Hobson's Choice: lucky 7 at WR?

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Alex Erickson heads into this season defending his AFC kick return crown.

Of all the undrafted free agents this year. Who has best shot to make roster? Assuming everyone is healthy to start the season. Thanks. Dan Marcum, Cincinnati, OH

DAN: It's a heck of a question because if you throw in three sophomores who didn't play at all or hardly played last year in cornerbacks William Jackson and KeiVarae Russell and nose tackle Andrew Billings, that's 14 drafted rookies trying to make it. The undrafteds just may be playing for the practice squad. But it is also way early. Way early. My two candidates are Colorado nose tackle Josh Tupou because of his unique size (350 pounds) or Illinois middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson because of his high intelligence.

Hey, Geoff: Great article on Cody Core this week. Was happy to hear that the momentum he ended the year with has carried into the offseason. With as deep of a roster as Cincy has on both sides of the ball, what are the chances, in your view, the team keeps seven receivers? It seems unlikely; however, between Erickson and Core, I don't know, at this point, how either is left off the roster. Thanks, Geoff, and a Who Dey from the Dairy State. Brian Neuberger, Menomonee Falls, WI

BRIAN: My sense is keeping seven receivers (which means both Core and your guy Alex Erickson) is a high priority. I think they'll do everything they can to make it happen. Obviously, they could be thwarted if they suffer injuries at another spot, but they've proven they'll go heavy at a position if they like the guy enough. They did last year with three quarterbacks to make room for Jeff Driskel and seven cornerbacks right after they claimed Russell.

Barnwell's offseason report cards on Ravens, Bengals, Browns, Steelers Cleveland's O-line got much better; Cincy's got much worse. It's status quo with Pittsburgh's O, but not Baltimore's secondary. Here's how each AFC North team fared in free agency and the draft. Read Now After reading this article, it verifies everything I have ever thought about Dalton. If I can see it, they can see it. At some point you have to acknowledge the issue. My guess is Dalton'spsychic couldn't take the criticism so they don't talk about it. We will forever be mediocre with Dalton at the helm. Agree or disagree with the stats in the article? Mike Baker, Jamestown, OH

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Andy Dalton: Only Brady and Ben have won more in AFC's last six years.

MIKE: If you sent the story, I never got it so I wasn't able to immediately adhere to your command of, "Read Now." But I looked it up and I'm guessing this is what you're talking about with Andy Dalton: "Over his six-year career, Dalton's QBR is a respectable 70.0 when he's left alone in the pocket. When he's pressured, though, that number falls all the way down to a QBR of 9.9. The only passer over that time frame with a worse QBR under pressure is Mark Sanchez (minimum 200 attempts)."

You can't agree or disagree with stats. They're stats. That's a problem we seem to be having nowadays. There are no alternatives to facts. Just like you can't argue that Dalton has the sixth best winning percentage (.602) of active NFL quarterbacks with at least 30 starts. I don't doubt Dalton isn't very good when he's getting pressure.  I'm guessing most guys fall into that category, so, yeah, it verifies they need to protect him, but we already know that.

Where we disagree, I guess, is when you say they're "mediocre." I just think it's ridiculous to use that term with a quarterback behind only Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger winning games in the AFC the last six years. OK, the guy is 0-4 in the postseason, fine. But that doesn't make him "mediocre," or prevent him from being an upgrade for about 20 other teams. Maybe what you mean is he isn't "elite."  OK, but I think at some point a guy who has QBed two division winners and been to the postseason five out of six years should have to stop defending himself as a very good NFL quarterback.

Go back and look at last year. Yeah, Dalton had his head handed to him up front while having A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert for just two full games, and he kept them in every game down the stretch by taking care of the ball and getting the most out of what we had. I thought he was terrific under the gun. But that's an opinion, not a stat. The stat is .602 winning percentage.

Which gets us to Barnwell's take on the offensive line, what he called "a shambles." I think that's a little strong. I mean, they do have two first-rounders, a second-rounder, and two fourth-rounders up there, so I think a better term might be underachieving.  And, let's face it, if the young tackles play like they were drafted, they're genius. If they don't, the critics are unleashed and it won't stop at "shambles."

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Joe Mixon (with running backs coach Kyle Caskey): could be Opening Day third down back.

