Even if tight end Jermaine Gresham leaves via free agency, look for Ryan Hewitt to stay put as a versatile fullback.
INDIANAPOLIS _ The player space at Paul Brown Stadium is undergoing a massive, multi-million dollar overhaul this offseason and while the sledgehammers are knocking down walls, head coach Marvin Lewis is banking on more subtle changes as the Bengals begin The Drive for Five.
With fans antsy about no changes on the coaching staff or major moves to the starting lineup, Lewis pledged a fresh approach in their bid to win their first play-off game after four straight post-season berths.
With a raft of starters who missed most of last season with injuries expected to return (guys like Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, and Vontaze Burfict who Lewis says have "good timetables,") and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther settling into their second seasons, the change comes from within.
"I'm blessed that I have the coaching staff back but we all know there's a new direction," Lewis said Thursday as he met with the Cincinnati media in a hallway of the NFL scouting combine. "We've got to have new direction to us. We can't brush it off saying if we did this, if we did this. We've got to get better. We've got to get better in every area and it starts at the top. It's my responsibility.
"We're changing a lot. You know I'm not going to tell you what we're changing," he said with characteristic mystery. "We always change scheme. You always change scheme. You change scheme. You change how you do it. You change how you do things. You change things and you get better at things. We have to get better. It's not one thing of we've got to do this. Oh no, we've got to do everything better."
The biggest changes in the lineup look like they're coming at cornerback and tight end. Lewis revealed that Terence Newman, who ended the season mulling retirement, wants to keep playing, but there doesn't look like there's room for a cornerback that turns 37 before the season on a roster that has corners taken in the first round in two out of the last three drafts.
And tight end Jermaine Gresham looks to be on his way to free agency.
"Jermaine, he's got a lot of things ahead of him. He's got to figure out what Jermaine Gresham wants to do," Lewis said. "That's the most important thing. We were very fortunate to draft Jermaine when we did five years ago and he's had five seasons where he's contributed to this football team, and I think he's at a crossroads. What's Jermaine want next? I think when he commits to whatever he wants next then things will work out."
But it doesn't sound like it's in Cincinnati. Newman started 41 games for the Bengals in three seasons and was an integral part of their playoff runs. But Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard, along with nine-year veteran Adam Jones, looked poised to step in.
"Terence has done a great job for us. He's been a great player. He's been a great mentor," Lewis said. "He's a good young man. He'll continue to be successful whatever he chooses to do. We'll see what happens with us down the road."
If it sounds like Newman is getting the gold watch, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is taking up the stopwatch again. When defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer became the Vikings head coach last year, Jackson took Zimmer's spot as the in-your-face guy and it certainly sounds like he plans to get in the grill of an offense that finished 15th last season.
"Obviously Hue is always energized and that's part of his spirit. That's the great part of him," Lewis said. "He's excited. He's gotten an opportunity to get his hands on things and knead the dough. Now he wants to form it in all the right directions."
As Jackson also met the press Thursday, he started right at the top. With himself and quarterback Andy Dalton. He vowed a breakthrough for the veteran going into his fifth season.
"You guys will notice it; you'll see it and you'll understand it because I won't have to say anything. It'll show itself," Jackson said.
"I'll be the first to tell all of you, that I don't think I did a good enough job of getting him to where I think he needs to be," he said. "That's one of my biggest responsibilities in my mind this upcoming year. He played well at times. There were times where there was inconsistency, and I've got to get him over that hump. I was disappointed with our season, regardless of who played for us at the end. Because what I set out to do, we didn't do. We rushed the ball better, which I told you guys we would do. So we accomplished that goal, but we didn't throw the ball as well as I think we could."
Jackson said he doesn't see a draft pick coming in and supplanting any of his starters, but there is plenty of talk of getting another speed receiver for Dalton. With the first four wide receivers at least 6-2 (A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and James Wright), Jackson said a very un-Bengal-like thing for a club that has drafted just two wide receivers shorter than 6-0 in this century, Peter Warrick and Jordan Shipley. Jackson said he's not hung up on height.
"He has to be a playmaker and fast is what I like him to be. I don't think it's about size. We have big guys already," Jackson said. "You look at A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mo Sanu and James Wright. The guys that are on my team are big guys. I'm looking for a great football player, if we do decide to go that way, who can give us something we don't already have.
"We have some very talented players at the spot, but again, I don't think you can ever have too many playmakers. It was shown. As our season wound down last year we kind of lost some battles in that area because we were kind of short. We were short; we were on the short end of the stick. It was a very uncommon year for injuries but at the end of the day that can happen to you and it did."
There seems to be a belief they can replace the blocking of Gresham, most likely in free agency. It won't be with Ryan Hewitt, the fullback-tight end-H-Back who had such a terrific rookie year. Jackson think his pass-catching tight end who played just eight snaps last season, Eifert, is going to return from injury just fine. But he won't be teamed with Hewitt in two tight end sets.
"I prefer to let Hewitt do what he did, which is play all over the place. I think he gives us that flexibility that he can put his hand down and line up in the line, he can line up in the backfield, he can line up outside," Jackson said. "He did a lot of different things for us. He was a pleasant surprise for us and did a great job. What happens is you start stunting a guy's growth when all of a sudden you say 'well, you have to do this' when here's a guy that did a lot of different things for us and made a tremendous contribution to our offensive football team. So I want him to keep growing as he has.
"I think we need the best tight end we can find. Obviously Jermaine's a very talented player. But if something happens where he's not a Bengal anymore, then we need to replace that body. And hopefully we replace that body with a better player as we continue to move forward."
Jackson was quite pleased that it took 15 minutes before he was asked a question about Dalton. He remains adamant that Dalton can break through in Year 5 because he saw plenty from him early in Year 4.
"If you guys go back and look at Andy the first three games of the season, he played as well as anybody in football. Even beyond three games," Jackson said. "I keep saying three games because we were 3-0 and that's what stays there. Then you look at the New England game and there was a dropped ball for a touchdown and a missed third-down opportunity and the game could have very easily been a tight score. It didn't happen.
"But his passer rating that game was pretty high. He did some good things, and there are still some things he could do better. It hits my mind, the Carolina game, where the guy drives us down the field and puts us in position to win the game. I really believe it's there. But the consistency of doing it week in and week out, the pressure of doing it versus some very good football team's week in and week out is the next step for us."
Yes, Jackson hears the clamor. How can it take five years to find that consistency?
Easy, he says.
"I would say to them they're right. But at the end of the day, if you look around the league, there are a lot of quarterbacks, and it's taken them about that long to get to where they need to be, Jackson said. "But I don't think he's not trying. I will tell everybody that. Anybody who understands sports and who understands what these men go through, it's not as cut and dry as people think it is. He is close. He played better in this past playoff game even though he didn't have every weapon that he could at his disposal. I do believe he played better. But he understands that in order for us to take the next jump, he has to play as good as he's ever played."