After a week of free agency, it’s clear that the Bengals’ focus is to retain key players rather than fish for new ones. Headlined by defensive end Michael Johnson, who received the franchise tag, the Bengals’ 2013 free-agent class was packed with contributors.
Many positions could be filled by rookies as well. Predicting which rookies will contribute immediately is a daunting task for anyone. However, Bengals fans are all too familiar with rookie breakouts. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict fell from, at one point, being considered a top-10 pick to going undrafted. Marvin Lewis took a chance on him in rookie free agency and he went on to finish second on the team in tackles.
Here is a look at what the Bengals' starting lineup look like now, a week into free agency, and how that could change with the right additions.
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Andy Dalton is the Bengals’ starting quarterback. Regardless of the players chosen in the NFL draft or acquired via free agency, barring injury, Dalton will take the Bengals’ first snap this year.
According to Bengals.com, they "aren't looking to push Andy Dalton out of a job," but also "want someone confident back there." Head coach Marvin Lewis recently said that Dalton needs to work on dealing with media criticism, “He just needs to keep playing and doing his thing” and “quit listening to you guys [in the media].”
The Bengals have entertained various quarterbacks since the end of last season: West Virginia’s Geno Smith, Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and former Bengal Josh Johnson. However, none of these quarterbacks have been seriously considered to contend for Andy Dalton’s job.
If this time next year, however, we’re still talking about Dalton getting over the hump, chances are the Bengals will move to find a new quarterback to build around. For now, it’s Dalton.
Benjarvus Green-Ellis’ 1,000-plus rushing yards in 2012 are noteworthy, as is the fact that he finished in the top 10 in first-down rushes. However, inconsistency and a questionable, non-contact, late-season pregame injury make him vulnerable to having his spot taken.
The Bengals have met with some free agents like Beanie Wells and Mike Goodson, but chances are they’ll pick up a ball-carrier via the draft to complement Green-Ellis. In conjunction with Green-Ellis' comfort running between the tackles, the Bengals need a versatile, speed back that can also catch out of the backfield.
NFL.com Analyst Gil Brandt has projected the Bengals to take Alabama RB Eddie Lacy with their first pick. Regardless, whoever the Bengals draft will compete with Green-Ellis for the starting spot and could be lined up behind Dalton come Week 1.
With 162 catches for 2,407 yards in his first two years, AJ Green is quickly earning his way into a lot of conversations. Not only did he fill the void that was left by Chad Ochocinco in Cincinnati, but his performance merited two trips to the Pro Bowl. He’ll be starting outside.
Both Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu showed flashes of brilliance in the slot as rookies in 2012. Andrew Hawkins also made a splash as an inside receiver. He was supposed to be a free agent but agreed to terms with the Bengals before free agency began (Bengals.com). All three of these players could find themselves in the starting lineup, but I like Sanu to win the spot out of training camp.
For the second outside receiver spot, that remains to be seen. The Bengals have shown interest in free agent and Ohio native Tedd Ginn, Jr. to fill the second receiver spot previously filled by Brandon Tate. They could also fill this position via the draft. Ginn’s speed would stretch out defenses creating a deadly, deep-threat combination with AJ Green. Also, Ginn has the ability to return kicks on special teams.
Considering the Bengals start the game with a three-receiver formation, Green, Ginn and Mohamed Sanu will be the starters.
Andre Smith is the Bengals' biggest free-agent priority right now, and if they can secure a contract with him, they’ll return the majority of the offensive line from 2012. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2012. Kevin Zeitler and Trevor Robinson both made Mel Kiper’s All Rookie Team (Insider). It’s safe to say that they have a lot to look forward to.
The Bengals should be able to agree to terms with Smith, bringing back the 2012 offensive line: Whitworth, Boling, Robinson, Zeitler and Smith. Kyle Cook saw significant time at Center last year and he will compete for the starting position as well.
In the case that they can't bring back Smith, look for Dennis Roland to be re-signed and another tackle to be taken in the NFL Draft in April.
Jermaine Gresham earned a berth to the Pro Bowl after the 2012 season further confirming his blossoming abilities. He performs well enough in the run game, but his impact has been most seen in the passing game. His hands combined with his size and difficulty to bring down will ensure his spot in the starting lineup.
The defensive line will look awfully familiar to Bengals fans in 2013. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins led all interior linemen in sacks with 12.5; he’ll be back in 2013. Defensive end Michael Johnson finished a close second with 11.5 sacks, earning him a lofty franchise tag payout this offseason.
The Bengals were also able to bring back Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry. Coach Lewis could be looking to bring in another defensive lineman through the draft, but chances are he won’t beat Dunlap, Geathers and Johnson for the starting spot.
The defensive line accounted for 43 of the Bengals' franchise record-setting 51 sacks in 2012. There's no surprise they are looking to keep the group intact.
Starting for the Bengals' defensive line will be Domata Peko, Atkins, Dunlap and Johnson.
The linebacker position may be the most drama-filled for the Bengals this season and into the offseason. Rookie Vontaze Burfict emerged as a star, finishing second on the team in tackles. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga was appointed captain during the season, only to be greeted with a sea of uncertainty in free agency that ended in a two year contract.
Burfict will likely move to the middle linebacker position to replace Maualuga, who will shift outside but must fight to start. This is especially likely since they also signed Aaron Maybin from the Jets, and he will certainly contend for the outside linebacker position.
The Bengals are also likely to draft a linebacker in April. The signing of Maualuga certainly lessens the need for the Bengals to draft a linebacker early, but it doesn’t mean that the best player available at pick No. 21 won’t be one. Ultimately, they could use another long, rangy run stopper on the outside. If the Bengals take a linebacker with one of their first three picks, he will compete for that spot.
If Week 1 started tomorrow and the rosters stood as they do now, Burfict would start in the middle, Maybin strong side and Maualuga weak side with a rookie second round pick breathing down his neck.
The defensive backs group will change faces between now and the start of the season. Both Terence Newman and Adam Jones are unsigned, unrestricted free agents. So are Nate Clements and Chris Crocker. The Bengals will look to re-sign the first two (CBS Sports).
The Bengals also have first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick to look forward to in the defensive secondary along with proven veteran Leon Hall. Kirkpatrick recently proclaimed "I will start," following a surgical procedure. At safety, however, the Bengal don’t have much to look forward to at all.
Reggie Nelson was a solid performer in 2012, but he’ll need help if he plans to improve in 2013. Thoughts were that the Bengals would make that improvement via free agency, and Dashon Goldson mentioned playing in Cincinnati before signing with the Bucs. Many mock drafts have the Bengals taking a safety with their first pick, which seems like the most logical move given team needs.
Starting for the Bengals' defensive secondary in 2013 will be Hall, Kirkpatrick, Nelson and rookie Elam from Florida.