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Hobson's Choice: These guys will break out

Q: It seems the tables have turned on the preseason optimism of defense vs. offense. Basically since Carson has arrived, we fans have looked forward to the offense, not the horrid past years of defense. Who should we be keeping an eye on this year to break out? Also, will we see Big Jason Shirley anytime soon? I read an article of yours awhile back and it said good things about him.*
--Phil L., Columbus, OH

PHIL: You might have to go back to before Boomer to see such a dichotomy in expectations of the offense and defense. Say the early '80s with Hank Bullough as the D-coordinator and offensive stars such as Ken Anderson, Isaac Curtis, and Pete Johnson aging.

Go with Carson on this one and take running back Cedric Benson as a breakout player. Also on offense, Andre Caldwell and Chris Henry are on the verge of becoming this decade's Ocho and Housh. On defense, keep an eye on WILL linebacker Keith Rivers and cornerback Johnathan Joseph.

No rookies are allowed in any discussion of breakout seasons. It has to be a veteran who has been around for at least a year and flashed but hasn't been able to string it all together because of injury or inconsistency, or both.

Palmer has been pumping up Benson and why not? The guy is motivated, in shape, and when he had his body tuned and in sync with the offense he averaged 76 yards per game in November and December. That translates to 1,220 yards in a full season. Project him for somewhere between that and the 103 yards per he averaged in December. Rudi Johnson averaged 91 yards per game when he set the franchise season rushing record in '05 (1,458).

And with another year in the passing game they ought to be able to take more advantage of his skills out of the backfield, where he showed up effectively in the screens.

You always knock on wood with Henry, but doesn't it seem like he finally has his life back? If that gets him anywhere near his 15 TDs in 2005 and 2006 in a 16-game season, the guy is a massive down-field weapon. And in the final month of last season, Caldwell showed he's a versatile sort over the middle, out of the backfield, and in the slot, as well as a physical blocker.

Rivers played just six games his rookie year last season and it looks like he has picked up where he left off. He's smart, has the great disposition, and can run all day. Joseph is three years removed from a rookie year he got his hands on just about everything but Miss May with 19 passes defensed. He's never seemed right since he broke his foot two Junes ago in mandatory minicamp '07, but he's had another surgery and the foot looks to be no longer a problem. Put that closing speed together with three seasons of experience and it is time.

As for Shirley, he's really going to have to grind for that fourth and last tackle spot. It looks like he'll have his hands full with rookie Clinton McDonald, a seventh-rounder out of Memphis. 

Q: Just read the article on Chad. Good article. I think Chad needs to realize that what he did last summer, before the season, is what hurt fans. No one wants to feel like they were unloved. Obviously for most people a fantastic season will wipe out the anger. For me it will if he comes back to embrace the team and the city again. I think the numbers will be there. I am looking for the positive team support attitude. If that is there I think Chad will be back to having fun. What are your thoughts on the issue?
--*John B., Maysville, KY

JOHN: Thanks for reading. I think Chad has big selling job to do with the coaches and he's off to a nice start by showing up a week early and in much better shape than he was last year. Of course, I showed up in better shape than Chad last year and the only thing I could do was run the Quasimodo 10 K.

He looks great, sounds great, and it seems like he's having fun again. And, don't forget that from 2003-2007 no receiver in the NFL had better numbers.

What he needs to give them this year is more than numbers. He needs to be more consistent all the way around. And I'm not picking on Chad. The passing game has been lousy for two years because of their inability to run the ball, so you can't blame that all on him. You've got to applaud him for the way he has come out and said he wasn't in shape last year, which you can put the blame on him, and that takes a man to do that.

Plus, the guy apologized and, look, you can sauté him for what he did to this team last year, but he came clean and he wasn't the only problem last year. I'll say this. If it turns out he's as quick and as explosive as his teammates say, and they average 4.2 yards per rush he'll have a big year. Hell, 4.2 and they'll win the AFC North.

I'll agree with him that he has taken more than his share of heat for the offensive woes if he'll agree with me he can't do things like being late for meetings and then blowing it off like it's nothing. The coaches have been positive but, like offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski says, time will tell.

If he's having arguments with Carson Palmer at the goal line like he did against the Pats in '07, if Marvin Lewis is wondering (like he did last year) if he's still feeling the affects of Brian Russell's '06 shot on him, and if he starts Twittering for a trade, well…

But I think the guy is sincere when he says he wants to win and he wants to be the best and he loves the fans. I think he's in a new phase. Whatever that is. But I don't think it's going to be nuclear like last year. He may still be a kid. But at 31, he seems to be sensing there isn't much time left to romp. I think we all remember '05 when he simply won games (Cleveland, Tennessee) by drawing pass interference flags and in '06 (New Orleans, San Diego) when he just took over games.

We'll know if he can get back to that soon enough because that's the only way he'll be happy.

Q: I imagine most Bengals fans don't know who Brian Leonard is, his past and how good he can make a powerful running back. We traded a DT who really hasn't seen the field for him. Why aren't we talking more and excited about having a strong HB/FB like Leonard who can do it all out of the backfield?
--*Jeremy D., Portsmouth, OH

JEREMY: I think they know who Leonard is simply because he's a guy that went in the second round and because he backed up Steven Jackson in St. Louis, a back many believe should have been drafted here instead of Chris Perry at No. 24 in 2004.

I agree with you. This may end up being one of their most lopsided trades in history because Orien Harris probably wouldn't have made the team and Leonard, just by past production, looks to be the leading contender to back up Benson. He's kind of a young Kenny Watson (who is 31) and can do a little bit of everything, although not with a 4.3 per pop that Watson did in '07. Still, he can block and catch, although they've said he won't be used as a fullback here.

There may not have been a lot of buzz about Leonard because he was collecting dust earlier in the OTAs, but the coaches look to be using him more. The guess here is that Benson and Leonard, again going by past production, are going to be the top two backs heading into training camp and all the other backs are scrambling for the third and last spot.

Q: Wouldn't it be a great PR move if the Bengals moved their training camp back to Wilmington? The Wilmington area is in great need for some good news. What do you think? Is there any chance of this happening in the near future?*
--David F., Hillsboro, OH

DAVID: Can't see it. Last month we reported they are expected to re-sign with Georgetown College for 2010. If they don't go back to Georgetown at any point after that, it is expected they will join the growing trend of NFL teams staying at home for training camp.

Wilmington is the scene of many great Bengals memories, though, and it's awful to see what has happened to the city. Maybe when the club does decide to stay at home, it could take out a couple of days and go on a nostalgia tour to practice at Georgetown and Wilmington.

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