10 Big Story Lines for the Cincinnati Bengals' 2012 Season

Matt Gray@mattkgrayContributor IApril 10, 2012

10 Big Story Lines for the Cincinnati Bengals' 2012 Season

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    After a surprising 2011 that saw the new-look Cincinnati Bengals reach the wild card round of the playoffs, expectations for improvement in 2012 are running high. 

    Marvin Lewis may have stripped the Bengals of the drama that has plagued them in recent years, but with his young guns flying high, Cincy has demanded attention as one of the promising upcoming teams in the NFL.

    2012 will give Andy Dalton & Co. a chance to build upon an impressive 2011 season, and there will be plenty of story lines to match the high expectations in the Queen City.

The Sophomore Slump

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    The burning question for the Bengals in 2012 will be whether Andy Dalton can avoid the all-too prevalent sophomore slump when he takes to the field in September.

    Sam Bradford is the most recent name to find itself on this unfortunate list, following a rookie season that had him tipped for great strides in 2011. 

    Andy Dalton surpassed expectations in 2011 but did struggle down the stretch. Dalton's youth showed in the wild card defeat in Houston, but positives including his leadership skills, poise and intelligence shone through the mistakes.

    With a bevvy of draft picks and a full offseason with Jay Gruden, there is reason to believe that the Bengals offense can progress in 2012.

    A No.2 receiver remains a priority as we head towards the draft, but Dalton will be hoping that the re-tooled running game under BenJarvus Green-Ellis can provide a consistent alternative to airing it out.

The Return of Carson Palmer

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    The Oakland Raiders will travel to Cincinnati during the regular season, and excitement is already building for a game that will likely see a sell-out crowd pack Paul Brown Stadium.

    Through an unceremonious and drawn-out exit, Palmer more than ruffled a few feathers on his former team, resulting in a general consensus that Palmer had quit on his city and on his teammates.

    There's little to no doubt that Palmer will be greeted by a chorus of boo's when he makes his return to Paul Brown Stadium, but you can expected him to heap "praise" on his former club in the build-up to this one.

    With a sea of change taking place in Oakland following Hue Jackson's trade for Palmer, and new ownership suffering the consequences of having very few draft picks in the coming years, Palmer will be desperate to impress his new bosses. 

The Return of Leon Hall

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    The last time Leon Hall suited up in stripes was November 13 at Paul Brown Stadium in a losing effort against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    Tearing his Achilles not long after an impressive interception, Hall's injury left Bengals fans lamenting how much of a difference he could have made during the latter stages of the season.

    His importance to the Bengals secondary was made all the more evident when Adam Jones was burned by Texans WR Andre Johnson for a TD that would all but bury Cincy's hopes of making a playoff run.

    Hall is steadily getting back into game shape, but admits it is a slow process

    "In six weeks I made a lot of inroads," Hall said. "Having cleats on and getting back on the field, I'm encouraged by that. I'm still not where I want to be four months in but it does feel good when I am running, backpedaling and doing side-to-side stuff."

    The Bengals are expected to take a corner in the draft, but Hall's recovery and ability to suit up as the team's No.1 CB remains a top priority.

    A torn Achilles is by no means a minor injury, and Hall will have to contend with both the physical and mental difficulties of coming back from it if he hopes to maintain his prior level of play.

The Return of Jordan Shipley

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    The Bengals were also without another playmaker in 2011, in the form of WR Jordan Shipley.

    The former Texas Longhorn rapidly developed a good rapport with Andy Dalton in his sophomore year, becoming one of the rookie QB's most reliable targets in the season's early-going.

    However, his season was cut extremely short in Week 2 when he tore both his MCL and ACL in a match-up against the Denver Broncos.

    To simply tear one of these ligaments can be career ending, and many athletes struggle to overcome the mental obstacles associated with it.  These tears can cause lasting pain and a real danger of re-injury.

    However, Shipley has made real strides and commented on his progress in a recent interview:

    "It’s doing good. I’m pretty much healed. I’m running around and lifting weights. I’m almost ready to go."

    Andre Caldwell did an admirable job filling in for Shipley in 2012, but with his departure comes a real need for Shipley to return. Andrew Hawkins can more than aid him as he transitions back into the field, and we will hopefully see Shipley and Dalton connecting right away.

Mike Zimmer's Drive

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    Mike Zimmer interviewed for a number of head coaching positions this offseason but failed to bag himself a job anywhere. 

    Zimmer was believed to be highly-prized as future HC candidate but fell flat when it came to the interview stage. 

    Returning to Cincinnati for another year in charge of the defense, you have to question whether Zimmer will retain the drive he had in previous years, especially considering that teams were more interested in his colleague Jay Gruden, who only has one year of experience in the NFL.

