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Hobson's Choice: Bengaldom Changes Gears From Super Bowl Sprint To Offseason Marathon

B.J. Hill (92) is a guy they'd love to retain.
B.J. Hill (92) is a guy they'd love to retain.

What do you believe is the team's biggest priority this off-season? Michael J., Batavia, OH

MICHAEL: It makes you step back a bit, doesn't it? No matter what kind of season has just concluded, including coming within 39 seconds of winning the Super Bowl, it's always the first question and I thank you for asking it after a hell of a year.

The Bengals made the Super Bowl for the third time in history because of their deep, young roster. So everything has to start with retaining as many important players as they can and then adding quality in the draft and free agency. The key to getting better in this league is not getting worse. Get as much of the 2021 team as they can to the starting gate in 2022 and I like their chances.

That roster was good enough for the AFC champs to overcame significant injuries that at one point caused hysteria. Starting defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi went down in the third quarter of the postseason. Starting cornerback Trae Waynes played fewer than 250 snaps. Still, the defense carried them in the playoffs.

Fourth wide receiver Auden Tate had three catches on 115 plays for an offense that scored the most points in franchise history. Two of their most experienced and best special teams players, linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Jordan Evans, played just a combined 251 plays in the kicking game, none after October, and the Bengals finished ranked eighth in NFL special teams per Football Outsiders

And that's not even recalling what happened on the defensive edge, where third-rounder Joseph Ossai blew up the pass-rush analytics before suffering a season-ending injury in his first NFL game and where seventh-rounder Wyatt Hubert never got to training camp. Or where Khalid Kareem missed much of the season with shoulder issues.

That's the priority. To keep that same kind of depth for 2022. Use the defensive line as a model, where they did a mix of everything. Free agency (Ogunjobi and Trey Hendrickson). The draft (Ossai, Cam Sample and Tyler Shelvin in the fourth round, Hubert). A trade (for B.J. Hill). I think it's fair to say the Bengals may not make the Super Bowl without Hill. So, while they'd like to retain him, the priority for '22 is to keep finding guys like him.

I don't think the offensive line is as bad as it appears. They need improvements on the interior, but to me in the playoff run the real issue was the red zone offense. How do you think they can get better in that area? Mike Costello, Rockford, IL

MIKE: Good call on the red zone. Their lack of touchdowns inside the 20 during the postseason (five of 13) got overshadowed by how good their defense was in the red zone in the playoffs. And it just goes to show how winning shields warts.

I'm sure head coach Zac Taylor is going to check out the play-calling down there. Of the 37 red-zone snaps in the playoffs, the dropback-to-run ratio was 2-to-1. In the Super Bowl it was eight dropbacks (one was a sack on four of seven passing for 15 yards) to three Joe Mixon runs for seven yards.

And why not? Putting it in Burrow's hands after the Dec. 12 overtime loss to San Francisco worked. The next Burrow loss was in the Super Bowl. He averaged five more passes a game in that stretch and Mixon averaged three fewer carries. They won, but they didn't score 30 points in a playoff game, either, so I'm sure they'll take a good look at that.

And here's a good example where it's not all on the offensive line. On that red-zone sack last Sunday, Burrow had to double-pump on third down when his receiver went the wrong way.

What solid offensive linemen are looking to join the Bengals culture & what is the upside in potential, grading out, with the group we have? Gerald (Gerry ) Williams, Loveland, OH

GERALD: There are going to be fans who say, "Drop $20 million per year on Saints left tackle Terron Armstead", Pro Football Focus's No. 2-rated free agent. But it's hard to see them spending so much on one guy when they have so many of their own defensive players (free safety Jessie Bates III, tackles Larry Ogunjobi and B.J. Hill) to re-sign.

No question, though, they will focus on the offensive line. But, remember, they did so last year, too, with the signing of Riley Reiff and the drafting of Jackson Carman, D'Ante Smith, and Trey Hill. So probably the first question is where do they see those three guys who are already here and got snaps in 2021?

The other intriguing question beyond their own young guys and potential free agents is whether there could be a B.J. Hill-like trade somewhere out there.

It's hard to strike the gold in free agency that poured out for the Bengals in 2021. But they'll look. Bengals president Mike Brown has a big checkbook and he's proven he knows the bottom right corner is where you leave the signature. But when he does it, it's going to be because the deal fits and the player has enough backing from scouts and coaches. A name on everyone's lips may not even be on their board. I wonder who their Chidobe Awuzie is on the offensive line.

I, like many, appreciate the great job you do. I am still concerned about the direction we are going to fix our O line. Is Carman our future at guard or OT. Do we expect to resign Reiff? How about center? Mike Kline, Englewood, OH

MIKE: Thank you for your very kind words. I think they have high regard for Jackson Carman, but they have to find out which side he's better on. They were initially thinking right guard/right tackle, but he seems more natural on the left side, where he played at Clemson. I think they'd like to get younger than Reiff at right tackle. Rookie D'Ante Smith has probably shown the rawest talent on the offensive line. But can they trust him to take over a starting tackle position? Could Reiff contribute as a bridge "just in case?" Expect them to give last year's sixth-round pick Trey Hill a real chance at center or guard. The Bengals added four offensive linemen last year. Don't be surprised to see them do it again and build competition for roster spots.

