Bengals on the lookout for safety upgrade
Even though they have made attempts to fix it via free agency the past two years, safety remains a weakness for the Bengals.
Next to receiver, the Bengals have tried to fix safety via free agency and trades. Last offseason, they re-signed Roy Williams to another one-year deal, signed Gibril Wilson and acquired former first-round pick Reggie Nelson from Jacksonville.
While the moves have made the unit one of the more experienced and physical ones in the league, injuries have played huge roles the past couple years. Chris Crocker, Wilson and Chinedum Ndukwe are coming off knee injuries. Ndukwe and Williams are free agents.
The Bengals have some promising youth in Tom Nelson and Jeromy Miles, but they're not ready to step in immediately.
Said head coach Marvin Lewis in assessing the position: "We're thin more than we would like. We upgraded in Reggie and right now we have a starting unit that is pretty good. Where the guys fit in the rest of the line we'll have to wait and see."
The promising thing from last season was that Williams played in 12 games after participating in only seven in 2008-09 due to a forearm injury. Williams missed three games this past season due to a knee injury and one due to concussion. However it is difficult to imagine Williams signing a third one-year deal to remain in Cincinnati.
If the season were to start today, Crocker and Nelson would be the starters. After seeing limited action early, Nelson started five of the final six games and had two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
When it has come to drafting safeties though in the last couple draft classes, the talent has been thin. This year's though has been rated among one of the worst in recent memory.
"I think safety is like linebacker, it has struggled the last couple drafts," Lewis said. "You have more guys going out and playing corner. You would think with all the spread offenses there would be more but there are less."
While the safeties have been good stopping the run in recent seasons, pass coverage has been a liability. Among the good cover safeties that could be available in the middle rounds are Georgia Tech's Jerrard Tarrant, Rutgers' Joe Lefeged, North Carolina's Da'Norris Searcy and the Florida duo of Ahmad Black and Will Hill.
If the Bengals were going to opt for depth and another physical guy, they might be able to get Temple's Jaiquawn Jarrett or Idaho's Shiloh Keo.
Last year safety was also thought to be a big need during the draft and the Bengals did not select one with any of their nine picks.
"Last year we felt like there was a pretty good dropoff at a certain point," Lewis said. "We've looked at the first supposed guys who are going to be around the first couple rounds but I can't say for sure if there's that big a dropoff this year or not."
--The only position where there aren't any questions on the Bengals' offensive line is left tackle, where Andrew Whitworth gave up only two sacks last year and narrowly missed out on a Pro-Bowl berth. Two starters on the line are restricted free agents and another is entering the final year of his contract.
The situation is really bad at guard. Bobbie Williams, who has been the starter at right guard since arriving from Philadelphia in 2004, is 34 and entering the final year of his contract. Nate Livings, who has started 31 games at left guard the last two years, is a restricted free agent. According to Pro Football Focus, Livings rated as one of the worst in the league among starters.
Evan Mathis, who started five games in 2009, is an unrestricted free agent and is likely to move on to another team.
There were some discussions last year about moving right tackle Andre Smith, who has seen action in only 14 games the past two seasons, to guard but new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's West Coast scheme wouldn't be a good fit.
"You would hope your guards to be a little bit more mobile and Andre's not as mobile as either one of those guys," head coach Marvin Lewis said.
Before he got injured, Smith was listed as the backup at right guard. As far as linemen currently on the roster, Reggie Stephens can play both guard and center but wasn't active in any regular-season games last year while Otis Hudson was on the practice squad. Both were drafted in the later rounds last year. Jason Shirley was on injured reserve last year after tearing his Achilles in a basketball game.
Lewis has made upgrading the offensive line a priority during the offseason, via free agency and the draft. However with the lockout, it appears as if free agency will not occur until after the draft. This year's draft class might have some prospects in the middle rounds that include Georgia's Clint Boling, Michigan's Stephen Schilling and Wisconsin's John Moffitt.
The situation at right tackle isn't much better. The Bengals have to decide whether to pick up the two-year option on Smith or keep the deal at four years. Dennis Roland is a restricted free agent but struggled as a starter and Anthony Collins, who is a better pass blocker, is in the final year of his contract. Center Kyle Cook, the starter the past two years, is also restricted.
When asked if there was a regret in taking Smith with the sixth overall pick two years ago, Lewis said: "I think today I still stand on the fact that Andre was warranted for the pick where he was and it hasn't been great circumstances. We have to turn it around and get a positive out of it. The foot injury has been hard and the guy the way he played in '09 I was feeling real good about it. Last year he wasn't the same guy on the foot."
