Last year the Bengals started the season with the NFL's youngest roster and won a division championship. Now they're almost just as young but the difference now is they are a very big year older.
The average years of NFL experience on last season's Opening Day roster grew from 3.98 to 4.03 when the Bengals jettisoned eight-year quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan in favor of Bears rookie quarterback Dan LeFevour.
Look at the guy the Bengals just picked up in a trade from the Jaguars, safety Reggie Nelson. He'll turn just 27 in two weeks. But he's already got 42 NFL starts as he heads into his fourth season.
"I think we're young; I know we're young," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "But our young players have played a lot of football. That's a compliment to the coaches and the drafting that we've been able to get the young guys out there and playing. And that's important to me that we're using our young players. We'll keep developing our young guys. It's hard to do. But we're really trying to force that."
What Lewis means it's hard to do and win, but the Bengals managed to do it in '09, particularly on defense. And now guys like Leon Hall and Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga and Michael Johnson are a year older and the only veteran they added is Nelson. And he got traded for another four-year player in cornerback David Jones.
Where the difference will be is on special teams, where tough cuts claimed special teams captain Kyries Hebert and linebackers Rashad Jeanty and Abdul Hodge. As Lewis said, "They went out there and gave me their left leg." He also said they could be back in a few weeks. But they aren't here now and they were three of the team's top four special-teams tacklers from last year.
Lewis envisions those spots taken by guys like linebackers Michael Johnson and Dan Skuta and cornerback Morgan Trent and, if they're active, rookie end Carlos Dunlap and rookie middle linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy. Guys like cornerback Adam Jones and wide receiver Quan Cosby are going to be big in the return game with Cosby also doubling as a blocker and tackler.
"We've got some young, athletic linemen that will help in those areas," Lewis said. "Michael Johnson. Skuta. We still retain (linebacker) Brandon Johnson. We have to take a step forward. We're reconstituted in the secondary and Adam Jones and Trent Morgan and those guys have to help. (Running back) Cedric Peerman has done a great job.
"(Wide receiver) Andre Caldwell has to ratchet it up again. There are guys that have to get back to that level they've played at consistently. I think it speaks to what we feel they can continue to develop and do on special teams as it reflects on what they've done on their side of the football."