For the second straight season the Cincinnati Bengals qualified for the playoffs and were eliminated in the Wild Card Round by the Houston Texans. There are definitely signs of progress, but the team still hasn't won a postseason game since 1990.
The good news for the Bengals is their roster is filled with talented players who are still on the upside of their careers. Stars like A.J. Green, Andy Dalton and Geno Atkins give the franchise solid building blocks to keep moving in the right direction.
On the flip side, the offseason is setting up to be a crucial and potentially costly one. Cincinnati has several key free agents and must find a way to either bring them back or find replacements. If it can't, the playoff streak could end at two.
With that in mind, let's analyze each area of the Bengals' roster and figure out where they need to focus over the next couple months. By the time the dust settles heading into training camp, fans should have a good idea of the team's direction.
Andy Dalton made positive strides in his second season under center for the Bengals. He completed 62 percent of his passes, a 4 percent improvement, threw seven more touchdowns and raised his quarterback rating by seven points.
While he's still not in that top-tier class of quarterbacks with players like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, he does enough in the Bengals' scheme to help them win games. He doesn't have to throw for 5,000 yards and 35 touchdowns to be effective.
As long as Dalton continues to show signs of progress, he will remain the starter in Cincinnati for a long time. Backup Bruce Gradkowski is scheduled to become a free agent, but the team should be able to replace him pretty easily if they can't reach a new deal.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis was brought in last offseason from the New England Patriots to provide some stability in the Cincinnati backfield—he did exactly that. Grenn-Ellis rushed for nearly 1,100 yards and scored six touchdowns.
What he lacks, however, is explosiveness. He's a back that is capable of carrying a heavy workload and grinding out a lot of yards, but he's not going to break off a lot of big runs. So, at least in that respect, the offense becomes limited.
The best thing the Bengals can do is bring in a change-of-pace option. A prospect like Kenjon Barner, who should be available in the middle rounds of the draft, would bring some much-needed versatility to the team's backfield.
It's safe to say the Bengals made the right decision when selecting A.J. Green with the fourth pick in 2011. Through two seasons, the dynamic wide receiver has racked up over 2,400 yards and 18 touchdowns to pace the Cincinnati offense.
The other reliable piece of the passing game is tight end Jermaine Gresham. Another first-round pick (2010), he's steadily improved over the past three seasons. He helps to ensure the team keeps moving the chains and is a big target in the red zone.
Beyond those two, however, the team lacks depth. Andrew Hawkins showed some signs that he could eventually fill a key role, but he's not their key. It's a deep free-agent class for receivers, which the Bengals could explore, or they could opt to target a prospect like Quinton Patton in the early rounds.
One of Cincinnati's main offseason goals should be finding a way to re-sign tackle Andre Smith. He continues to be a critical piece of the team's offensive line and it would be very difficult to replace him if he hits free agency. He's definitely a candidate for the franchise tag.
Overall, the line ranked pretty well in the running game (11th), but was poor in pass protection (28th), according to Football Outsiders. Based on the team's offensive scheme and the fact Dalton was sacked 46 times, the rankings make sense.
If they are able to bring Smith back, they won't have to invest heavily in the line. They can sign a couple of depth options and feel comfortable. Should he get away, though, finding another tackle quickly becomes a key area of need in the draft.
Geno Atkins is a monster in the middle of the defensive line. He's capable of stuffing the run or getting into the backfield and putting pressure on the opposing quarterback. It's a combination rarely seen from an interior lineman, and it makes him the perfect anchor.
Michael Johnson, who ranked second on the team behind Atkins in sacks, provided the team with a solid one-two punch. But he's scheduled to become a free agent too, which further illustrates the tough decisions the Bengals are being forced to make.
Should Johnson not come back, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Bengals use their pick in the opening round on a pass-rusher. Alex Okafor, Damontre Moore and Datone Jones would be names to keep in mind if that's the case.
The linebacker level is another area of need for the Bengals. Amazingly, the player with the most question marks heading into the season, Vontaze Burfict, actually turned out to be the most consistent performer at the position.
Rey Maualuga and Manny Lawson are both coming off down years and are free agents. Bringing either of them back would simply be putting a short-term patch on the bigger issue for another season. It's an option, but not the best one.
Instead, Cincinnati should seek upgrades. In terms of the draft, intriguing options that should be available outside Round 1 include Arthur Brown and Sio Moore. Either of those prospects would fill one of those holes for the Bengals and give them more flexibility.
Yet another position where the Bengals will be forced to make key decisions is the defensive secondary. As it stands now, Adam Jones, Terence Newman and Nate Clements are all on the unrestricted free-agent list with a couple weeks until the market opens.
The Bengals had a solid pass defense last season, ranking seventh in yards allowed and giving up just 16 passing touchdowns. So losing three of their top-four cornerbacks would obviously be a major setback and a tough void to fill.
Jones and Newman were both effective. Re-signing them and bringing in another depth option to replace Clements, perhaps a versatile prospect like Sanders Commings, should be Cincinnati's goal.
Safety Chris Crocker is also slated to hit the market, so it's clear the Bengals have hands full in this area.
As if all the other concerns the Bengals had weren't enough, they all have question marks on special teams. Kicker Mike Nugent and punter Kevin Huber, who are both coming off solid seasons, are also among the myriad of Cincinnati's unrestricted free agents.
Given all of the team's other issues, it's hard to imagine the Bengals investing heavily in order to bring back a couple of specialists, but they won't be easy to replace. The best they can do is take a chance on some rookies, maybe Caleb Sturgis and Quinn Sharp in the late rounds.
As for the other main aspect of special teams, the Bengals' two main return men are, you guessed it, potential free agents. But Brandon Tate and the aforementioned Adam Jones could be replaced by other roster players, if necessary.