The Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the NFL’s worst franchises over the years, and the fact that they only made the playoffs once in the last 19 years is proof of how woeful they’ve been. But, the Bengals have silently formed an intriguing young nucleus that has a lot of talent; most of their young talent exists on defense, a defense that has been a problem area in recent memory, most notably in the secondary.
Three years ago, when the Bengals selected Leon Hall in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft, a movement was set in place, and Hall was at the forefront of a transition that would shape up the secondary. Since entering the league, Hall has been a bright spot on an otherwise dysfunctional team and has played at a Pro Bowl level. As a rookie, the Bengals No. 1 prospect, Hall, played in all 16 games, starting 10, and turned in a tremendous season where he registered 68 tackles and five interceptions. The ensuing year, Hall started all 16 games and stayed consistent totaling 75 tackles and three interceptions; one in which he returned for a 50-yard touchdown. This is a big year for Hall to see where he stands among the other corners in the league. At 5-foot-11, 199 pounds, Hall is a physical corner who possesses the size, speed, instincts and ball skills to be an All-Pro, and with a faster, more athletic defense in place, Hall is ready to break out.
An area that’s in transition this year in Cincinnati is the offensive line. After releasing longtime left tackle Levi Jones and allowing Stacy Andrews to leave as a free agent this offseason to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bengals had no choice but to select a tackle in this past April’s draft. Despite his uninspired approach to the Scouting Combine and sloppy appearance at his Pro Day, Andre Smith was the most talented tackle in the draft and his potential was too great to pass up with the sixth pick. Smith will be counted on right away and is currently listed as the starter at right tackle on the team’s depth chart. At 6-foot-4, 335 pounds, Smith’s body type and skill set compare favorably to Eagles guard Shawn Andrews. The talent that Smith possesses is obvious, and just like Andrews in his earlier days, Smith has to keep his conditioning under control to realize his full potential. If he’s able to do that, the distinction of him being the No. 2 prospect in the organization will be warranted.
One of the most impressive rookies the Bengals brought into the fold in quite sometime was former USC standout Keith Rivers. Known for his leadership and hard-nosed play, the No. 3 prospect in the organization, Rivers, fit right into the Bengals system last season and performed at a high level. Unfortunately, his rookie year was cut short after his jaw was broken when Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward delivered a vicious block. Prior to the injury, Rivers started the first seven games of the season and recorded 37 tackles and an interception. For his efforts, Rivers, although missing the final nine games of the year, finished second in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting; New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo won the award. Now at full health, Rivers will assume the leadership role on defense and pick up where he left off before the injury.
Looking to help Rivers rebound from his injury is former USC teammate and 2009 second round pick, linebacker Rey Maualuga. The surprise fall of Maualuga to the second frame was the Bengals’ gain, as they get an instant impact player who will play this season with a chip on his shoulder. An all-world linebacker at USC, the 6-foot-2, 249-pound Maualuga enters a promising situation in Cincinnati where he will challenge for a starting position right away. Maualuga is a natural fit at middle linebacker, and to win the starting job, he will have to compete against Dhani Jones. Last year, Jones had his best season in the league since 2003 and amassed 116 tackles and an interception. For most of his career, Jones has played the SAM position, and it’s possible with the presence of Maualuga that Jones will move over to his natural spot on the outside and allow Maualuga to play inside. Either way, Maualuga will see action this year, and just like Rivers last year, he will be in contention for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
It seems like every year a team gets an unexpected gift in the late rounds of the draft, and the Bengals were fortunate to get an athletic defender in the seventh round of the 2007 draft in the form of safety Chinedum Ndukwe. Ndukwe was blessed with tremendous athletic ability, and coming out of Notre Dame he was classified more as an athlete rather than a football player. But things have changed; Ndukwe has rapidly developed and has gone from a career special teams player into a borderline Pro Bowl talent. Since entering the league two years ago, the fifth ranked prospect in the Bengals organization, Ndukwe, has surpassed expectations and is currently listed as the team’s starting strong safety. As a rookie, he played in 14 games, starting two, and had 44 tackles, two sacks and three interceptions. Last year, Ndukwe started 11 games and was having a solid year before a foot injury slowed him down. He finished with 64 tackles, three sacks and an interception. Ndukwe is on the verge of a breakout year in ’09, and don’t be surprised to see him become an All-Pro.
Rounding out the top-ten are two second-year wide receivers, Andre Caldwell (No. 6) and Jerome Simpson (No. 8); two promising defensive linemen, DE Michael Johnson (No. 7) and DT Pat Sims (No. 9); and a running back entering his third season who was acquired through a trade, Brian Leonard (No. 10).
The only starter of the bottom five is Sims, while the rest will have to compete for playing time. Leonard, who’s versatility is a great asset, has a strong chance of seeing significant action this year behind Cedric Benson. But he will have to deal with Kenny Watson and DeDe Dorsey in camp. Caldwell and Simpson will battle this preseason for the right to be the fourth receiver behind Chad Ochocinco, Laveranues Coles and Chris Henry. And Johnson has great upside and an NFL ready body, but his game has to catch up with his potential before he makes a contribution; that could happen sooner than later.Former Missouri tight end and Bengals 2009 third round draft pick Chase Coffman received consideration for the top-ten. But with him not being able to workout since he broke his foot on the last offensive play during the Tigers bowl game and his conditioning likely not being where it should be, he was left off the list.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.