By: Josh Turel and Nick West
DE-Carl Powell (Redskins)
LB-Kevin Hardy (Cowboys)
DT-John Thornton (Titans)
CB-Tory James (Raiders)
TE-Reggie Kelly (Falcons)
S-Rogers Beckett (Chargers)
QB-Shane Matthews (Redskins)
FB-Mike Green (Titans)
Marvin Lewis has made it very clear Jon Kitna is the starter. The seven year vet started to come into his own last year, mainly because he was equipped with a better receiving corp then in 2001. Obviously he knows his starting job will someday come to an end and rookie Carson Palmer will take over the reigns of an offense that has the potential to be one of the best in the league. When Palmer will take over is unknown, but don't look for it happening any time soon or any time this season for that matter. Although Palmer is the hot shot heisman winner coming out of college, Kitna has a very underrated arm. After taking over the starting job for the final 13 weeks, he averaged 254 yards a game; only Rich Gannon and Peyton Manning averaged more. Combine that with his 16 touchdowns (4 rushing) and he looks like a solid quarterback. There is a downside, though, he compiled 16 interceptions during his 2002 campaign and has had a history of turning the ball over too much. That's mostly to blame for the shoot-out style the team is forced to run because of their lackluster defense. If the defense could limit their play, the offense would be able to stick to the gameplan and be more conservative.
The backup will likely be veteran Shane Matthews. Matthews was brought it after the team released Akili Smith, and combined with Kitna, his insight should help rookie Carson Palmer as he progresses. Although the team is eager to see what Palmer can do, they will keep him away from the action, refine his skills, and then let him take over the starting job in 2004. The fans will be calling for him after Kitna has a bad performance, but don't expect to much of him after the preseason.
Corey Dillon is one of the most productive backs in the league. He has gained at least 1,100 yards every season since he has been in the league (6 seasons) and has been very durable his whole career. Unfortunately, Corey doesnt get the chance to wear down teams in the second half, mainly because his team is playing catch up late in games and resorts to throwing the ball rather than running it. If on a different team, Corey could possibly be the best back in the NFL. The stat that best illustrates this fact is that during his career, when the team is victorious, Dillon averages 138 yards and a little over a touchdown a game. However, in losses, Dillon averages 68 yards and has only scored 16 times in 45 losses. Sometimes his team is his own worst enemy.
His backup for the last 3 years, Brandon Bennett, is feeling the heat from 3rd year back Rudi Johnson. Bennett has been a consistent performer, both as a rusher and a receiver, averaging 4.7 yards a carry last season. Johnson has displayed a load of potential, especially last season but will still have a tough task unseating the veteran Bennett. Either way, the backup spot will be in good hands.
Dillon and the other backs may be affected slighty by the exit of fullbacks Lorenzo Neal and Nick Luchey. Both were very good blockers and are a key factor in Dillons success. The likely replacement will be Chris Edmonds, who has had a bounced around career so far, entering the NFL two years ago as a linebacker, before moving to tight end and now to fullback. The team feels confident with his potential there and the preseason will shed light on his skills. Also 4th rounder Jeremi Johnson should be in the mix for playing time. Johnson has potential, and was one of the most complete fullbacks in the draft, displaying good hands, speed and blocking skills. Mike Green was brought in also to get a shot at a roster spot as a fullback.
The Bengals have on the rise a receiver corp that has depth and potential. Second-round pick in 2001, Chad Johnson, stepped up big time last season and led the team with 69 catches and 1166 yards receiving. His size, speed and hands make him an elite receiver in the league and he now gives the team a solid receiving option to build around. Working from the #2 spot is under achiever Peter Warrick. The Bengals invested a 1st round pick (4th overall) and so far he has been a big disappointment. He simply lacks the measurables, speed and hands for the job. He cannot catch the ball on a regular basis or elude the defenders like they had hoped. The team will probably use him more as a slot receiver and hope that he can make some plays from there. He did turn in an OK season last year with 606 yards and 6 touchdowns and the emergence of Johnson may allow him to be a bigger factor this year. Basically, Warrick is a very good slot receiver, but do you really invest 1st round picks on slot receivers? Its put up or shut up time for Warrick because the Bengals hour glass is running short of patience with him. Ron Dugans is pretty much the same story, he was a 3rd round selection the same year Warrick was drafted and has not lived up to the expectations bestowed upon him. Dugans and Warrick were teammates at Florida State and both have so far had disappointing NFL careers. Dugans 9.0 average per catch says all about his big play capability but like Warrick, with the emergence of Johnson, less pressure will be on him, which may lead to better results. He with likely rotate with Warrick at #2 and slot.
