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2015 Team Report: Cincinnati Bengals

Quarterbacks

Starter: Andy Dalton
Backup(s): A.J. McCarron

Starting QB: Andy Dalton is entering his fifth season in the NFL. He has never missed a start in his career, a great display of durability. Dalton is often seen as the missing piece between an excellent roster and a playoff push, despite leading Cincinnati to the playoffs in all of his four seasons. After a career year in 2013 in which he passed for over 4,200 yards, Dalton regressed back to 3,398 passing yards and only 19 touchdowns in 2014. The yardage total tied his rookie year for the lowest of his career, and the touchdowns total was his lowest yet. In today's NFL, it's very difficult to keep a talented team together, and Cincinnati's championship window could be closing soon. Dalton needs to exceed the form he showed in 2013 in order to bring his team to the next level. Not having A.J. Green for the entirety of the season certainly hurt Dalton's cause, but it remains to be seen if that's something he's capable of doing.

Backup QB: A.J. McCarron was a 2014 draft pick for Cincinnati. He hasn't thrown an NFL pass yet but has a chance to be the team's primary backup in 2015. His arm isn't very strong; he's a game manager type.

Running Backs

Starter: Jeremy Hill
Backup(s): Giovani Bernard, Rex Burkhead, Cedric Peerman
Fullback(s): Ryan Hewitt

Starting RB: Jeremy Hill seized the starting job in the middle of last season after being drafted in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He began the year behind Giovani Bernard but was able to use his more powerful style to earn the job as the primary back. Hill only started half of the team's games but was able to surpass 1,100 yards and score nine touchdowns. Expect him to be among the top of the list in rushing scores in 2015. Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson is still in town and is known for his emphasis on the running game. Jackson and Hill were a great match in 2014 and should continue to be in 2015.

Backup RBs: Giovani Bernard was surpassed by then rookie Jeremy Hill midseason in 2014, but Bernard still flashed the game-breaking speed and agility that made him a breakout star in his rookie year of 2013. Bernard should maintain a role as a pass-catcher this year after catching 43 passes last season. He missed three games last season, showing that perhaps he isn't big enough to handle a full workload at just 202 pounds. Between Bernard's size and Hill's skill, Bernard is best suited to be a change-of-pace back. Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman are strictly special teams players as the duo of Hill and Bernard can do just about everything that a team needs its backs to do. Burkhead can catch passes if called upon, but without an injury in front of him, he's unlikely to see much action.

Fullback: Ryan Hewitt logged over 400 snaps after being signed by Cincinnati as an undrafted free agent in 2014. Many already see him as one of the top fullbacks in the league. He can line up at the end of the line or in the backfield. He fits nicely with Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson's power rushing attack.

Wide Receivers

Starters: A.J. Green, Marvin Jones
Backups: Mohamed Sanu, Brandon Tate, Greg Little, Mario Alford [R]

Starting WRs: A.J. Green is among the game's elite at wide receiver. Last season was marred by injuries to his toe, thigh, and biceps. He also suffered a concussion in Week 17 that caused him to miss the team's playoff game. Despite only missing three regular season games, Green's impact was more limited than that total would suggest. He finished with a career low in yards and touchdowns and had fewer receptions than any year except his rookie campaign. Green is simply too big, too strong, and too talented to bet against. A bounce-back year should be in the works for him. Marvin Jones didn't play in a single game last season due to a preseason foot injury and subsequent setbacks. He is looking to build on a 2013 season that saw him catch 10 touchdown passes on just 80 targets. He has the inside track to start opposite Green, but Mohamed Sanu had a nice year in 2014 while Green and Jones were out, so it's far from a shoo-in. Jones also has been called out by coach Marvin Lewis for missing practices and played with the second team in Cincinnati's first preseason game.

Backup WRs: Often the team's de facto number one receiver in 2014 due to injuries at the position, Mohamed Sanu had a career-high 790 yards and five touchdowns. He's probably best suited to play slot and win against nickel corners, which means he's likely to start training camp behind Marvin Jones in the race to start opposite A.J. Green. Brandon Tate has been with Cincinnati for four years and never caught more than the 17 passes he did in 2014. He has just two receiving touchdowns in his career. He's mainly a special teams player. Cincinnati brought back Greg Little, but the unaccomplished veteran isn't likely to contribute anything in the regular season. Mario Alford is a very small (5'9") but very fast (4.25 40-yard dash at his Pro Day) player whose contributions will be mostly on kick returns and punt returns.

