Just like every other year, The Bengals have to make personnel decisions that will hopefully make them better.
This offseason, with contracts expiring, the Bengals have the most cap space in the NFL but will still have important decisions to make on which players to keep.
This Saturday in Mobile, Alabama is the Senior Bowl, an invitation-only showcase of the nation’s best NFL prospects. Usually, as the name suggests, participants are seniors. However, for the first time ever, two players in this year's game are not: Syracuse’s Justin Pugh and Alabama’s D.J. Fluker.
With decisions to make regarding free agency and the draft, the Bengals will be paying very close attention to tomorrow’s Senior Bowl. The positions where the Bengals really need improving are running back, defensive end, offensive tackle, safety and linebacker.
NOTE: Although the teams are named North and South, teams were not constructed 100 percent geographically.
Robbie Rouse, Fresno State
BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried the run game for the Bengals in 2012. He amassed over 1,000 yards for only the second time in his career. The potential for roster shakeup, however, raises the question as to how the Bengals should handle the running back position going forward.
With Cedric Peerman, Brian Leonard and Bernard Scott all set to enter the free-agent market, the Bengals will likely spend big to draft a high-profile running back. Playing in tomorrow’s Senior Bowl are several prospects, a few of which standout as potential additions to the Bengals offense.
It’ll be interesting to see which running backs for the North team practice and play well because all three of them have high ceilings. Oregon’s Kenjon Barner has certainly impressed in practice this week, but Fresno State’s Robbie Rouse and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin had great college careers and will receive looks as well.
On the South team, Florida’s Mike Gillislee and Clemson’s Andre Ellington could certainly be potential prospects. However Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor is the most obvious fit for Cincinnati's system. Taylor has turned heads with his ability to run the ball inside the tackles and to catch the ball out of the backfield.
At this point, Taylor seems to be the player who will best complement Green-Ellis.
DJ Fluker, Alabama
With the 21st pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Cincinnati Bengals select...an offensive lineman. With an abundance of talented linemen entering the draft, Cincinnati will likely use its first pick to get one.
Even though the Bengals will likely re-sign right tackle Andre "Pricetag" Smith, many believe that they will still stack the tackle position through the draft.
Among Senior Bowl participants, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher leads the charge. The 6'8", 305-pound Fisher has amazed several scouts in practice this week—so much so that there's little doubt he'll be gone by pick 21.
But it's likely that Alabama's D.J. Fluker will still be around. He and Syracuse's Justin Pugh are the first juniors to be invited to the game. (Each of them completed their degrees and four years of school.)
Other names to watch are Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner, Oklahoma's Lane Johnson and San Jose State's David Quessenberry.
Margus Hunt, Southern Methodist
The defensive line was the core of the Bengals defense in 2012. Led by Geno Atkins' Pro Bowl year and Michael Johnson's impressive 11.5 sacks, the Bengals defensive line accounted for 43 of their franchise-record 51 sacks in 2012.
In an effort to ensure the longevity of the defensive line, the Bengals will have their eyes on a group of impressive defensive end prospects.
On the North's roster, Illinois' Michael Buchanan and Texas' Alex Okafor are likely to go in the first round. For the South, Clemson's Mallaciah Goodman is coming off of a three-sack performance against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
The Bengals aren't expected to use their first pick on this position, so they will have to pick one up in later rounds. Goodman could still be around.
With maybe the most unique journey of all Senior Bowl participants, Southern Methodist's Margus Hunt is also worth watching. At 6'8" he is, with Eric Fisher, the tallest player at the Senior Bowl. His struggles this week in practice highlight the fact that he only started playing football in 2009.
The Bengals like tall defensive ends, so Hunt certainly meets that criteria. UCLA's Datone Jones for the North and the South's Ezekiel Ansah (BYU) and Lavar Edwards (LSU) could be late picks for the Bengals as well.
Zaviar Gooden, Missouri
The Bengals are weak at linebacker. That’s a fact.
Rey Maualuga’s contract is up in 2013, as is Manny Lawson’s. Will the Bengals re-sign them? Rey, maybe. Manny, doubtful. But a lot of that is contingent on performances this week through draft day.
Rookie Vontaze Burfict went from being an undrafted free agent to the Bengals' leading tackler as a rookie in 2012. However, beyond him, the depth at linebacker has to be addressed.
The Senior Bowl is full of promising linebacker prospects. Many of them are converted from their college position of defensive end. Depending on when the Bengals decide to use their pick on a linebacker, most if not all the linebackers in this contest are possibilities.
However, on the North roster, North Carolina’s Kevin Reddick is certainly someone to watch tomorrow. For the South roster, Mizzou’s Zaviar Gooden, Alabama’s Nico Johnson and Texas A&M’s Sean Porter have all been impressive in practice this week.
Bacarri Rambo, Georgia
If this postseason has taught us nothing else, it's that safeties are a critical piece of the defense. The Bengals have an opening at the position as both Nate Clements and Chris Crocker are free agents. It wouldn't surprise me if they used one of their first three picks on a safety.
In looking at their needs on the back end of the defense, the Bengals will be seeking someone with the size, range and awareness.
There are a handful of promising safeties participating in the Senior Bowl. For the South squad, Alabama's Robert Lester is probably the best and will likely be taken in the first 15 picks.
After Lester, the two other names I would watch are both from the same school. Georgia safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams are realistic possibilities to end up in a Bengals jersey come April. My how I'd love to hear the many ways the Bengals announcer could say "Rambo" into a microphone.
For the North team, leading the pack is USC's T.J. McDonald. He's a long, physical guy with good instincts. Sound familiar? That's because he's a spitting image of Taylor Mays, who I believe will step it up this year. But I digress. Do the Bengals really need two ex-Trojans?
Also keep an eye on Fresno State's Phillip Thomas and Nevada's Duke Williams.
Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski's contract is up in 2013, so the Bengals should consider drafting someone to backup Andy Dalton. They don't need to spend a high pick and big money on a high-profile signal-caller, but they could pick someone up late in the draft, if the situation is right.
It's important to note that the evaluation process isn't over. The Senior Bowl is actually more like the first step in that process. Players still have the NFL Scouting Combine and NFL pro-day workouts to move up or down teams' draft boards.
A lot of weight is usually given to 40-yard dash times, so once those official numbers come out, some names will be weeded out and some names will start to rise.