The Cincinnati Bengals have entered the 2010s with solid back-to-back draft classes and savvy free-agent pick-ups.
The team that was "set for the future" finds itself on the precipice of exactly that. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are ready to take them on a legitimate postseason run, but there are a few more pieces that need to be added.
Here's a look at five guys that can help the Bengals take the next step.
It may not be a sexy move, but the Bengals need to hand Chris Crocker a contract beyond 2012.
Taylor Mays took all of 30 seconds to show us that he can't be trusted in a starting role, while Nate Clements isn't getting any younger.
Crocker has been impressive since his return, and his man-management skills in the secondary have been really valuable.
Unless the Bengals spend an early-round pick on a safety, Crocker is their best bet at stopping the bleeding as he has done to a fairly high standard since his return.
Mike Zimmer and the Bengals pass rush are held with high regard around the NFL. However, with the demands Zim puts on his defensive ends Cincy just can't have too many of these guys.
Michael Johnson is set to hit free agency at the end of this year, and if he doesn't return Dion Jordan would be an adequate replacement.
Jason Marcum of StrypeHype.com has the Bengals taking Dion Jordan late in the first round. Here's his reasoning:
You wouldn’t think the Bengals need a defensive end right now, given the play of Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, but with a premium on pass rushers in today’s pass-happy NFL, you need at least three good pass rushing ends, and right now the Bengals only have two, and Johnson is slated to be a free agent this offseason.
Jordan has already been selected First-Team All-Pac-12 for the 2012 college football season, and was one of five finalists for the Butkus Award, given to the top collegiate linebacker in the country. He has recorded 44 tackles this season, including 10.5 tackles for loss and five quarterback sacks.
Marvin Lewis showed interest in the Oregon draft class of 2012, and it wouldn't come as a surprise if he booked to their pro day once again.
The Bengals like their ends rangy, and at 6'7" Jordan would stand shoulder to shoulder with Johnson and Carlos Dunlap whilst towering above opposing defenses.
Former track star Ezekial Ansah has been playing football for only three years. Not only is he getting used to a new sport, the Ghanaian is getting used to a new continent.
He's undoubtedly one of the most raw prospects with potential to go in the top half of the draft, and he has Bengals written all over him.
He's been fluttering between LB/DE, and it will take some serious work to mould him into either position.
Bleacher Report's Ryan McCrystal took a look at "Ziggy" and drew the following conclusions:
No matter how limited Ansah may be early in his career, someone will gamble on him within the top 50 picks, and possibly even within the top 20.
He may be best suited, at least early in his career, to play in a 3-4 scheme where he could be used as a situational pass rusher and allowed to pin his ears back and simply get after the quarterback.
If Ansah were to fall to the Bengals late, they may well take a chance on him. Given their success with DE's in recent years, they can take a risk on a raw talent in that position.
Andrew Hawkins may be sharing his receptions with the emerging Mo Sanu and Marvin Jones, but the Bengals would be foolish to let him go elsewhere in 2013.
Hawkins has been clutch on many occasions for Cincinnati. He packs a lot of fire into his small frame, and with a killer pair of hands and a genuine toughness, he has been a revelation.
His six receptions and a TD against the Cowboys reminded us just how valuable he has been this year. Despite having spent little time in the NFL, his veteran example will be key to grooming Sanu and Jones in 2013.
He may get a better pay day somewhere else, but the Bengals will rue letting him leave. He's the embodiment of a "don't know what you got 'til it's gone" receiver, and re-signing him will be a great move.
Bleacher Report's John Rozum likes T.J. McDonald late in the first round, and while Chris Crocker is a good stop-gap, the Bengals would be wise to make an investment here. He may even fall to them in the second.
He has excellent size to rolls down underneath or to sit back in Cover 1 or 3. McDonald’s not the fastest of safeties but his instincts present no wasted energy.
In turn, he is always in position to make a play and the strength will favor him when fighting to break up a pass or make a pick.
The USC prospect has 163 tackles, including 5.5 for losses, and six interceptions during his time in Southern California.
Naturally a free safety, McDonald would need some work, but it's nothing Zimmer hasn't had to tackle in the past. However, the Bengals won't want another Taylor Mays on their hands. McDonald is a much better tackler than Mays, but his predecessor's failings may hurt his chances of becoming a Bengal.
Whether McDonald is the guy or not, the Bengals need to address their safety situation. Expect them to do so before the fourth round is over.
The Bengals have a number of other notable free agents in 2013.
The two I've mentioned (Hawkins, Crocker) are only two of a long list.
Here's a few of them. Who stays? Who goes?
Have your say in the comments section below.
Manny Lawson - LB
Rey Maualuga - LB
Robert Geathers - DE
Kevin Huber - P
Nate Clements - CB
Bernard Scott - RB
Brandon Tate - WR
Andre Smith - RT
Michael Johnson - DE
Pat Sims - DE
Thomas Howard - LB
Pacman Jones - CB