Though teams in the NFL frequently win despite roster deficiencies, the goal is to field a complete and balanced squad that is strong in every area. With a high level of talent at every key position, wins come that much easier.
In the AFC, there are few teams that are as complete as the Cincinnati Bengals. Their starters, their depth players, their older veterans and younger additions all contribute to make up one of the more exciting (though under-the-radar) units heading into the 2013 season.
It starts with the quarterback, third-year player Andy Dalton. Now, Dalton isn't Tom Brady—he doesn't carry his offense or team seemingly single-handedly to double-digit wins season after season—but he doesn't need to be. Again, we're talking about completeness and balance here, which means players doing their part at a high level, and that is certainly something Dalton has accomplished in his first two seasons in the NFL.
As a young quarterback, Dalton had one task in his first two years—improve. He has, with his completion percentage rising from 58.1 in his rookie season to 62.3 last year, his yards going up from 3,398 to 3,669 and his combined rushing and passing touchdowns rising from 21 in 2011 to 31 in 2012. Though his interceptions rose from 13 to 16, he also had an increased number of attempts, from 516 in his first year to 528 in his second.
In 2012, these numbers put him in the company of fellow quarterbacks Philip Rivers (in yards), Andrew Luck (completions), Tom Brady (completion percentage) and Eli Manning (passing touchdowns). Though there are areas in which Dalton could use improvement, such as when he's under pressure, where Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has Dalton completing only 39.4 percent of his pressured passes last year, it would be inaccurate to say that Dalton is in any way a glaring liability for the Bengals. Instead, he's a young player who has gotten better with each passing season, which is exactly what he needs to be.
The other impressive thing about Dalton is how well he's played despite having so many young players around him and so many changes to his supporting cast. Though wideout A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham remained valuable targets from 2011 to 2012, gone last season were receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. They were replaced by rookies Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu along with Brandon Tate and Andrew Hawkins taking up more prominent roles.
Based on how well Dalton handled these changes, barely missing a beat, things should only be better for him in 2013. He also has additional help in the way of rookie tight end Tyler Eifert as well as a fully-healthy Sanu (just as Sanu started to break out last year, he broke his foot in practice, ending his season), which should help propel Dalton from being simply a good quarterback to the Bengals' franchise passer.
Those receivers, of course, will also play a major part in Dalton's advancement and also help demonstrate how complete and balanced the Bengals really are. It's not just that the Bengals have a full complement of starter-worthy receivers—it's that they also have the right combination of skills. The Bengals aren't bogged down by a plethora of speedy, small receivers all best-suited for the slot, nor a ton of possession receivers.
Instead, they have the exact group of receiving talent that teams look to put together—Green as the big-play, deep threat; Sanu as the reliable possession receiver capable of putting up points; Jones and Hawkins, both fast, with the latter working out of the slot; Gresham, while streaky, still has his merits as a do-it-all tight end, and the addition of Eifert only means one more dangerous, versatile weapon for Dalton to work with.
Though the passing game usually gets the most attention in the NFL, the run game is just as important for teams seeking balance. The Bengals approached that balance last year, with Dalton attempting 528 passes and the Bengals rushing a total of 430 times, primarily behind veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Getting rushing and passing attempts to a near-similar number serves a few purposes—first, it belies an effective run game, which allows the passing game to be more successful in play-action and shotgun situations. It also means fewer games being played from behind; offenses are more often running when leading a game in order to keep possession of the football and ultimately take fewer risks to maintain the lead.
Cincinnati's run game wasn't exactly where it needed to be last year, earning an 18th-in-the-league 107.4 rushing yards per game on average. They averaged a mere 4.1 yards per attempt while Green-Ellis (who accounted for 278 of the Bengals' rushes last year) averaged just 3.9. However, the addition of second-round draft pick Giovani Bernard should get these numbers up this year.
Bernard's presence is another example of Cincinnati's overall balance. With him now in the fold, the Bengals have a bruising, north-south runner in Green-Ellis as well as a shifty, fast, outside threat in Bernard. While one do-it-all running back would be nice, they are becoming ever fewer and farther between in the NFL. Further, having two capable backs with complementary styles means none get exposed to overuse, allowing for fresher legs as the season wears on.
