2014 Team Needs: Cincinnati Bengals
The 2013 season for the Cincinnati Bengals, in many ways, mirrored 2012. Regular season success, powered by one of the best offensive lines in the league and a solid defense, met with a first-round playoff exit behind disappointing performances, especially by quarterback Andy Dalton.
This time last year, we were asking whether Dalton was good enough to lead the Bengals and their at-the-time vaunted defense to a Super Bowl championship. That’s still a question, but Geno Atkins’ ACL injury this year and otherwise uninspiring play from the remaining cadre of defensive tackles, combined with Michael Johnson’s impending free agency, have created needs along the defensive line. It is widely expected that the Bengals will stick to last year’s plan of retaining and extending their own, but they could have the flexibility to plug some holes with free agents with a projected $29.4m in cap room.
Potential Cap Casualties
The Bengals have plenty of cap space, but that doesn’t preclude cap casualties in Cincinnati. With young players like Vontaze Burfict, A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, and Dalton looking at potential extensions and raises, money is still at a premium. Let’s have a look at some of the players the Bengals might release to create some extra space:
– Robert Geathers is the most speculated about, and probably the most logical potential cap casualty in Cincinnati. He hasn’t posted a positively graded season since barely breaking zero in 11 games in 2007, and missed most of 2013 with an elbow injury. The Bengals have shown loyalty to Geathers in the past despite him grading poorly by our numbers, but releasing Geathers would save Cincinnati $2.7m with no dead money.
– The coaching staff in Cincinnati seems to really like Domata Peko, and he’s one of the longest-tenured Bengals. Still, cutting Peko would save the Bengals $4.1m and, like Geathers, wouldn’t leave any dead money. Peko is a leader in the locker room, but he hasn’t posted a green game since 2012.
– BenJarvus Green-Ellis has one year left on his deal, and the Bengals often keep veterans on for the duration of their contracts. Still, Green-Ellis wasn’t very effective in most situations last year, Giovani Bernard was electric in his rookie year, and cutting him would save $2.5m.
The Bengals have Geathers, Carlos Dunlap, Wallace Gilberry, and Margus Hunt under contract next year at defensive end. Geathers is a likely cap casualty due to his injury, free cap savings, and relatively poor performance according to our metrics. Dunlap was an excellent run defender last year, finishing as our fourth best run defending defensive end. His pass rushing fell off in 2013, but he still disrupted the passing game with seven batted passes and 69 pressures. But beyond Dunlap, Gilberry regressed in 2013 and was just our 40th-ranked 4-3 defensive end, and Hunt is an unknown quality who looked raw in his 165 snaps. A reliable right end to replace Michael Johnson’s productivity and snaps – he played 90% of the team’s snaps – is a need.
Free Agent Fix: The Bengals don’t seem likely to make a big splash for one of the top edge defenders, so it’s likely safe to rule out a top 4-3 name like Greg Hardy or Michael Bennett. Another top player who might make sense is Everson Griffen, who hasn’t seen a seven-figure contract. Rumors were that Griffen was a franchise tag candidate in Minnesota, but it looks like he’ll make it to the market, and he might fit in Cincinnati’s rotation. He played 60% of Minnesota’s snaps and dropped into coverage 29 times, which the Bengals liked to do with Johnson and Dunlap.
Geno Atkins makes a huge difference in the Cincinnati defense. When he was healthy, he was probably the best defensive tackle in the league. It was a clear gap in 2012, but even before his ACL injury, Atkins was closer to the pack in 2013. He’s going to be a bit of a question mark in 2014, and while he seems to make the rest of the defensive line better, that’s not a sure thing off of a major injury. Beyond Atkins, the Cincinnati defensive tackles didn’t play all that well in 2013. Domata Peko ranked 66th in our defensive tackle grading, and Brandon Thompson wasn’t much better at 57. Devon Still, a second round pick in 2012, barely played due to injuries and isn’t a known entity. With Peko a potential cap casualty, the Bengals could use a talent infusion next to Atkins.
Free Agent Fix: Again, it seems likely that the Bengals would approach this need in the draft rather than free agency. Could they bring back Pat Sims, the former Bengal who just spent a year in Oakland? After posting a pair of red games in Oakland’s first three, Sims found his stride halfway through the season with a massive +7.2, 10 defensive stop game against San Diego in Week 16. While other teams may see him as a one-year wonder, the Bengals are familiar with the “Dancing Bear”, as he was affectionately known during his time in Cincinnati.
The Bengals are extremely unlikely to have a new starting quarterback next year as they have publicly and emphatically stated support for Andy Dalton. It’s not that Dalton is a bad quarterback. He actually ranked 17th on our QB grade leaderboard in 2013. The problem is that he’s just so average at this stage in his career. He put up some of the best QB grades of the year against the Jets, the Colts, and the Vikings. He also had some of the worst games of the year, most notably a disaster in the playoffs against San Diego.
Josh Johnson could see competition for the backup position, at the minimum. Former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was familiar with Johnson’s work in Tampa, and may have been the reason he was the primary backup despite not proving a capable passer.
Free Agent Fix: The Bengals are unlikely to find a replacement for Dalton on the free agent market. They were linked to Michael Vick when he signed with the Eagles, but Vick may look for an opportunity to win a starting job and it’s doubtful that new coordinator Hue Jackson would seek Vick out as a starter. Last year, we suggested Tavaris Jackson, and it fits again. He has been a solid quarterback when he has protection, and the Bengals offer that in spades. Combined with his deep ball prowess, there’s a chance he’d even push Dalton.
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