Tight Ends

Starters: Tyler Eifert
Backups: Tyler Kroft [R], C.J. Uzomah

Tyler Eifert is a former first-round draft pick and has the talent to measure up to those lofty standards. With Jermaine Gresham out of the picture, Eifert is expected to be the unquestioned starter at tight end in 2015. He was injured in Week 1 last year when he dislocated his elbow. He also had a torn labrum that he was attempting to play through at the time the elbow injury ended his season. Eifert had offseason surgery on both, but he's back and participating in Training Camp, where he has been "uncoverable." Tyler Kroft was drafted in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of Rutgers. Kroft is more of an in-line tight end but has demonstrated ability to catch passes. He'll likely be learning on the job this season, barring another injury to Tyler Eifert. Kroft wasn't the only tight end drafted by Cincinnati this season. They also selected C.J. Uzomah in the fifth round out of Auburn. He's intriguing as he has a wide receiver background and is known for being more of a move tight end. He's pretty raw but could be an interesting prospect.

Place Kicker

Mike Nugent, Tom Obarski [R]: Nugent had a few rough moments last year and missed all three of his 50+ yard kicks, so the Bengals brought in undrafted kicker Tom Obarski to compete with him in training camp. The former second-round pick has had crises of confidence in the past, and he has been adequate, but not great during his tenure with the Bengals. Keep an eye on this one in August and avoid Nugent in best ball leagues if you can.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Adam Jones, Mario Alford [R], Brandon Tate

The Bengals used both Brandon Tate and Adam Jones heavily in the return game in 2014, though Jones yielded the better results. The selection of receiver Mario Alford in the seventh round of the NFL Draft may add another player into the mix. Alford's running of the 40-yard dash in 4.25 seconds at his Pro Day is a testament to the speed he possesses. The trio should give the Bengals a solid return group, though anyone counting on individual returners for their fantasy league may have difficulty knowing which to play in any given week.

Punt Returners: Adam Jones, Brandon Tate, Mario Alford [R], Giovani Bernard

Cincinnati split the punt return duties for the last three years between receiver Brandon Tate and cornerback Adam Jones. Jones had an edge in 2014, averaging 11.9 yards per return to Tate's 9.7. The addition of speedster Mario Alford may add another player into the mix this season, though Alford has been more of a kick returner, so likely slots behind Tate on punts.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Clint Boling, C Russell Bodine, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Andre Smith
Key Backups: T Cedric Ogbuehi [R], T Jake Fisher [R], G Tanner Hawkinson, G Trey Hopkins, C T.J. Johnson

The Bengals' line ended last season on a bit of a down note, with starting tackle Andre Smith suffering a season ending injury. Smith is fully healthy and should be extra motivated this season as both he and All Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth are entering their contract years. Whitworth had an excellent 2014 season but made some interesting remarks during draft season. Over twitter, Whitworth dared the Bengals to draft his replacement. By taking a tackle in round one (Cedric Ogbuehi) and a tackle in round two (Jake Fisher), the Bengals called his bluff. The team has a recent history of sitting drafted players for a year before thrusting him into the starting lineup, and along those lines, I cannot project either to start this season. However in the long term, look for Fisher to start at left tackle, Ogbuehi to start at right tackle, and both Smith and Whitworth to be wearing a different uniform. On the interior, right guard Kevin Zeitler had an outstanding year and is playing at a borderline Pro Bowl level, despite not actually being awarded that honor. The team picked up Zeitler's fifth year option and also resigned left guard Clint Boling, after Boling received a ton of attention from other teams. The weak spot of this line is probably center Russell Bodine, who played decently but not lights out last season. There are rumors that the Bengals could shuffle their line, moving Whitworth to guard, Boling to center and elevating one of the rookies to left tackle. This seems smart on paper but it's not clear this will actually occur in real life. For now the lineup seems fairly set, with all five players returning to start at all the same positions as last year. Line coach Paul Alexander also holds the prestigious assistant head coach title and that's a testiment to the job he does with these players. Look for the Bengals to be one the league's better lines this year; even if they have major injuries, they have the depth to perform at a high level.