--Quarterback is first and foremost among the immediate needs for the Bengals. There is also a developing long-term need at wide receiver as well.
If he gets to his 11th season in Cincinnati, it will be the final one for Chad Ochocinco. Due to make $6 million this season, there are still doubts about whether the Bengals' career receiving leader will be around, especially with his diminishing numbers and clashes with head coach Marvin Lewis.
Besides Ochocinco, Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, who were drafted in 2008, are entering the final year of their contracts. In the last three games, Simpson had 20 catches for 277 yards and three touchdowns. The finale against Baltimore though showed the good (12 receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown) and the bad (two costly fumbles where a defender knocked the ball out of his hands both times).
If the Bengals were to part ways with Ochocinco this offseason, Lewis did not discount the possibility of Simpson moving into the No. 1 spot.
"I think he can be as good as any receiver in the NFL but now, he's got to keep taking steps to learn," Lewis said. "He played physical, he caught the ball well, he ran with the ball after he caught it, he blocked. He did things right."
Since Lewis' first season in 2003, the Bengals have drafted 12 wide receivers. None though have come in the first round with Simpson (46th overall) being the highest selection. With the signing of Terrell Owens last season, Simpson and Caldwell took a back seat. Caldwell took the biggest brunt of Owens' signing as he saw his receptions drop from 51 in 2009 to 25 last season. However he did close with 15 catches for 267 yards in the last three games.
The most consistent receiver ended up being rookie Jordan Shipley, who led AFC rookies in receiving yards (600) and tied Jermaine Gresham in receptions (52).
If the Bengals select a receiver in the first round, it will come down to either Georgia's A.J. Green and Alabama's Julio Jones. If they take a quarterback in the first, it could be Pittsburgh's Jonathan Baldwin, Boise State's Titus Young or Kentucky's Randall Cobb in the second.
There has been increased talk about the Bengals liking Jones the past couple weeks because of the way he blocks and how he might be better suited to a West Coast offense. But there are also concerns about how durable he is. The thought of the Bengals taking a player from Alabama in the first round with foot problems for the second time in three years is enough to make fans ill. Tackle Andre Smith was the other.
Green has been the top-ranked prospect at receiver because of his consistency and his ability to catch the ball in traffic. When it comes to speed between the two, Jones has the slight edge.
--When Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason entered their ninth seasons in Cincinnati, the Bengals selected a quarterback in the first round. With Carson Palmer going into year nine it appears as if the process might repeat itself.
This though is a different dynamic than the previous two. Anderson didn't threaten to retire and Esiason's trade demands were kept under wraps. This time the Bengals are at a crossroad, which makes quarterback the top need position in the draft.
Head coach Marvin Lewis said during the annual league meetings in New Orleans that quarterback is a priority need. He last spoke with Palmer the first week of February and has been preparing for life without Palmer since then.
Lewis is firmly aware that finding a new quarterback is going to be a challenge. The only certainty though is that Lewis isn't letting it be a hurdle.
Said Lewis: "It's going to be important not to spin our wheels worrying about it and being paralyzed by it but to be proactive."
Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour are the other quarterbacks on the roster, but neither is considered to be a viable starting option. The younger Palmer has thrown 15 passes in three seasons, including two interceptions while LeFevour was claimed off waivers from the Bears at the conclusion of last year's preseason. He is considered to be a long-term project.
Lewis and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden were at the Pro Days for Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder. With the Bengals installing a version of the West Coast offense, Ponder is thought by some experts to be the most ready to run it. The Bengals are familiar with Ponder from when they faced him at the Senior Bowl.
"With Christian, especially with the issues he had with his arm and his elbow, we just want to see that he's spinning it and that he's been working. You want to see what kind of velocity he has on the ball and his accuracy," Gruden said after the workout.
With Ponder continuing to make strides, he might not be there in the second round when the Bengals have the 35th overall pick. If he had to, Lewis would not be discouraged about trading one of next year's draft picks for help this year.
"I think you do what's best for the team for the next two years. You don't worry about where the pick is in 2012, you do what you can to strengthen the team for '11," he said. Whatever move you make you make it not for one year, but for two, three years. I don't buy that you wait until you know what the pick is. If you feel like you need to do it, you do it and 2012 takes care of itself."
Many also wonder if Newton and Gabbert are a stretch at four. In something that doesn't ease anxiety among Bengals fans, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. compared Newton to Akili Smith as one-year wonders.
If all three are gone, TCU's Andy Dalton and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett would be options in the second or third rounds.
--Coach Marvin Lewis was recently asked if linebacker Rey Maualuga is ready to take over in the middle.