Geoff, The real killer in the SB was the attempt to get the first down in the first quarter! They got the ball in midfield and pushed it to a TD. A punt near the end zone would have given them the ball inside the 10 or 20. Retrospect. Lynn S. Marshall, Cincinnati, OH

LYNN: Ah, retrospect. The big brother of hindsight. I hear you. But Taylor has been pretty much going for it all year on fourth-and-one and for the most part it has helped more than hurt.

Go back to the very first game of the year and he would have got flayed for letting the Vikings back in a game the Bengals led, 21-7, when he failed on fourth-and-one from his own 30 to set up a Vikings touchdown.

But the Bengals won in overtime, eliminating all the second guesses. They won, in large part because Taylor eschewed the field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Vikes 25 on the first drive of the second half, put Burrow under center, got two yards on a sneak and went on to get a TD to go up, 21-7. And don't forget Taylor's aggressiveness against the Chiefs at The Paul on Jan. 2 that won the AFC North and made the postseason possible.

So, I don't think it's the decision to go for it that is getting second-guessed. It's throwing an incomplete pass out of shotgun on fourth-and-one. In Taylor's defense, receivers were wide open and didn't get the ball. And his bold leadership at moments like that is a big reason they're a Super Bowl team.

Which free agents do you think the Bengals will retain this year? Peter Orlando, Covington, KY

PETER: You have to figure they're going to keep Bates no matter what, even if that means putting the franchise tag on him. I'm sure they'd also love to retain Uzomah, Ogunjobi and Hill. You have to figure those four head the wish list, but the list is long and includes many others. Cornerback Eli Apple, nose tackle Josh Tupou, punt returner Trent Taylor, just to name a few.

So let the salary cap frenzy begin. (Footnote: March 16 at 4 p.m.).

Which draft prospects do you believe are the most intriguing? T.J. Smith, Philadelphia, PA

T.J.: Honestly, I've paid 0.0 attention to the draft and I am glad that the Super Bowl delayed the first edition of the 2022 Media Mock Draft. But I know enough that I wouldn't mind seeing the Bengals trade out of No. 31 and get another pick in the second round and maybe an extra third.

The Senior Bowl has been good to the Bengals lately and that has to interest you the way Georgia defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt dominated Mobile. Just on pure production, South Carolina edge rusher Kingsley Enagbare is intriguing. The problem is he's small (6-3, 260 pounds), but ever take a good look at Von Miller? PFF has had Enagbare as one of the nation's top pass rushers the past two seasons.

No doubt they're looking at the O-Line, of course, but you also have to realize they like all the guys they took last year. Don't forget, they drafted one in the second round (Carman), one in the fourth (D'Ante Smith) and one in the sixth (Hill). Anyone remember last offseason when we talked about the progress the young linebackers would make this year? The emergence of Pratt, Wilson, Markus Bailey and Davis-Gaither was the unsung story of a stingy defense.

Can the young offensive linemen come on this year like the backers last year? My sense is they envision all three guys having the chance to play at some point this season. Carman and D'Ante Smith have good length and size and 2020 sixth-rounder Hakeem Adeniji, who struggled at right guard in the postseason, has athleticism that jumps off the film.

Can they harness that? With these guys already here, I just don't see one of those drafts where they do something like take O-linemen in two of the first three rounds. They may but I wouldn't mind seeing, along with an O-lineman or two, a cornerback or pass rusher. Keep stocking that good defense.

During the Super Bowl why did Cincinnati continue with the same pass defense when Stafford had all day to search the field and pass the ball completing most of his passes. Any quarterback could have succeeded with that pass defense. Jeanne Hurst, Florence, AL

JEANNE: Couldn't disagree more. Eighty-five seconds left in the Super Bowl and the Rams have 16 points? You take that all day, every day. The pass defense kept them in the game.

With six minutes left, Cooper Kupp, a guy that averaged nine catches and 115 yards per game during the season, had four catches and 53 yards. Matthew Stafford was a blah 19 of 29 for 226 yards. Yes, they had a big last drive and do what champions do as Kupp finished with eight catches for 92 yards and the MVP.

But you can't put this loss on the defense. Stafford was very beatable, generating just 23 points with a so-so 89 passer rating. What beat the Bengals was their offense's inability to convert short yardage.

I've been reading you for years and I try never to miss an article. I was wondering what the people in the building think about moving Williams to RT? Kenneth Mullins Menomonie, WI

KENNETH: Very kind of you and I hope you keep reading. I think that's a non-starter. If they ever moved Jonah Williams from left tackle, it would probably be inside. He's not a big guy, but he's very smart and athletic and you wonder what kind of center he would make.

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