    Bengals fans will be hoping that Zimmer approaches 2012 with the intention of proving the naysayers wrong, and making those who declined his services regret their decision.

    If Zim can get the defense to fire on all cylinders, this could be his last year as a Bengal.

Can Rey Maualuga Be the Leader He Wants to Be?

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    Following a conviction for DUI, Rey Maualuga seemed to have turned over a new leaf in 2011, appearing more dedicated than ever before and determined to become a leader on defense.

    Shifting back to his natural position at MLB, Maualuga did not progress as many had hoped and struggled with injuries.

    Despite a hit-and-miss 2011 season, Maualuga seemingly remains in the Bengals' plans at starting MLB, even after yet another embarrassing brush with the law that saw him accused of assaulting a bartender.

    It may take time for Maualuga to transition back to his natural position, and he is deserving of another year in the starting spot.

    However, if off-the-field issues persist and he fails to mature and see significant improvement in 2012, it might be time to start looking for an upgrade.

Chris Crocker's Replacement

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    The youth movement continued in Cincinnati this offseason, as the Bengals waved goodbye to S Chris Crocker.

    Crocker had one year and a base salary of $1.9 million left on his deal, a figure that Bengals brass deemed disproportionate to the contribution he has and is likely to make on-field in 2012.

    Crocker may have been mediocre in his time as a Bengal, but his real contribution came in places that the stats don't see, in the locker room and on the practice field.

    A veteran presence on an increasingly youthful defense, Crocker has played a vital role in the transition to the next generation. A good character guy and a hard worker, he has served his purpose in Cincinnati.

    However, the question as to who replaces Crocker is yet to be answered.

    With Taylor Mays, Jeromy Miles and Robert Sands on the depth chart, the smart money would be on USC alum Mays stepping up. He has all the athletic ability and then some but needs to reign in his physicality and become more consistent and more scheme-smart.

    The potential is there, and his progression in 2012 will prove an exciting prospect for Bengals fans.

    Cincy could still address the position in the draft, with Alabama's Mark Barron headlining the class and likely to still be around at 17.

Who Will Be No.2?

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    The Bengals have a fierce weapon in A.J. Green. However, without a solid No. 2 wide receiver, Green would wallow in double coverage for much of season.

    The status of Jerome Simpson remains up in the air, with a suspension likely to see him barred from at least the first five games of the 2012 campaign. Simpson has already visited with the Rams, and the Bengals will not enter a bidding war for his services.

    The other option could be to look to the draft in search of a No. 2 receiver. Kendall Wright of Baylor and Stephen Hill of Georgia Tech have been mentioned as possible early selections, while the likes of Rutgers wideout Mohamed Sanu could be a value pick.

    The Bengals need someone to step in right away, and with only the still very raw Armon Binns capable of playing the position, the draft could be the way to go.

    The secondary and the offensive line have long been pegged as the Bengals' first round priorities, but there is a chance that they could surprise and go wide receiver once again.

Marvin Lewis' Contract

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    Marvin Lewis enters 2012 in the latter part of his two-year deal. Lewis re-signed with the Bengals in 2011 following a disappointing 4-12 season on the proviso that significant changes would be made.

    For the most part, the re-build has worked and is largely ahead of schedule. With a playoff appearance under his belt, Lewis has been approached by Mike Brown regarding a contract extension on several occasions, but nothing has come of it thus far.

    It's impossible to say what might be slowing negotiations, but Lewis could be playing coy in an attempt to get more control through the draft period and in the run-up to the 2012 season before he signs a deal.

    With a young, hungry and drama-less team to work with, you would think that Lewis would snap up a new contract. However, with his main coaching staff likely to contend for HC positions elsewhere in 2013, could Lewis be ready to move on too?

The Balance of Power in the AFC North

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    A round-up of each of the Bengals' AFC North rivals in 2011 would sound a bit like this:

    The Steelers may be getting old, but they're still good, and with Ben Roethlisberger throwing the ball, they will continue to contend.

    The Ravens may be ageing on defense, but Joe Flacco's offense is becoming more potent every year. Ray Rice carried the load to much praise in 2011, but Flacco will be determined to prove wrong the critics who say he can't be "the guy."

    Cleveland has some positives in the form of Joe Haden and Phil Taylor, but the rest of the team continues to fall flat. However, with Justin Blackmon or Trent Richardson headed to the Browns via the draft, things could be looking up.

    So where will the Bengals stack up in 2012? Excluding the Browns, the AFC North is perhaps more wide open than ever before. There will be no division sweeps this season, and the race for the top spot could prove incredibly tight.

    Cincy might still be another year away from the top spot, but they will give their rivals all they can handle and could earn themselves another trip to the playoffs in the process.