After an upstart season in 2011 which saw Andy Dalton and AJ Green revitalize a franchise on a downward spiral, the Cincinnati Bengals enter the 2012 NFL season with the potential for a brighter future than any other NFL franchise.
The first thing that any franchise hopes to have entering the offseason is the means and room to improve their roster. According to Omar Kelly, of the SunSentinel, the Bengals have the least amount of money committed to players for the 2012 season.
With a salary cap likely to be set between $121-125 million, the Bengals are set to be big players in free agency.
While there are other teams in the league with a lot of cap space available, the Bengals have the right combination of a youthful base to build upon with needs that are easier to fill. The best teams in the NFL are the ones that are consistently competing in the playoffs. For the most part, those teams are built on superstars with the only changing pieces being the complementary role players around them.
For example, Jarrett Johnson, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed have spent their careers with the Baltimore Ravens. While they have been there, guys like Josh Wilson, Jimmy Smith, Bernard Pollard and Dawan Landry have interchanged with one another just to keep the defense ticking over.
Despite the fact that Johnathan Joseph, Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens and Carson Palmer have all moved on in the past 12 months, the Bengals have actually improved overall and have the majority of the requisite pieces to build a Super Bowl team upon what's in place.
Offensively, teams are built on two positions more than any other in today's NFL. In previous eras, it was the running back and quarterback tandem that teams sought after, today, the quarterback remains the most important piece but keeping him upright is more important than finding a running back.
Most football fans worldwide will already know that the Bengals have a quality young quarterback under center, but only the football fanatics will understand that his left tackle is also one of the best in the league at his position.
While Andrew Whitworth is not in the elite class of Joe Thomas, Jake Long and Duane Brown, he is a top 10 blindside protector and specialist pass protector, something that is very rare in the NFL. The NFL is a passing league, and as such, pass protection begins from the outside of the offensive line.
Finding interior linemen these days is easier than finding two tackles to rely on. The Bengals have two starting caliber tackles in Whitworth and Andre Smith.
This year's class of free-agent guards features both of the team's starters from last year in Nate Livings and Bobbie Williams, but it also features a lot of potential additions for the Bengals to pursue. With such a large amount of cap space available, the Bengals won't rule out re-signing Livings and then attracting one of Carl Nicks, Ben Grubbs, Jake Scott or Jacob Bell.
Once the offensive line is reinforced, the Bengals will need to replace Cedric Benson in the backfield.
With a star wide receiver, AJ Green, a young stud tight end, Jermaine Gresham, Andy Dalton and two strong offensive tackles, the Bengals offense will be moving away from Benson towards a pass based attack.
Jay Gruden won't be looking for a bruising back like Benson, he will instead be trying to add players who work well in space and can pick up blocking assignments.
The running-back position is a committee run role in the NFL these days, just one player doesn't carry the ball for any team save for Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, and even he is spelled every so often.
With Bernard Scott on the roster, the Bengals already have a serviceable contributor to the running and receiving game, while Brian Leonard is a solid blocker as a third-down back. With two first-round draft choices, the Bengals could look to diversify their offense with a star college back in the first or second round of the draft.
Expect the running back position to be a point of emphasis with one of the Bengals' two first-round selections.
Chris Polk isn't loved by some, but on my board, he's a top-16 player and the No. 3 running back available. His patience and burst don't show up in Senior Bowl practices or All-Star games, but his ability when the lights come on is exceptional.
With Polk, Scott and Leonard on the roster, the Bengals could bring in a guy like Steve Slaton for the minimum or Mewelde Moore simply for depth. Moore and Slaton would both add something different opposed to the players already on the roster while most likely being minimum salary guys.
With the potential to pickup a backup tight end in either the draft, free agency or simply re-sign Donald Lee, the Bengals offense would just be looking for complementary receivers for AJ Green.
The return of Jordan Shipley, as well as the expected improvement in Andrew Hawkins, should mean the Bengals are in the market for a receiver to start across from Green to round out what would be a strong receiving corps.
Both Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell will likely leave, but the talent is available for them to upgrade the position.
