Unit-by-unit analysis - Cincinnati Bengals
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Andy Dalton. Backups -- Bruce Gradkowski, Zac Robinson.
Dalton exceeded expectations, but still needs to work on footwork and some mechanics. Gradkowski also deserves a share of credit for helping to bring Dalton along because of his knowledge of Gruden's system but does have accuracy problems. Robinson was signed to the offseason roster and will compete for a possible third QB spot even though the team kept two this year.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Cedric Benson, FB Chris Pressley. Backups -- Bernard Scott, Brian Leonard, Cedric Peerman, FB James Develin.
Benson ran for his third straight 1,000-yard season but struggled to break big runs along with showing his dissatisfaction with the direction of the offense. The Bengals were able to have some more consistency on offense due to Pressley and his ability to sustain blocks in finding a path for Benson. Scott has good speed to the outside and is a good change of pace back but many wonder if he could step into a starting role fulltime due to durability issues. Leonard remains the team's best back on third down because of his blocking and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Peerman was used mainly on special teams and Develin was on the practice squad all year.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jermaine Gresham. Backups -- Colin Cochart, Donald Lee. Injured reserve -- Bo Scaife.
Gresham became the first Bengals tight end in 30 years to post two straight seasons of 50 receptions or more. Lee lended a solid veteran presence that was lacking when Reggie Kelly didn't re-sign but he also was a good downfield threat. Cochart was used as a blocking guy when the Bengals used two-tight end sets. Scaife had a neck injury during the preseason and is a free agent.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- A.J. Green, Jerome Simpson. Backups -- Andrew Hawkins, Ryan Whalen, Brandon Tate, Armon Binns, Vidal Hazelton. Injured Reserve -- Jordan Shipley, Andre Caldwell
Green showed that he is already one of the top receivers in the AFC and gave the Bengals a deep threat they were lacking the past three seasons with Chad Ochocinco's decline. The task now is finding a second receiver to pair with him. Simpson has plenty of athletic potential but makes too many mistakes and hasn't grasped two offenses. Shipley should be ready in time for training camp but it appears that Caldwell is on his way out with no spot to put him. Hawkins and Whalen are dependable No. 4 receivers who are also good on special teams. Tate didn't see many snaps at receiver and is more of a returner. Binns and Hazelton will vie for spots during training camp.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Nate Livings, C Kyle Cook, RG Mike McGlynn, RT Andre Smith. Backups -- OT Anthony Collins, OG Otis Hudson, OG Clint Boling, OT Dennis Roland, OT Matthew O'Donnell Injured reserve -- RG Bobbie Williams.
Whitworth and Smith were great in pass protection and solid in run blocking. Smith, who finally was able to slim down and get his foot problems behind him, played in 14 games and improved as a pass blocker. The problems are on the interior of the line. Livings continued to struggle and there was a hope that either McGlynn or Boling would be able to unseat him which didn't happen. Williams was lost with four games remaining with a broken ankle but he also struggled in run blocking this season. Cook was solid in calling the line schemes but was often overmatched in run sets. Collins is the team's best pass blocker but there hasn't been a place for him. There is a possibility he could move to guard if re-signed. Hudson and Boling are young but remain works in progress. Roland was used as a second tight sometimes. O'Donnell was on the practice squad all year.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Robert Geathers, NT Domata Peko, DT Geno Atkins, RDE Frostee Rucker. Backups -- DE Carlos Dunlap, DT Nick Hayden, DT Jonathan Fanene, DE Michael Johnson. Injured reserve -- DT Pat Sims.
Each member of the defensive line recorded at least half a sack, which was a huge leap forward from 2010. Atkins (7.5 sacks) just missed out for the team record on sacks by an interior lineman while Fanene (6.5) had a career high. Rucker was finally healthy and had his most consistent year to date. Peko was the team's best run stopper while Geathers was solid. Dunlap battled injuries for most of the second half of the season but was the team's most consistent player in quarterback pressures. Johnson took a step back this year as he struggled with his overall play and was replaced in the starting lineup by Rucker halfway through the season. Hayden was a late-season addition when Sims was put on IR and didn't do much. Sims played well as a backup but not at the level he displayed the past couple seasons.
LINEBACKERS: SLB Manny Lawson, MLB Rey Maualuga, WLB Thomas Howard. Backups -- Dontay Moch, Dan Skuta, Brandon Johnson, Vincent Rey, Micah Johnson, DeQuin Evans. Injured reserve -- Roddrick Muckelroy.
It was a unit that matched up better in pass coverage but struggled against the run over the second half of the season. Howard ended up leading the team in tackles and was the most consistent. Maualuga struggled on run stopping and had a lot of missed tackles. He didn't have the impact season that many had hoped. Lawson was solid in pass coverage but didn't provide the rush off the edge that some had hoped. Johnson has versatility in the middle and at weak-side linebacker, but he might look elsewhere after signing his third straight one-year deal. Skuta did well in three starts in the middle but had a bigger role on special teams. Rey mostly played on special teams and Moch didn't play in a game after a series of injuries. M.Johnson and Evans were on the practice squad. Muckelroy ruptured his Achilles during the first day of training camp but should be back in time for training camp.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Nate Clements, RCB Adam Jones, SS Chris Crocker, FS Reggie Nelson. Backups -- CB Brandon Ghee CB Kelly Jennings, S Taylor Mays, S Gibril Wilson, S Jeromy Miles, S Robert Sands. Injured reserve -- CB Leon Hall.
Hall should be back in time for the start of training camp. Clements became a veteran presence with the group but did struggle on pass coverage late in the season. Jones was erratic in pass coverage and also was not good against the run. Crocker was good against the run but struggled on deep routes. Nelson had problems on deep routes early in the season but got better as the season progressed. Jennings battled injuries and then learning the system as the season progressed. Ghee, Mays, Miles, Wilson and Sands are all young and talented but didn't see a lot of playing time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Mike Nugent, P Kevin Huber, LS Clark Harris, KR/PR Brandon Tate.
Nugent was the league's most accurate kicker until late in the season when he missed four field goals over the final three games. Huber was in the middle of the pack as far as punting as Lewis has talked a lot about wanting more consistency out of him. Harris has not had a bad snap in the three seasons he has been here. Tate set a team record for combined kick/punt returns and did run a punt back for a touchdown, but more often than not was tentative in his returns and hesitated more than running straight ahead.