Said Lewis, "I think Rey is ready to take over however we decide to put things together. I think if he's given that opportunity, I think he'll excel at it. Rey Maualuga can handle it."
--WR Chad Ochocinco is now a soccer player, although he won't have a contract or be paid. Following a five-day tryout with Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer, Ochocinco will be a member of the team's reserve squad and practice a couple of times a week.
On Twitter, Ochocinco wrote, "This is so awesome I'm an honorary member of SportingKC and can train with the reserve team as long as I want. Totally awesome ILuvKC."
After a practice game Monday, he said, "I've been away from the game since I was a little kid. I'm just having fun. The skill set is not there like it should be. All I can do out here on the pitch is probably just run fast."
Coach Peter Vermes was impressed with Ochocinco's work ethic and attitude. Said Vermes, "He really loves the game and he was into it. He wanted to try to make it. I think it's also good for him. He realizes this is a lot more difficult than it (appears to be). For our sport, it's great because I think there's a lot of people out there who question how hard it is to play this game and it's very, very difficult."
Added club spokesman Dave Borchardt, "He realized he's not good enough to make the team and play in games. This way, he gets to be part of the soccer locker room, which is a dream come true."
Ochocinco played soccer until high school when he said his grandmother convinced him to concentrate on football. Vermes said had he stayed with sport he could have played professionally.
Vermes said, "There's no doubt in my mind he would be a professional player today. No doubt in my mind. We've had guys in here with lesser physical tools than he has. He brings something to the field, his attention to detail and he's very conscientious about the game. When you bring that every day onto the practice field you're just going to get better."
--Coach Marvin Lewis was asked what kind of offense will be run by new coordinator Jay Gruden.
Said Lewis, "Obviously everyone is familiar with the stuff Jon did in Tampa but Jay was a big part of that as well. He then had a chance to go out and do it on his own. He's been a head coach in arena football, he's done it in the UFL. The biggest thing I'm excited about is our ability to mesh the run and pass together. Put pressure on the defense by attacking. We have people that fit that very well. He brings great energy to that room. He brings a great feel how every position is going to be coached and critiqued without being one of those that micromanages.
"The installation of the offense with our coaches. You're talking about someone who wants the right guard to step this way, the right tackle to step this way and on this play this is going to be the quarterback's read, the receiver's adjustment, the back's track. To go through it that way and thorough and then disperse it to the position coaches. From a change to now him being on the sideline. As he said when you call the play in the huddle it should be exciting for the quarterback. When you sit and talk with him, he's a football junkie and fanatic."
QUOTE OF NOTE: "With soccer it's like playing eight straight quarters in a football game and not taking a drink. When this lockout ends and after these workouts, I'm going to be in ridiculous shape." - WR Chad Ochocinco, comparing soccer to football.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
DRAFT VISITS: CB Prince Amukamara, DE Da'Quan Bowers, DT Zach Clayton, QB Andy Dalton, DE Nick Fairley, QB Blaine Gabbert, WR Julio Jones, CB Korey Lindsey, QB Ryan Mallett, QB Cam Newton, CB Patrick Peterson, QB Christian Ponder, OC Mike Pouncey, CB Jimmy Smith, RB Daniel Thomas
The Bengals were awarded a seventh-round compensatory pick in this year's draft. The Bengals didn't lose more free agents than they signed, but the choice was awarded because 11 picks were needed to reach the mandated total of 32 choices. Those picks are awarded at the end of the seventh round to the first 11 teams in the draft order.
Quarterback: With Carson Palmer saying either trade me or I'll retire, the Bengals have an immediate need at the position. They could grab Auburn's Cam Newton or Missouri's Blaine Gabbert in the first round but will probably wait until the second where Florida State's Christian Ponder, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett and TCU's Andy Dalton reside.
Wide receiver: Chad Ochocinco (if he is back), Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell are entering the final year of their contract. The Bengals already have their slot receiver in Jordan Shipley but don't have their future No. 1 guy who can stretch the field and make the tough catches in traffic. They could find that guy in the first round in Georgia's A.J. Green or Alabama's Julio Jones.
Offensive guard: Bobbie Williams is 34 and entering the final year of his contract and Nate Livings is a restricted free agent. Other than that, there are no options currently on the roster. Lewis said during the league meetings that Andre Smith will not be moved to guard despite getting some work there during practices last season.
Safety: Roy Williams, Gibril Wilson and Chinedum Ndukwe are free agents and Chris Crocker has struggled in pass coverage. The past two seasons the position has been wracked by injuries. They are hoping that Reggie Nelson, who is entering the last year of his contract after being acquired in a trade from Jacksonville last year, can step in but they still need depth.