After the dust has settled (a little) bout our draft now, what are the coaches grades for the rookies (particular 1st to 5th), and will they all have a shot at day 1 starter status? Rocco Moore, Hamilton, OH

ROCCO: The coaches won't be handing out anything until they seem them practice in pads. The guy with the best shot to start is a fifth-rounder, but first Jake Elliott has to beat out veteran Randy Bullock in a training camp kicking competition.

Although there are no imminent Opening Day starters, the first four picks should be appearing in various packages throughout that Sept. 10 game against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium. Ross, the first-rounder, could be rotating that early in the slot, or maybe he'll go on the outside for a couple of deep routes while Brandon LaFell gets a rest. With running back Giovani Bernard coming off ACL surgery, he may not be ready for the first couple of games. So second-rounder Joe Mixon could get plenty of looks early as a third-down back with his prowess in the pass game. But even when Bernard comes back, Mixon figures to be used plenty in rotations.

The third- and first fourth-round picks assume to be in the nickel package right way in some kind of form. Maybe not together, but defensive end Jordan Willis and Auburn SAM linebacker Carl Lawson figure to have their hands on the ground at end rushing the passer on third down.

Hello Sir. Great articles as always. To me the Bengals have struggled at times with developing young players, and I worry the same thing will happen with Cody Core. I remember after his pro day, multiple analysts and scouts commenting on how he looked like the guy everyone was there to see...not Treadwell. Then last year, once the season was lost, you started seeing flashes. Now this year, you get another WR in the 1st round. Green, Lafell, Boyd, Ross and Malone would be the definites. I think Core will stick, but don't want to see another year of inactives. Thanks again for all your efforts! Troy Roach Fishers, IN

TROY: Thank you for reading. I think the idea is they want to keep all this young speed, even if they have to make fourth-rounder Josh Malone inactive all season. And, they want to keep Erickson, too. All he did was win the AFC kick return title as a rookie last year. And they also love what Core gives them on coverage on special teams. It sounds like they're trying to keep them all.  

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Jeremy Hill: running backs Dalton's best protection.

I know we get laughed at around the league for our small market and small scouting department, but I was wondering if we even have a PR department? We have been getting absolutely decimated by the media nationally and locally. I understand people will always think what they want, but where is the pride to defend their honor/integrity? I'm used to the "same old bungles" jokes the fans always hear, but one writer called us the dirtiest team in the NFL. Everyone seems to live in this fantasy where our locker room is similar to a cell block over at the prison. Adam Jones had most of his issues elsewhere as did Mixon. Burfict is always thrown into it, but he is pretty spotless off the field. He simply does not play well with others. The other 50 players are not always getting into trouble or failing drug tests. We have guys like Andy Dalton (could be nicest guy ever), AJ Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, NFLPA Prez Eric Winston, and many more. Seems like an easy argument to win.

One last thing. Everyone thinks we are doomed because the OL. Did they forget we have a QB with one of the fastest releases in the league? I know people will point to last year when everyone was hurt and the offense struggled. They fail to notice the speed of the WRs Dalton had to work with. Boyd and Lafell are great, but they are not fast enough to gain immediate separation on most their routes. This caused his release time to be a bit off compared to normal healthy years. What makes it different this year is that Core is more experienced and Ross/Malone all three off immediate separation due to their speed? Do you think that will help Dalton and the OL mask a few deficiencies? Anthony Douglass, Hamilton, OH

ANTHONY: Well, here we are in the 21st century. What franchise doesn't get decimated by the media nationally and locally?  In fact, what entity in any business doesn't get drilled nowadays? Imagine if JFK or J. Edgar Hoover or Johnny B. Good were dealing with Twitter and Instagram and yesterday's sound bite that still qualifies for Breaking News.  Who's on the Hot Seat? Nowadays, it's every sorry soul with a phone. Cincinnati. New York. Hell, the Seahawks all the way out in Seattle are getting roasted coast-to-coast this week and they're still sweeping up the confetti from their Super Bowl title.

Yeah, the Bengals have a P.R. department and a good one. It has been all over the 50th anniversary season and there's already been a lot of pride displayed there with the fan vote for the greatest Bengals of all-time and the plans to honor the team's history during this season. And you know Green and Dunlap and Geno and Dalton are good guys, in part, because the P.R. department has helped bring their charitable works to light. The good works of Burfict and Jones in the community have also received press. And I was honored to have Eric Winston as the guest on the most recent Hobson's Choice podcast.

 Yeah, it's an easy argument. And people make the argument. But the 21st century loves an argument.