The one to watch will be rookie Kelley Washington. Much like Carl Pickens in 92, the team may have grabbed a huge steal in the 3rd round this year. Washington has great size and speed but is still raw as he only played one full season in college. He also has a serious neck injury that could end his career if re-injured but Washington has the potential of a bomb next to a fire. He could become a big time receiver, and the team is very eager to see if they have just that-a dynamite or a dud. Washington will likely see playing time early because of his 1st round quality skills. Another player to watch is T.J Houshmandzadeh. His name gives defenders as much problems as his athleticism, T.J is a speed merchant that has playing making potential when on the field, and he should see a considerable amount of time this year, especially from the slot. The team also returned Danny Farmer who has a lot of potential as well, but he has been slowed in the past by injuries.
At tight end will be Reggie Kelly and Matt Schobel. Kelly, who was brought in via free agency, is more of a blocker than a receiver. Schobel, who was a 3rd round pick in 02 and has shown good receving skills, gathering 212 yards last year off 27 catches but has been a big injury problem. The move for Kelly was made for the offense to able to use more two tight end sets. Tony Stewart provides depth and has great size and could compete for Matt Schobels spot on the depth chart. Sean Brewer will be fighting to keep his roster spot in the preseason.
The Bengals have a top 10 offensive line that has great potential too. Starting at tackle with be Willie Anderson on the right and Levi Jones on the left. Anderson continues to be a top notch tackle in the league year in and year out and is equally dominant run and pass blocking. His reliability is apparent in the fact that he is graded out 90% or better on his blocking assignments 11 of the 16 games last season. Jones was highly critized as a reach in the 2002 draft when the Bengals took him in the first round. But Jones silenced his critics last season with a solid year and has continued to look good in camp and in the first preseason game against the Ravens. He is progressing well and may become a pro bowl caliber tackle in a few years. Backing them up will be rookie Scott Kooistra and Victor Leyva. Kooistra has good size and pass blocking skills while Leyra is versatile and equally strong blocking for the run and pass.
At guard will be rookie Eric Steinbach on the left and Matt ODwyer on the right. Steinbach is a highly regarded rookie coming out of Iowa, was suppose to be gone by the 1st round but the team got a steal when they selected him in the 2nd round. Steinbach was the top guard in the draft and should provide an immediate impact this year. He has the potential to be a pro bowler in a few seasons. O Dwyer is a tough veteran who is injury prone but always grades very well on his blocking assignments. Backing them up will be veterans Rich Braham and Scott Rehberg. Both provide very good depth because of their past starting experience.
At center will be Mike Goff. Goff is very durable and has been a major key in the running game. He will be moving to center, from guard but he should continue his solid play. In reserve will be Thatcher Szalay and Rich Braham. Szalay is a youngster with potential and Braham has experience at center. Both should provide a good foundation should Goff get injured.
This is a weak area for the team. Kicker Neil Rackers doesnt have a very accurate leg but showed potential last year, not missing a kick inside the 40. That is somewhat mis-leading considering he only attempted 18 kicks. It still remains to be seen if Rackers can become a consistent kicker. Travis Dorsch was drafted last year but hasnt proved hes better than Rackers or punter Nick Harris. Harris is a below average punter but is improving. He will need to increase his net average (31.4) and his kicks inside the 20 (11) both of which are major concerns with him. The sole strong point is in the kick returns. Brandon Bennett does an excellent job, averaging 25.1 yards a return. Another story is the punt returns. T.J Houshmandzadeh averaged a horrible 4.9 yards a return last season which was 31st in the league. The coverage teams need a lot of work as well.
(Defense By: Nick West)
Last season, the Bengals ranked dead last in points allowed per game. Partial blame can be placed on the lackluster performance of the defensive line that only sacked the quarterback 24 times, second worst in the league. As a cornerstone of the defensive line, 2001 first round pick Justin Smith has recorded 16 sacks his first two years in the league, and looks to develop even further this season. Along with being a pass rush specialist, Smith is solid against the run. Head coach Marvin Lewis brought Carl Powell over from Washington and Duane Clemons from Kansas City as upgrades. Powell recorded 3 sacks in 5 starts last season and will likely start opposite Smith. While he hasnt posted stellar career numbers, Powell has extensive knowledge of Lewis system, as he was a member of the 2000 Baltimore Super Bowl squad and a Redskin last season. Clemons had a down season last year in Kansas City only sacked the quarterback twice, but still has a career average of 5 sacks per season. He will provide solid depth at the end position and may push Powell for a starting job. Backups Reinard Wilson and rookie 7th round choice, Elton Patterson, provide solid depth. Patterson may be a bit undersized, but has a strong motor and hustles to the ball.
