The Cincinnati Bengals enter the offseason a far different team from a year ago. With the Carson Palmer saga a distant memory, and following a surprising 2011 season, the Bengals have much to be positive about.
However, after struggling against bigger teams and suffering a disappointing playoff exit, Cincy will be well aware that their maturity and consistency need work.
The question marks around this team may not loom as large as they did in 2011, but with expectations for next year growing by the day, there are a number of pressing questions the Bengals will need to answer during the break.
Yahoo Sports reported that Rey Maualuga has been accused of punching a Cincinnati area bar manager, so Bengals brass have to be shaking their heads. It's not the first time Maualuga has been in trouble in Cincy—he has a DUI to his name also (via the Huffington Post).
This latest accusation reinforces negative depictions of the Bengals, and if true, it is an embarrassing lapse of judgement on Rey's part. After drama with Cedric Benson and Jerome Simpson this year, you would have thought the locker room would be on their best behavior.
Maualuga is often touted as a leader on defense, and while he did have a good year, he failed to be the vocal and consistent leader he wanted to be.
Whether you attribute it to a super-competitive defense or Maualuga's ability, the only certainty is that Maualuga is still yet to explode like many hoped he would.
Playing his first year at MLB, Rey posted more tackles this year then he did in 2010 while playing three fewer games. He also bagged himself a touchdown and racked up three forced fumbles for the year. A high ankle sprain saw him sit out in three games and likely stifled the progress he was making.
But, 2011 was not the breakout year for Rey. Will 2012 change that, or will we see more of the same?
Maualuga is a good football player, but he has yet to step up on the consistent basis required of him. He needs to have a big year in 2012 or the Bengals may start to consider an upgrade.
With the likes of Cortland Finnegan, Brent Grimes and Carlos Rogers on the free-agent market in 2012, the cornerback position is one of the deepest talent pools this offseason.
Cincy have two picks in the first round of April's draft and many have them pegged to take a corner. With Dre Kirkpatrick, Alfonzo Dennard and Janoris Jenkins among others likely to be around when the Bengals are on the board, Marvin Lewis will surely grab top-tier talent if it's available.
The Bengals are weak at corner and Marvin Lewis would be wise to draft one to sit behind veteran Nate Clements for a year and replace him for good in 2013.
Taking an older player like Cortland Finnegan is not a long-term solution, and Marvin Lewis would struggle to convince him to play second-fiddle to Nate Clements and vice versa.
On a team with so much youth, there is certainly a need for veterans, but with real potential in the draft class of 2012, Marvin Lewis will have a real dilemma in the coming weeks.
Like many other Bengals on the defensive side of the ball, Reggie Nelson faces free agency in 2012.
He floundered in Jacksonville but has more than resurrected his career in Cincinnati under the tutelage of Mike Zimmer. With the plaudits that Zimmer's defense's have received in his time at Cincy, there is no doubt that teams in need of secondary help will take a long look at Reggie Nelson.
Chris Crocker is entering the final year of his contract and could be on his way out. Behind him Taylor Mays and Robert Sands are still waiting for an opportunity, but neither have given Zimmer enough confidence to earn a starting gig.
This makes Nelson's return that much more important. With a significant improvement in 2011, Nelson has been the main positive in a rickety secondary.
He notched 85 tackles, two forced fumbles and four interceptions during the regular season, playing with the intensity and awareness that eluded him in Jacksonville.
Jerome Simpson's status with the Bengals remains up in the air, but seems for the most part to be a forgone conclusion.
So who replaces him?
Jordan Shipley and Andrew Hawkins are best used in the slot and in situational bursts, and their talents would be wasted if they were to move. Ryan Whalen is largely untested, and we remain fairly in the dark about his ability, but he does seem to be Shipley 2.0.
Andre Caldwell is the other name that comes to mind. However, he lost the battle with Jerome Simpson to be No. 2 and has little of the athletic ability that saw Simpson nab the spot. He also struggles with drops.
So how do the Bengals address this? Do they go after Robert Meachem, Marques Colston or perhaps Reggie Wayne? Could they make a play for Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham?
With other positions in desperate need of an upgrade, Lewis will likely take a WR late in the draft and sign a veteran in free agency. With A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley and Andy Dalton all under 25, a veteran with reliable hands is sorely needed.
Leon Hall's status is of primary concern to the Bengals right now. With a torn Achilles tendon, the timeline for his return is unclear. A torn Achilles is a particularly nasty injury and can often be a career-ender.