 And I don't think anybody is laughing at the Bengals personnel department these days. Certainly not the pundits. Sure, I remember those days like the 2002 draft when ESPN ridiculed the Bengals three picks before the Levi Jones selection and three picks after the Levi Jones selection. But Levi and other guys helped make it what is today, a stale, expired stereotype thanks also to the work of Duke Tobin and Marvin Lewis.

 I'm not looking at the receivers to help Dalton. I'm looking at the running backs. That's a quality trio in Mixon, Jeremy Hill, and Giovani Bernard. Sure, Ross and Core help. (Figure Malone sits most of the year), but the addition of that speed should and better open up a stagnant running game. If they can't run the ball against seven in the box (the speed should eliminate the dreaded eighth man), that's a problem. The best pass protection is 4.2 yards per carry 30 times a game.

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 The last time Tyler Eifert played a full season, the Bengals offense went 12-4 for first time in 27 years.

Hobs, good job. but a concern. I felt that last year, when the opposition adjusted their defense in the 2nd half, the Bengals did not respond. I think the point stats bear me out, Jackson vs Zampese 2015 by Quarters 1st 5.3: 2nd 7.3: 3rd 5.4: 4th 7.3 2016 1st 6.1: 2nd 5.9: 3rd 4.3: 4th 4.1 If you take out 3 games in 2016, the 2nd half is much worse. Zampese is a good man, but question his lack or adjustments. Glenn Groh, Cincinnati, OH

GLENN: Good to hear from you again and thanks for checking in. There's no question that offensive coordinator Ken Zampese is feeling the heat this year to get more than 19.9 points per game out of a hugely talented mix. But it's tough to judge him on last year, a year when A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert played together in three games, Green missed seven games, and Bernard six games. Tough for a first-year play-caller. We'll have a better idea soon enough.  

The Bengals need to sign Andrew Hawkins as a free agent! You also need to consider using him in the front office in future years. He just earned a Masters in sports management from Columbia. James Morgan, Chesapeake, VA

JAMES: As you probably know Hawkins announced earlier this week he's signing with New England. Although he'll always be one of the great stories in Bengaldom, he's 31 and the Bengals are loaded there with younger players in a group that now includes two first-rounders, a second-rounder, and a Super Bowl hero. Hawkins is also one of the greatest humans to ever wear stripes. Why would he stop at the NFL? Hawk is the kind of guy who transcends sports and can contribute in any field. But that's always a possibility.

 Geoff, great work as always. I have a comment that I feel needs to be addressed by the Brown family. No one should ever wear the # 78 again! I realize that they can't retire many numbers in the NFL but for Pete's sake they have to retire Anthomy's #. He is our only HOF player and the first one. They don't have to retire any more b/c he was the first. So when the Ken's get into the HOF {Anderson and Riley} just tell them we can't retire any more. Frustrated in Florence! Jay Middendorf, Florence, KY

JAY: Thank you for the kind words. Retired NFL numbers are a funny thing. The Bengals retired No. 54 (for their first drafted player, 12-year center Bob Johnson), but the league began discouraging retiring numbers because it's worried about teams running out of them. Still, you never see Anthony Munoz's No. 78, or the No. 13 of Ken Riley in a regular-season game, and the only reason you see Kenny Anderson's No. 14 on Andy Dalton is because Dalton asked for it. Anderson was OK with it, so it's OK with me. But I think it shows how much the club greatly respects those guys.

Good morning Mr. Hobson. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to identify for us who, in your opinion, are the most vulnerable veterans currently on the Bengal roster. As you know, with the influx of several talented youngsters from the draft and free agency, many of the old guard will have to be put out to pasture. Thank you for your input. This message will self-destruct in ten seconds......not really. John Allen, Lebanon, OH

JOHN: Thank you, Mr. Phelps. I accept the assignment. We know that head coach Marvin Lewis likes his veterans and, why not, the argument goes. They've won him a lot games. My sense is if a veteran is vulnerable, it happens before training camp, which is when they cut middle linebacker Rey Maualuga right after they signed Kevin Minter.

Now, there might be guys that start giving up snaps to young guys, but it would be for their benefit. A guy who could fall into that category may be right end Michael Johnson. Not a lot of snaps, but enough to keep him fresh and ease in kids like Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson up front.

The most vulnerable, of course, is Bullock in his kicking competition with the drafted Elliott.

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