At the tackle position, former Titan tackle John Thornton fills the middle and is a solid run stuffer, as he played on a defensive unit that ranked second against the run last season. He also has some pass rushing abilities as he has recorded 10.5 career sacks. At the age of 26, he has the upside to develop into a premier player at the position with the proper coaching. Also, watch for rookie 6th round choice Langston Moore. He is very strong and quick off of the ball and will push the veterans for a roster spot. Incumbents Tony Williams and Oliver Gibson will compete with seven other (including Thornton and Moore) tackles for positions on the roster.
The defensive line is the most key asset to Marvin Lewis scheme, and with currently 14 linemen on the roster, Lewis will weed out who does and does not fit into his system. Even after Lewis weeding out, the line is expected to be solid, but not spectacular.
The loss of Takeo Spikes may never be felt in Cincinnati, as the team moved quickly to sign a replacement. That replacement, Kevin Hardy, hopes to ease the apprehension coaches felt when Spikes flew the coop via free agency. Hardy will move from his natural outside position into the middle. He has the uncanny ability to stop the run, rush the passer, and cover receivers. Remarkably, that may change in Lewis system, as Hardy isnt even the most athletic linebacker on the team.
Enter outsiders Brian Simmons and Steve Foley. Simmons has been a do-it-all type linebacker for his 6-year career in Cincinnati and is highly underrated because of the team he plays for. He is has been spectacular and amazing, yet still may flourish even more under the defensive genius of Lewis. Because of his athleticism, size, speed, and football knowledge, Simmons will play in all of the defensive formations and in more downs than any linebacker on the team. Over the past 6 years, Steve Foley has been the "forgotten" linebacker in Cincy, as Spikes and Simmons ate up most of attention. Though he may not display the physical tangibles possessed by Simmons, Foley still has great pass rushing speed and sometimes will be used as a defensive end opposite Justin Smith in nickel situations. If so, that will allow for Hardy to play in the nickel packages alongside Simmons. Rookie fifth round choice Khalid Abdullah was drafted to push incumbents Adrian Ross and Riall Johnson for starting time. Ross job shouldnt be in jeopardy as he is fairly solid in coverage, but Johnson has never recorded an NFL tackle. Abdullah is from a small school, but shot up draft boards after his impressive workouts at the pre-draft February combines. For what he lacks in size and strength, he nearly makes up with excellent speed, explosion, and agility. Hell mainly contribute on special teams this season, but with the frame to bulk up, has the chance to become an NFL starter.
Overall, the Bengals starting linebackers are very talented, but the team lacks depth at the position and may struggle if one of the top 3 succumb to injury.
This is the other reason why the Bengals allowed the most points in the league last year. The secondary lacked consistency and depth at both the cornerback and safety positions. So Lewis, in typical defensive minded fashion, made some off-season acquisitions. Added from Oakland, Tory James has adequate size and strength to match up with the receivers of the AFC North. James may not have "shutdown" ability, but can stick with the likes of Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward, Quincy Morgan, and Travis Taylor. The team also drafted college All-American Dennis Weathersby in the 4th round. He was regarded as a late first-early second round pick, but his health was a concern as he was shot just before the draft and hospitalized several weeks. Weathersby is now 100% and has made most of the off-season workouts and camps. At 61 204, he is a strong, physical cornerback and with 4.38 40 time, has the speed to keep up with NFL receivers. With Lewis guidance, Weathersby could be starting by mid-season. Last years starters, Artrell Hawkins and Jeff Burris played fair, but didnt have much help behind them. Cornerbacks in every system rely on the safety behind them to help out in coverage, but the Cincy safeties were unable to complete the tasks.
The team added former Chargers' safety Rogers Beckett to stabilize the safety position. Beckett is durable, as he can drop into coverage and stop the run. He has impressed thus far in practice and should beat out Marquand Manuel and JoJuan Armour as free safety. Second year player Lamont Thompson has a promising upside but missed most of the last season due to a neck injury. At 61 220, is very physical and can bring the wood, but also has adequate cover skills. He will compete with Mark Roman and former cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn and should win the job as strong safety.
The Bengals secondary has been upgraded, but still has questions as it lacks solid depth and experience. The cornerbacks will not be able to shut down the entire passing game themselves, and will need help from the safeties. If the safeties fail again, the team will get burnt with the long pass and may give up 30 passing touchdowns again this year.