Mike's strength," Broo says of Bengals president Mike Brown. "Free agency's not Mike's thing. I remember when he had a chance to get Adalius Thomas when he came out as the No. 1 free agent and he ended up signing three guys named Ernie. But he likes to build teams through the draft and he's done that the last couple of years as well as getting in position to help his team. I mean, to get something for a bucket of bolts in a trade with New England is great."

The extra picks allowed the Bengals to trade down in the first round and get another third-round pick while choosing Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler at No. 27, which seems to be their most popular pick.

"He may have been the best offensive lineman in the draft," Casserly says and King says a couple of teams told him Zeitler reminded them of Pro Bowler Marshall Yanda.

The draft also helped fill Cincinnati's biggest loss in free agency, backup defensive linemen Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker, when the Bengals went with Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still in the second round and Clemson defensive tackle Brandon Thompson with the extra third-round pick. Throw in free-agent defensive end Jamaal Anderson, a former No. 1 pick, and the Bengals think they can keep their defensive line rotation humming productively behind the front four.

"Still can get upfield as a three technique and Thompson is a solid pick where they got him," Casserly says. "I think they're going to be good again up front."

The pundits always have questions, of course, when it comes to the details and they seem to have the same questions everyone else has about the Bengals. Essentially trading their only other significant free-agent loss, running back Cedric Benson, for Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and the lack of an experienced No. 2 receiver opposite Green. Plus, their ability to cover in the secondary.

"The question I have is Green-Ellis because he's never carried it very much or been the lead guy," Clayton says, and Casserly wonders, "He isn't used to a lot of carries and he's going to a running division and running team."

But they know why The Law Firm is here: Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is going running-back-by-committee. The bell cow is extinct at PBS and BJGE is going to be teamed with B. Scott and B. Leonard.

"Any team that Marvin Lewis is coaching is going to run the ball," King says. "Green-Ellis isn't explosive, but they want him to do what Benson did and possess the ball and get three or four yards every time without big losses and that's what he does."

Casserly says the Bengals have to find somebody to replace the speed and downfield athleticism of departed wide receiver Jerome Simpson while Clayton and King have questions about the secondary.

"I know they've got volume, but do they have quality at DB?" Clayton asks, and King says the veteran cornerbacks the Bengals have signed are going to have to play better than they have in previous stops.

"To me the question is if Hall and Kirkpatrick are going to be B-plus corners for them in the next few years," King says.

But if there are questions, the pundits also say there aren't as many as there have been. Clayton says Dalton's next step is to challenge Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Baltimore's Joe Flacco at quarterback in the division, "but he showed he's a good one. Green is a monster and Jay Gruden is going to be fine again and he'll put himself in position to be a head coach. They should be OK in the passing game."

Broo also thinks the Bengals made strides off the field when they opted for the first time in history to have training camp at home. He thinks the downtown venue to watch practice is going to raise more interest.

"With all due respect to Georgetown, Ky., I just never understood why it was there and not up here," Broo says. "Cincinnati is the place it has to be and it was the best move. The person who came up with the idea should be named 'Employee of the Month' down there."

Some national outlets thought Brown should have been named the NFL's Executive of the Year for last season and he started this year retooling his front office in the wake of Lippincott's retirement. The addition of two area scouts opens up a different role for director of player personnel Duke Tobin, who'll be keeping tabs on all regions.

The grass fields are scheduled to be ready for the first practice of training camp, July 27 at 3 p.m.

Does that make July 26 the last day of the best Bengals offseason in history?

"Going back to the days of Bruce Coslet, Dave Shula, Sam Wyche," Broo says of the '80s and '90s, "it's the most they've done."

 

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