Bengals begin paper chase


Mike Zimmer

The Bengals get to move the pieces on that $40 million chessboard folded out by Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis in the offseason for the first time Tuesday at 11 a.m. when they hold the first of nine voluntary practices at Paul Brown Stadium before the June 10-12 mandatory minicamp.

Lewis has scheduled 10 workouts over the next three weeks (they aren't open to the public), but one of those is usually a team-bonding field trip. Yet after the Bengals shelled out an estimated $40 million in hits under the 2013 salary cap in free-agent deals that totaled nearly $90 million, chemistry should be the last of this team's problems.

That's because the bulk of the money in what is one of those rare offseasons that translated virtually flawlessly from the grease board to the depth chart went to re-signing players vital to the club's back-to-back playoff appearances.

Combined with the critical acclaim for a draft that brought the Bengals two more weapons for quarterback Andy Dalton and a potential future defensive gamebreaker in the first 53 picks, the Bengals head into the OTAs as the pundits' paper tigers because of their strength on paper.

"I love the offseason they had," says former Bengals safety Solomon Wilcots, one of the heavy hitters in NFL punditry as a CBS-TV and NFL Network staple. "We can see the Bengals as an organization doing as good a job developing their roster as any team in the league.

"I think the money was used wisely. They brought back significant players they could have lost. Michael Johnson. Andre Smith was very critical in getting him back at the right price and right value. In the draft, I thought they went really deep in getting some really good players. They got some players that can play now and some players they can develop for the future that can be really great players in this league."

The Bengals started out by re-signing all three specialists that anchored a group that finished first in the NFL's 10 major special teams categories. Then they used the $11 million franchise tag on Johnson, their 11.5-sack right end, to spearhead the re-signing of three other starters (left end Robert Geathers, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, cornerback Terence Newman), as well as two regulars (third corner Adam Jones and backup right end Wallace Gilberry with his 6.5 well-placed sacks) for a defense that finished sixth last season.

The offense made more noise in the draft, but by making right tackle Andre Smith their highest-paid signing of the year (figure about $6 million per year if he plays), the Bengals have a shot at lining up on Opening Day with at least four starters in the same spot on the offensive line from the previous Opening Day for the first time since 2010.

"That's a big thing for any offensive line," says Charley Casserly, the former NFL general manager now in the studio. "Sometimes the best offseasons you have don't come down to additions, but who do you keep? Who don't you lose? They stayed at home and from what I can see, they did a great job keeping guys that were integral for a young team that has been to the playoffs the last couple of years.

"I thought they had a nice solid effort in the draft. (Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert and North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard) add a lot of possibilities to their offense. Bernard gives them exactly what they needed because he can make big plays from the position and Eifert can do the same thing. Now the question is if Dalton can throw a more accurate deep ball, they can take the next step."

No doubt the offense is going to draw the most attention during the next month as offensive coordinator Jay Gruden tries to integrate Eifert and Bernard. His biggest question seems to be trying to decide on the No. 2 receiver opposite two-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green and it appears to be a nice problem since 2012 draft picks Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones both ended up being productive at critical times as rookies.

Also on display this month are the Bengals rookie offensive linemen. With left tackle Andrew Whitworth recovering from knee surgery until training camp, fifth-rounder Tanner Hawkinson figures to get time at left tackle and left guard. Seventh-rounder Reid Fragel also figures to play left as well as right tackle as the rookies take on veteran Anthony Collins in the Whitworth-Smith backup derby.

Center T.J. Johnson, a seventh-rounder, also figurers to get a lot of time behind starter Kyle Cook in the OTAs with second-year man Trevor Robinson expected to miss a good chunk of the spring work with a pectoral issue that isn't expected to delay his training camp.

But also on parade is going to be defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's intriguing new toys. First he wanted the shot to build off a defense coming off last year's punishing last eight games in which it allowed slightly less than 13 points per game, and now he's got everybody back for an encore.

"But it's a new season," Zimmer said. "It's good to have the guys back after what happened last year, but we think we've got plenty of competition, too."

Chief among Zimmer's concerns between now and training camp are if third-round pick Shawn Williams is good enough to start opposite safety Reggie Nelson, how to use former Steelers sack ace James Harrison as he transitions from a 3-4 to 4-3, and how to fit in second-rounder Margus Hunt on a team that already has four productive ends. The 6-8 Hunt, with 17 blocked field goals in college, almost has to be active on Sundays.

"(Hunt) is going to be a phenomenal player. He could potentially develop like a J.J. Watt kind of player. A significant player on the defensive line," Wilcots says. "You know (special teams coach) Darrin Simmons would get some use out of him."

Zimmer also needs to look at the three young cornerbacks that virtually didn't play last year because of injury: 2012 draft picks Dre Kirkpatrick and Shaun Prater and 2010 draft pick Brandon Ghee. With starter Leon Hall sitting out a bit with a torn thumb ligament from lifting (he should be back some time during the OTAs), those three are going to get plenty of shots.

"We'll know better after these nine practices how we'll use these guys," Zimmer said.

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