AJ Green's presence on the field allows the Bengals to look past the top tier receivers and concentrate on picking up value opposed to getting involved in a bidding war. Anyone from the group of Stevie Johnson, Mario Manningham and Brandon Lloyd would instantly become a starter for Cincinnati.
In the cases of Lloyd and Johnson, they could potentially elevate their level of play once signed because of the strong overall offense that they would be in in Cincinnati. Even if you look past those options, there are still receivers like Eddie Royal, Robert Meachem, Brandon Gibson and Laurent Robinson who could all be quality additions to Dalton's offensive arsenal.
It is much easier to fill out a roster with role players than it is to begin to build with new cornerstones. On offense, the only real cornerstone missing is a strong running back. Running backs are very common in the NFL, it is much more difficult to find a No. 1 receiver, starting quarterback or reliable left tackle.
Elevating the offense to a playoff worthy unit won't cost the Bengals much investment as far as money or offseason moves such as draft picks go.
This will allow them to build on a defense which already ranked in the top 10 last season.
Once they have addressed their own free agents, which should include re-signing maybe Manny Lawson, Reggie Nelson and not much else, the Bengals will have to inverse their approach that should be used on the offense.
The Bengals have a defense without any real superstars who are recognizable across the league. Leon Hall, the team's best defensive player, finished last season on IR with a torn Achilles tendon. Outside of Hall, Geno Atkins, Rey Maualuga, Keith Rivers and Carlos Dunlap give the team a talented front seven.
With a lot of depth up front, the Bengals need to add some studs to play with Hall on the back end.
The Houston Texans proved what could be achieved with a revamped secondary last season, adding both Joseph and Danieal Manning which had the knock-on effect of allowing Glover Quin to play safety instead of corner.
While there are no realistic sure thing options at safety for the Bengals in free agency, adding someone like Tom Zbikowski, Chris Hope, James Sanders, Abram Elam or Thomas DeCoud would bring a veteran presence to the back end while improving the quality of play over Chris Crocker.
Because the team isn't forced to address offensive issues in the draft, there is also the possibility of the Bengals investing a high draft choice to man the back of the defense. The Bengals are losing four corners to free agency, but their two starters remain under contract for next season.
Even though the free-agency class isn't stellar for safeties, Dwight Lowery, a cornerback who has excelled as a safety in the past, would be an astute addition for the defense as a whole because of his potential to start through the middle or be a backup cornerback.
Finding two starting corners is the most difficult part of assembling a secondary, the depth and safety positions can be filled out if needed.
The Bengals don't have any major glaring needs on defense. Therefore, the franchise has the opportunity to be aggressive if the courage is there. In their situation, two avenues are available to the team.
Either the Bengals can go all out by trying to make their offense elite to complement a top 10 defense, or they can bring in more game-changers to improve an already stellar defense.
The potential for a Mario Williams and Cliff Avril combination up front is there. Despite the team already having a lot of depth at defensive end, the Giants proved that pass-rushers are invaluable in the NFL this year. However there is also the chance that Mike Zimmer gets his way and the bank is broken for a Jim Leonhard and Dashon Goldson safety pair.
I say breaking the bank, but because the Bengals have such little committed to players for next year and because most of that money is committed to cornerstones opposed to role players, the Bengals could splash out in free agency while still having over $20 million free in cap space.
Obviously in the future, Andy Dalton and AJ Green will need to be signed to much bigger long-term deals, but for the immediate future, the Bengals can afford to splash out and look to take over the AFC North and even try to make a run at a Super Bowl berth.
Every team in the NFL has their problems, there is no such thing as a perfect team without any holes. The teams that win Super Bowls are the teams that keep their star players and find the right role players to complement them.
With two first-round draft picks, a talented base of cornerstone players to build around and over $40 million in cap space to spend on a class that suits the team's needs, the Bengals have to improve this offseason.
How much they want to improve will be determined by the franchise's willingness and determination to win. Some franchises have that determination but are restricted by their respective rosters and/or situations, the Bengals do not have that excuse.
Not at all.