It's hard to look at what the Bengals have built on offense and see a unit that is capable of being just as effective on the ground as in the air this year while also not leaning more heavily on one over the other. And the group that makes it all happen—the offensive line—should be more than able to help the Bengals have offensive success this year.
In 2012, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) named starting Bengals offensive tackles Andre Smith and Andrew Whitworth as the fourth- and ninth-best in the league, respectively. Guards Kevin Zeitler (a rookie last year) and Clint Boling both were ranked in the top 25 percent while their only question mark is center Kyle Cook (and it's not a major one). Having a solid offensive line makes things far easier for Cincinnati's offense. It's one less thing to worry about, which is more than can be said for a number of other teams in the NFL.
Not to be outdone by its solid and rapidly-improving offense, the Bengals defense has become one of the best units in the league. Their front seven, anchored by league-best defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end tandem Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, helped the Bengals sack opposing quarterbacks 51 times last season.
As a whole, the Bengals defense ranked eighth in the league last year in total yards allowed per game, at 325.6, eighth in points allowed, at 19.9, and came in as Pro Football Focus' third-ranked overall defense, earning positive grades in pass rush, pass coverage and run-stopping. The average passer rating of opposing quarterbacks was a mere 80.8 and the average rushing yards they allowed on a per-play basis was just 4.1.
Cincinnati accomplished this even while being unsettled at certain defensive positions, such as linebacker (where the lone standout was undrafted rookie Vontaze Burfict) and strong safety (a total of four players saw snaps at the position last year). However, even their individual deficiencies are masked by the overall high performance of the unit. Like on offense, the Bengals defense has an effective mix of youth, emerging talent and established veterans that outperformed every other AFC defense last year, the Denver Broncos included.
Compare the Bengals to the other top teams in the AFC this year and it's not hard to see how well they've managed to build their roster since 2011. Perennial Super Bowl favorites the New England Patriots don't possess a defense that rivals Cincinnati's, nor do they have as much stability in the receiving corps, despite Tom Brady being their quarterback.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a strong defense, but lacked a pass rush last year that they may struggle with in 2013 if injuries again plague safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker LaMarr Woodley. They, too, have questions at wide receiver along with the task of trying to rebuild a run game that was dismal in 2012.
The Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens did a wholesale reboot of their roster after winning their second Lombardi Trophy. While on paper many of these changes—especially on defense—seem to be upgrades, it will still be difficult for the players to jell as a unit, particularly early in the season. The Bengals certainly do not have these potential chemistry issues. Further, the season-ending hip injury suffered by tight end Dennis Pitta hurts an already thin receiving corps.
The Denver Broncos come closest to rivaling the completeness and balance of the Bengals—they had a strong pass rush last year to pair with a good secondary, a legendary quarterback in Peyton Manning, along with the type of weapons that do his talents justice and a run game that should be re-energized by rookie Montee Ball.
However, one architect of that great pass rush—Elvis Dumervil—is now an outside linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, while the other—linebacker Von Miller—is staring down a four-game suspension to start the season. The Broncos also had to call in retired center Ryan Lilja to compete with Manny Ramirez for the starting job after Dan Koppen tore his ACL in practice; the impact of this change could be significant for Manning.
But perhaps the biggest case for the Bengals being the AFC's most complete and balanced team this year is their depth. Just a look at the Bengals' preliminary depth chart compared to Denver's and it is easy to see how much better prepared they are to replace any starters who come down with injuries, at many more positions.
Both tight end and wide receiver positions seem to tip the Bengals' way as far as depth is concerned, as do most offensive line positions. On defense, the Bengals are far more loaded, especially at cornerback, where a number of former first-round draft picks provide both starters and situational backups. When discussing completeness and balance, how deep the depth chart truly is must be part of the conversation.
All signs are pointing to the Bengals being a well-rounded team in 2013. They have the tools to run the ball effectively, pass the ball to a number of dynamic receivers and continue to bring pressure to opposing quarterbacks while being strong in coverage and against the run. As long as Dalton's progress continues and their pass rush doesn't take a step back, there are truly few teams that can rival Cincinnati's roster strength and depth. If the Bengals have strived for a complete, balanced roster, they've achieved it better than any other team in the conference.