Team Defense

The Bengals were drafted as an everyweek starting D/ST in 2014, but they failed to deliver on that price. Vontaze Burfict struggled with injuries, Geno Atkins didn't look like his old self coming off of an ACL injury, and the Bengals were the worst defense in the league at forcing fumbles and sacking QBs. DE Michael Johnson is back after the Bucs broke the bank for him and abandoned the edge rusher who looked like he was on the rise before cashing in. Atkins should be better, and the team added Paul Dawson in the draft, who is a similar player to Burfict in more ways than one. If Burfict can't regain form coming off of microfracture surgery, Dawson could be called on in a big role early. The Bengals do have the power running game to create good game scripts for their once vaunted defense, so they could get back into our good graces this year.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Carlos Dunlap, DE Michael Johnson, DT Geno Atkins, DT Domata Peko DE Carlos Dunlap, Wallace Gilberry, DE Robert Geathers, DT Geno Atkins, DT Domata Peko
Backups: DE Wallace Gilberry, DE Margus Hunt, DE Will Clarke, DE Sam Montgomery, DT Pat Sims, DT Devon Still, DT Brandon Thompson

Starting DL: In 2012 the Bengals 51 sacks was the second most in the league. In 2013 their 43 sacks placed them among the top ten. Heading into last year however, Cincinnati found themselves without Mike Zimmer as their defensive coordinator, and without Michael Johnson as their bookend to Carlos Dunlap. Zimmer would seem to be the bigger loss of the two but we should not overlook the impact that Johnson had. Not only was he a stout run defender, in 2012 he was second on the team with 11.5 sacks. That number dropped to only 4 in 2013 but Johnson made up for it with a number of other big plays including 10 batted passes. Look for current defensive coordinator Paul Gunther to turn up the aggressiveness in his second season on the job and for the Bengals to finish among the top half of the league in sacks this year. Johnson went down with a knee sprain early in camp so he may be a little slow out of the gate. He should be fine by the end of September. The team will probably use a committee to replace him in the meantime. Another factor that will help Cincinnati bounce back, is the return of a finally healthy Geno Atkins. Before the knee injury midway through the 2013 season, Atkins was one of the leagues most explosive interior linemen. He led the league in sacks by a tackle with 13 in 2012 and was well on the way to a double digit repeat in 2013. Atkins made it back to the field last year but was clearly not the same player. He did show improvement as the season went on and looked to be close to 100% in December. Another full offseason of recovery seems to have returned Atkins to Pro Bowl form. He has been nearly unstoppable during camp. Atkins is joined in the interior line by Domata Peko. Peko is not a statistical standout, but at 6'3" and 322 pounds, he is the anchor of the Bengals run defense as well as an emotional leader for the unit and a fan favorite.

Backup DL: There is a great deal of potential behind the starting front four in Cincinnati. 2013 second round pick Margus Hunt was considered a raw talent when drafted. He saw little action as a rookie but could be ready for a significant role this year. The versatile Hunt has worked at both tackle and end during his football career and has the physical skill set to eventually become an impact player. He missed some time early in camp with a sore back but is expected to be in the mix for playing time if Johnson misses games. The Bengals used a third round selection on West Virginia defensive lineman Will Clarke. He was a three year starter, playing both tackle and end for the Mountaineers during his time there. Clarke has worked exclusively at end with the Bengals and has seen time with the first unit during camp. Clarke needs to improve against the run and add some pass rush moves, but is a quick twitch athlete with good size and speed. He too has the potential to develop into an NFL starter. The wild card at end for the Bengals is free agent addition Sam Montgomery. Montgomery was the third round pick of the Texans last season, but failed to make the transition to outside linebacker. His scouting grade was actually much higher than round three but off field questions caused him to slide. This gives the Bengals yet another athlete with the potential to develop into a quality contributor. Devon Still and Brandon Thompson provide the depth at the tackle positions. Thompson stepped into the starting role in the middle of last season when Atkins was lost. He was a step down as a pass rusher, but Thompson filled in admirably. He should have a considerable role as the third man in the inside rotation.

