The five most important Bengals
Let's look at the five most important Bengals for 2011 -- as of today. This isn't intended to be a list of the best players or the guys facing make-or-break situations, but the most important players as of this very second before any trades, signings, cuts or surprise depth-chart changes are made.
With the uncertainty surrounding the NFL's labor issues, players must be under contract for 2011 to be eligible for this list. Whenever a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, some players might be restricted free agents and are likely to return while others could achieve unrestricted status depending on the terms of the new agreement. That means players including (but not limited to) Cedric Benson, Jonathan Fanene and Johnathan Joseph are not eligible for this list.
5. A.J. Green - Chad or no Chad, Green will be counted on to produce in his rookie season. He's not higher (lower, more important, you get the idea) on this list for a few reasons, including the tendency of rookie receivers to take a while to catch on and the possibility both that he'll be playing with a rookie quarterback and be drawing the opponent's best cornerback (or double coverage) in many situations. But the Bengals drafted Green to be a game-changer for many years and if the offense is going to get back on track in 2011, he'll have to be a big part of it.
4. Carlos Dunlap - Sure looks like the Bengals' philosophy of drafting the best available player regardless of baggage paid off with a second-round steal last year. Dunlap finished with 9.5 sacks and played his best football in the second half of the year. If he can continue to improve and produce, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will be able to further open the playbook and bring blitzes from other places and really have a chance to frustrate opposing QBs. Dunlap is a blue-chip talent and has a chance to be a star at a position that's becoming more premium with every big-play the suddenly pass-happy offenses in Baltimore and Pittsburgh make.
3. Rey Maualuga - It's his third year, and it's time to make a leap. A big leap. Maualuga figures to move into the middle linebacker spot and he'll be asked to use his brute strength to bolster the run defense and his gifts for finding the ball to help all of his teammates. Giving up 4.4 yards per carry to opposing rushers, as the Bengals did last year, isn't going to help the Bengals win in the AFC North. Having a stud middle linebacker play three downs and make plays from sideline to sideline will.
2. Leon Hall - Depending on Joseph's free-agency status, Hall might have to be a true No. 1 corner. Even if Joseph comes back Hall is going to be tested by some of the league's best receivers -- and playing for a new contract of his own. It's not fair to measure cornerbacks on stats alone, but Hall had 6 interceptions in '09 when the Bengals were forcing turnovers like crazy and setting up victories. If he's on his A-game, this Bengals defense can get back to being a force sooner rather than later.
1. Carson Palmer - The most important player claims he's not even showing up for work and would rather retire at 31 than play another down for the Bengals. Yep, that's how the last 10 months have gone for the Bengals, and for the next seven or eight to be any better the Bengals need Palmer to show up and play like he did before last year. Even if Andy Dalton does turn out to be the right guy and a winner at the NFL level, it's not going to be immediately. Marvin Lewis and this roster need to win now, and they need Palmer as their leader to be able to do it.