The Biggest Offseason Priorities for the Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals did send four players to the Pro Bowl this year and finished with the sixth-ranked defense in the league. Both of these things are great foundations to build upon for 2013.
There are a great deal of changes underway in the Bengals organization. Hue Jackson now takes over as running backs coach, there are a great deal of free agents and the offense is still struggling to find an identity.
All of these things, and others, will need to be addressed over the offseason for Cincinnati to contend for the AFC North crown and make another playoff run.
Let's break down each category in which the Bengals must be actively making changes during the offseason.
The first, and arguably most important factor for the Bengals this offseason is to effectively manage the development of the players currently on the roster.
There have been a fair amount of players who underachieved this season or simply did not live up to expectations.
The key for the coaching staff here is to allow these players to grow into their role with the organization and utilize their strengths efficiently.
Let's take a look at both an offensive and defensive player in question.
Dalton started the 2012 campaign red-hot. During the first quarter of the season, he was among the top five quarterbacks in the league in quarterback rating and passing yardage.
As the offense changed, however, so did Dalton's play.
He began to become indecisive in the pocket and this forced him to make early, off-target throws or to hold the ball looking for a throwing alley—this caused a very high amount of sacks.
There is no doubt that Dalton certainly has the tools to be a very efficient quarterback in the NFL. What he needs is the right amount of instruction at his position along with a stable and consistent offensive scheme.
Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese needs to work with Dalton on his mental clock during the offseason, as well as his pocket presence.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden needs to find an identity for this offense and implement it with Dalton's abilities in mind. After this scheme has gone underway, Gruden needs to stick with it for the duration of the season.
Simple changes like this could result in a tremendous boost in Dalton's play next season.
Burfict had one of the more remarkable seasons for a rookie in the NFL in 2012. After going undrafted, he linked up with the Bengals and became a starter within the first quarter of the season.
He then went on to claim the tackling title for the Bengals and, if he played all season, could have been a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Burfict is a very aggressive linebacker and a great tackler in space. However, he is still a work in progress as some of his play needs to be cleaned up.
There is a good possibility that Burfict will move back to his natural position at middle linebacker this season if Cincinnati does not re-sign Rey Maualuga.
That being said, Burfict will need to work on his over-aggression against the run at the line of scrimmage. He needs to learn to be patient and stay in his gap when pursuing a rusher.
In the passing game, he has been better than expected. He does not contain great hip fluidity, but he has a knack for shadowing tight ends nicely.
With a full offseason knowing that Burfict will be a starter, the coaching staff will have plenty of time to clean up his play for the coming season. With the right offseason coaching, Burfict could very well become a dangerous force in 2013.
The Bengals coaching staff should be intently studying their game film from 2012 and preparing new schemes to implement in the areas in which they failed.
Defensively, there is not much to adapt as the Bengals finished sixth overall in total defense last season.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's biggest challenge will be to find the same amount of success with new faces on the defensive side of the ball in 2013.
There are plenty of free agents coming from Cincinnati on this side of the ball during the offseason, and it is a solid bet that many will not return.
The key for Zimmer is to utilize his rotations up front by realizing the strengths of the new players in his system.
There will be many players on defense, both up front and in the secondary, that will not have a good amount of NFL experience but will see a fair amount of playing time in 2013.
These players need to be developed according to the roles in which they will be playing for this defense in the coming season.
As far as defensive schemes go, not much needs to be changed after such a successful season. However, 31 other teams will be looking at the film on this disruptive squad which will force Zimmer to camouflage the defensive looks to be able to continue their dominance.
On the offensive side of the ball, more significant changes need to be made. Most of the personnel from 2012 will be back and starting in the 2013 season, so player development is not a large concern for the offense.
What's needed is the implementation of an offensive system that can be reliable for the duration of the season.
The problem in 2012 was the lack of an identity for the Bengals offense. They started out pass-heavy in the beginning of the season, and then transitioned into a run-first offense late in the year.
This type of major change in the middle of the season completely threw off the balance of this unit—this was apparent, as the offense was unable to get anything going down the final stretch.
Whether offensive coordinator Jay Gruden installs a run-first or pass-first offense remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain, he needs to stick with his plan.
Part of this plan needs to rely upon the hands of top-tier wide receiver A.J. Green.
Green is one of the most talented wide receivers in the league and can single-handedly change the outcome of a football game.