Linebackers

Starters: WLB Vontaze Burfict, MLB Rey Maualuga, SLB Emmanuel Lamur
Backups: MLB/WLB Vincent Rey, MLB Paul Dawson, MLB A.J. Hawk, OLB Marquise Flowers, SLB Jayson DiManche, WLB Sean Porter

Starting LBs: In 2013 weak side linebacker Vontaze Burfict emerged as a star in both NFL and fantasy terms. He added 3 sacks, 4 takeaways, 8 passes defended and a touchdown to his impressive tackle totals of 113 solo and 57 assists. Injuries sidetracked his 2014 season and seemingly leave the Bengals with some concerns. Burfict had some concussion issues early last year and missed some time. On a couple of other occasions he left the field looking woozy. The team downplayed the concussion issues before placing their emerging playmaker on injured reserve when he elected to have micro-fracture surgery on his knee. A healthy Burfict would give the team a playmaking stud and would go a long way toward returning the Cincinnati defense to the top ten. Nothing coming from the team would suggest that they are concerned with Burfict's health, but they did add free agent A.J. Hawk and use a 3rd round pick Paul Dawson to solidify their depth at the linebacker positions. Rey Maualuga is the returning starter at middle backer and should enter camp atop the depth chart at the position. He is a solid run defender and veteran leader for the team, but is only adequate in coverage. Maualuga may find himself fighting with A.J. Hawk for the job. Both players have similar strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of who is on the field come opening day, the team will have a quality veteran presence at the position. Emmanuel Lamur emerged late in the 2013 campaign and opened last year as a three down starter on the strong side. Lamur is arguably be the team's best coverage linebacker. He finished last season with 7 passes defended and a pair of interceptions, and has shown signs of becoming another big time playmaker for the team.

Backup LBs: The Bengals have excellent depth at the linebacker positions. Vincent Rey replaced an injured Rey Maualuga at middle linebacker for several games in 2013 and stepped in for Vontaze Burfict at weak side backer for eleven games last season. Rey is a versatile linebacker who is solid versus the run, with good cover skills as well. He would be a starter for a good number of teams. Between Rey, veteran addition A.J. Hawk and talented rookie Paul Dawson, the team can withstand an injury or two and still be highly competitive.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Leon Hall, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, CB Adam Jones, FS Reggie Nelson, SS George Iloka
Backups: CB Darqueze Dennard, CB Chris Lewis-Harris, SS Shawn Williams, FS Josh Shaw, SS Derron Smith

Starting DBs: Veteran corner Terence Newman has moved on, leaving Dre Kirkpatrick, Adam Jones and Darqueze Dennard to contend for the starting spot opposite Leon Hall. Jones has excelled in the nickel corner role over much of his five previous seasons with the Bengals. He has played well when called upon to assume a starting role, but is probably best suited to continue as the slot corner. Both Kirkpatrick and Dennard are young and talented former first round picks (2012 and 2014 respectively). Kirkpatrick has a couple more years under his belt and has seen his playing time increase steadily since his rookie season. Entering camp he will be the favorite to claim the spot. Including Hall and Jones Cincinnati has four first round draft picks on the roster at the corner positions. Their talent and depth showed in 2014 when the Bengals finished near the top of the league with 20 interceptions. Corner play should once again be a strength for the team. Cincinnati has a little less to work with at the safety positions, but they should be just fine. Free safety Reggie Nelson is not a particularly physical player but is a dependable tackler with excellent cover skills and good range. His leadership in the secondary is also an asset for the club. George Iloka has seen most of the playing time at strong safety over the past two seasons. He is a dependable tackler and solid pass defender, but it not an intimidating physical presence nor a playmaker. The Bengals would like to have a more dominating presence at the position so Iloka could feel some heat from third year man Shawn Williams and/or rookie Derron Smith.

Backup DBs: Even without Terence Newman the Bengals are both talented and deep on the corners. Darqueze Dennard is a starter quality talent who will likely be the fourth man on the depth chart entering his second season. At some point he should emerge as a starter but that may be a year or two down the road unless the team suffers injuries. It is somewhat of a surprise that Shawn Williams has not moved past Iloka in the pecking order at strong safety. At 6'0" and 2013 pounds, it was expected that the 2013 third round pick would provide the intimidation factor the organization is looking for. Nagging injuries and a slower than expected learning curve have kept Williams on the sideline for the most part thus far. He will get another look during training camp but now there is even more competition. Because he was not drafted until round six, rookie Derron Smith will be an afterthought for most. A closer look suggests that concerns over a sports hernia and the fact that he is only 5'10" may have been the reasons Smith was not a second day selection. He is a bit undersized but plays physically, has solid cover skills and a knack for making the big play. The coaching staff is looking for someone to step up at safety. Smith may be that guy.

Last modified: 2015-09-07 20:48:17