With the Bengals thin at cornerback and struggling noticeably without him in 2011, they need their leader of the secondary to return to good health and top form.
If you need a reminder of just how important Leon Hall is to this team, look no further than the $39 million contract he signed back in September.
NBC Sports reported Hall has been making progress in rehab, and commented on it recently: "Early on I had some doubts. When you think of Achilles, it's a little scary. Especially if this were 10 to 15 years ago, I don't know if I'd be saying the same thing," Hall says.
Bobbie Williams enters 2012 with one year left on his contract and a broken ankle.
While he may be healed and ready to go when kickoff rolls around, you have to wonder whether or not he will be effective.
With retirement likely to come next year, Williams may just focus on trying not to break any more bones and pick up his paycheck.
So how do the Bengals approach this situation?
Williams is a veteran leader on the O-line and his presence has been invaluable—as was shown by his disturbingly bad replacement, Mike McGlynn.
Do the Bengals take a first-round guard and make him sit behind Williams for a year? Or do they take someone in the second round whom they will be more open to bench for a year to learn from Bobbie?
Williams' recovery will determine whether Lewis approaches the draft looking for depth or looking for a starter.
Cedric Benson is free agent right now, and after a disappointing 2011 season marred by off the field issues, it seems as though he will not return.
Most mock drafts have the Bengals moving away from Benson, who could struggle to find a long-term deal anywhere in 2012.
Oakland Raider Michael Bush could be someone the Bengals go after in free agency, unless a top prospect is available via the draft.
Trent Richardson is the marquee back in the draft this year, and while he should go top ten, some have him taking a Mark Ingram-style tumble down to right around No.17 when Cincy are on the board. Other notable names are: Lamar Miller, Chris Polk, Isaiah Pead, Doug Martin and David Wilson.
Ced Benson is one of the few remaining members of the Carson Palmer-era offense, and he looked a little lost in 2011. With so much sweeping change brought in via Jay Gruden, Benson struggled to take flight.
Benson is still living off of his breakout year in 2009, and while he could well do it again someday, his chance to do it in a Bengals uniform has likely passed.
Mike Zimmer was touted as a top head coaching candidate this offseason, and while he interviewed with a number of teams, he failed to bag a gig anywhere.
It has to be demoralizing for Zimmer, especially considering the relatively young and untested names that grabbed most of the jobs.
So how will Zimmer respond to this letdown?
Zim could come out determined to prove to those who didn't select him what they might have missed out on, or he could lose the fire with which he built his defense and earned plaudits.
A big year could see Zimmer snapped up in 2013, and with some potential top draft picks he certainly has the opportunity to do just that.
Also, while Marvin Lewis is likely to be renewed, a terrible year could see Mike Zimmer offered an in house promotion.
With Nike replacing Reebok as the NFL's official apparel provider, we are likely to see some uniform changes this offseason.
Phil Knight's company have already transformed the College game with mixed results, and it will be interesting to see how they approach the NFL.
The Cincinnati uniform has long been a polarizing one, and stands out among some of the more tame uniforms on Sundays, but will it see a change before we kick off in 2012?
With a new-look roster, a fresh offensive coordinator and renewed expectations, this new era of Cincinnati Bengals could use a new look to start them off on the right foot.
Remember though, the gaudy nature of tiger stripes carries a potential for some truly horrendous uniforms.
Let's not get carried away, Nike.
Andy Dalton won the hearts and minds of Bengals fans in 2011 with some gutsy and intelligent play. He may have tailed off toward the end of the season, but that was largely expected when the big names came to town.
The next obstacle for Dalton is living up to the renewed expectations for him. With a playoff berth in his rookie season, Dalton has had the bar set high from the get-go.
Sam Bradford regressed greatly this year after a promising rookie season, and while the Bengals are a better team than St.Louis, there is the worry that they could suffer a similar fate.
Dalton needs stronger play from his offensive line as well as help in the backfield and veteran No. 2 receiver to throw to. If he gets all three, we could see some serious strides towards being legitimate contenders.
However, if the year begins with compromises on the personnel front, it can only end that way on the field.
A true offseason and training camp to further connect with Jay Gruden will be invaluable for Andy Dalton and his offense. It may be too soon to start making big predictions, but from what we have seen of him thus far, the Bengals have a promising future with Dalton under center.