Gruden needs to implement a scheme in which he moves Green around on a consistent basis in order to create favorable matchups so that Green can receive the lion's share of targets.
The key word here is consistency. If the Bengals can find an offensive scheme that keeps a balanced offense each and every week, there will undoubtedly be improvement in 2013.
There is a plethora of Bengals free agents who are expected to hit the open market during the offseason.
Some of these players will be very crucial for Cincinnati to re-sign; others will be allowed to walk and find a new team.
The Bengals currently have upwards of $55 million in salary cap space, which should allow them to keep the players that they value.
However, as most Bengals fans know, owner Mike Brown is one to hold back the almighty dollar for reasons unknown.
Some of this money needs to be allocated to the draft—some needs to be used for contract extensions for players the Bengals know they would like to keep for the long run.
A big chunk of this cap room can be used in free agency—the Bengals need to ensure that they spend it wisely.
Of the free agents that the Bengals should retain, there is a constant debate between fans and NFL pundits alike as to whom to keep.
A short list of potential candidates that should most likely earn a new deal from Cincinnati are Michael Johnson, Andre Smith, Robert Geathers, Dan Skuta, Cedric Peerman, Thomas Howard, Kevin Huber, Terence Newman, Adam Jones, Josh Brown, Clark Harris, Manny Lawson, Wallace Gilberry and Bruce Gradkowski.
Now, keep in mind that this is only the list of free agents that could potentially be re-signed by the Bengals next season. The full free agent list can be found here.
The key here, for Cincinnati, is to make smart decisions in free agency. The right amount of re-signings at the right price tags will dictate how successful of an offseason the Bengals are likely to have.
The draft can easily make or break a team's offseason success. The Bengals have been fortunate enough to put together three straight drafts that have yielded fantastic results. Continuing this trend will be absolutely crucial this year as they look to continue to build around a foundation of young talent to keep this team in contention for years to come.
Certain areas of need must be addressed during the draft—most notably, linebacker, running back, free safety, offensive line, cornerback and defensive end. However, it will be very important for Cincinnati to stick with selecting the best player available and avoid reaching for one of these needs.
The draft is still a while away as we have yet to look at combine and pro day performances from potential draftees. But the way things look right now, Cincinnati is set up to select players that will be valued perfectly and also address a need for this franchise.
First round players such as linebackers Alec Ogletree and Arthur Brown should be on the board at the 21st selection overall.
In the second round, the Bengals have two selections this year from the Carson Palmer trade. This looks to be a prime spot to land a free safety and running back in this year's draft.
In the third round, there is a good amount of offensive guards and cornerbacks that can help the Bengals immediately.
With the amount of holes that are currently on the Bengals roster due to free agents, it will be absolutely crucial for this team to select players within the first three rounds that can become instant contributors, if not starters.
Plenty of mock drafts for the Bengals are available, and one example can be found here.
Expectations can always be too high or too low for any given team while heading into a new season.
In 2011, there were not many football fans or pundits that thought the Bengals would be able to make a playoff run. It happened anyway.
In 2012, many thought the Bengals would not only make the playoffs, but be a serious threat when they got there. They were bounced in the first round again.
Going into the 2013 season, it will be important for head coach Marvin Lewis to maintain the winning frame of mind for his players without over-hyping expectations or individual performances.
For the Bengals, a team effort is what has brought them success over the past two seasons and this same manner of thinking needs to be put in place early on in the offseason.
Last year, the Bengals wore shirts during OTA's that said "DNO" (destination New Orleans) on them. This was a great tool to build high morale for the team. The Bengals headed to the playoffs and expected to win, instead of just being happy to get there.
This season, they should be expecting the same thing. This is a constantly improving team that has a great chance to deal some damage once again in the coming season.
Lewis is a master of player development and management, and he will need to utilize his skills as head coach once again to gain the respect and attention of his players. He must keep them focused on one team goal instead of individual achievements.
During training camp last year, Lewis banned his players from using Twitter, as he did not want any outside distractions. Many thought this was a bit over the top, but it turned out to create a bond among the team and they started the season in the right direction.
Look for more of the same from Lewis this offseason, as he will continue to push the mentality of working as a team to create results. This is one big difference from Bengals teams of the past, which were based more on individual performances.
Expectations can certainly be high for the Bengals heading into the 2013 season—as long as the coaching staff manages them in the correct fashion.