Team Needs: Cincinnati Bengals

For the first time in many years, the Cincinnati Bengals appear to have a solid plan heading into the future. Head coach Marvin Lewis' team has been on a steady climb, and the 2004 season was one of significant improvement.

The Bengals made the transition to second-year quarterback Carson Palmer and the results were impressive. Not taking a snap in his rookie season, Palmer made his fair share of mistakes, but he displayed a coolness about him in leading an offense that has the potential to be explosive. Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and running back Rudi Johnson emerged as legitimate playmakers in offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's scheme.

The defense improved from being 28th in the league in both yards allowed and points allowed in 2003 to 19th in yards allowed and 21st in points allowed. Thanks to a draft-day deal in which the Bengals traded down in the first round to select running back Chris Perry, the team used the extra draft picks to select defensive backs Keiwan Ratliff and Madieu Williams. Both contributed immediately to Cincinnati's much improved pass defense.

The Bengals also ushered in rookie middle linebacker Landon Johnson onto the field after starter Nate Webster and Caleb Miller got injured. Johnson played very well and will receive the opportunity to compete for the starting job.

For the first time in recent memory, the Bengals are not in the middle of a rebuilding process. With the major components in place and under contract for an extended period of time, football should be fun again in Cincinnati.

LOOKING AHEAD

Defense was the issue last season. While they were improved overall, the Bengals were far from a consistent defensive presence. Chuck Bresnahan has been named the new defensive coordinator and, along with Lewis, likes a defense that is fundamentally sound, fast and disciplined. Expect the Bengals to be a much looser bunch under the direction of Bresnahan, who is respected by Lewis and will be given the room necessary to run the defense.

The Bengals retained Houshmandzadeh, who had a breakout season in 2004. Teaming with Chad Johnson, Houshmandzadeh provides Palmer with another significant weapon in the passing game, which should only improve as the offense gains experience together. Re-signing Rudi Johnson was a critical transaction for a team without depth at running back. He has proven to be a tough, durable runner.

Free agency could prove costly to the Bengals in the weeks leading up to the draft. Center Rich Braham is a free agent but the Bengals are expected to retain him. Safety Anthony Mitchell was re-signed, and the Bengals would like to keep cornerback Reggie Myles, too, to give their secondary some quality and depth.

The front office is frugal, but the team will pay for a difference maker (especially at defensive tackle) if it can find the right guy. For the most part, though, the Bengals like their roster and will probably consider retaining their own players more important than hunting for big game in free agency.

SALARY CAP STATUS

The Bengals approximately have $2 million under the league-mandated 2005 salary cap.

TEAM NEEDS

Defensive end – The Bengals need to improve their pressure on the quarterback if they intend to improve the overall play and consistency of the defense. Free-agent acquisition Bryan Robinson should see some reps since the four best linemen will be put on the field. Additional support in this area will come from the draft.

Outside linebacker – Improved speed and quickness are the biggest needs at outside linebacker. Kevin Hardy struggled last season and he could be released. The draft is the most viable option to upgrade this position.

Defensive tackle – Robinson will be teamed with John Thornton in an attempt to improve a run defense that ranked 26th in the league last season.

Tight end – Palmer needs a viable downfield weapon to take the pressure off receivers Johnson and Houshmandzadeh.

FREE AGENCY AND OFFSEASON

KEY ACQUISITIONS: DT Bryan Robinson (Dolphins).

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, RB Rudi Johnson, DT Terrance Martin, S Anthony Mitchell, LB Marcus Wilkins.

KEY DEPARTURES: S Rogers Beckett, LB Frank Chamberlin (Texans), P Kyle Richardson (Browns).

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: C Rich Braham, C Jerry Fontenot, S Anthony Mitchell, DL Carl Powell, DT Tony Williams.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: CB Rashad Bauman (tendered at $656,000 with third-round pick as compensation), CB Reggie Myles (tendered at $656,000 with no compensation), RB Kenny Watson (tendered at $656,000 with no compensation).


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