Much of the excitement stemming from Bengals faithful not only has to do with recent success on the field, but with the continued acquisition of budding talent as the team gels.
Rather than taking a broad approach to the 2013 season once more, let's narrow things down and focus on said individual talent.
As is the case before any NFL season, predicting how talent will perform on an individual basis can be an exercise in futility. There will be both surprises from names with little to no expectations as well as disappointments from players poised by many accounts to have a big year.
In the following slideshow we will predict award honors based on a number of variables, including, but not limited to performances in the past and what the preseason has shown us.
Let's take a look.
Note: All relevant statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise noted.
Let's start things off with a bang and break down the most prestigious award on the list—Most Valuable Player.
Cincinnati seemingly has an excess of talent at most positions, but it is the star players who will come through and take the team to the next level if it is meant to be.
Coming off a campaign in which he threw for 3,669 yards and 27 touchdowns, Dalton could take another step statistically. He has shown progression this offseason, especially in Week 2 against Tennessee when he threw for 115 yards and a score on 14 attempts. The competition was not exactly top-tier stuff, but it was a good sign. That said, much of Dalton's production will still hinge on his star wide receiver, especially if he fails to make progress in the accuracy, pocket presence and time of release departments.
Green is a great candidate considering he's an elite player who has made Dalton look better than he truly is on numerous occasions in the past thanks to his ability to get his fingertips on any ball thrown in his vicinity. Chances are he'll have a lower statistical output than last season (1,350 yards, 11 scores) because of the wealth of other options on the offense, and his presence alone will free those weapons up.
The only true defensive candidate, Atkins is the cog in the machine that allows other parts to work effectively. Atkins was the best tackle in the NFL a year ago according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required) by a long shot—he graded at 85.4, the next player at No 2 graded at 31.7.
Atkins' ability to apply unorthodox pressure up the middle opens lanes for the classic Mike Zimmer double A-gap blitz and also ushers the passer into the arms of defensive ends rushing up the field at the edge.
This crop of players has been hosted up by an elite defense led by Atkins the past few seasons, especially down the stretch last year. Dalton may falter and in turn hurt Green's chances for the award, but it does not look like anything is going to stop the NFL's best defensive lineman. What he does in the trenches cannot be matched.
WINNER: Geno Atkins
HONORABLE MENTIONS: A.J. Green, Andy Dalton
The Bengals only have two legitimate Rookie of the Year candidates, as do most teams. Tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard will do battle for the award as the biggest difference makers with end Margus Hunt deep in a rotation on the line and safety Shawn Williams not even guaranteed playing time at safety.
The argument can certainly be made for Eifert. He catches anything thrown his way with an unbelievable catch radius and has the opportunity to split out wide and feast on defenders unable to match up with his size.
The problem is, Eifert still has to split opportunities with Jermaine Gresham and a host of receivers. While reports from the Cincinnati Enquirer state Eifert is Andy Dalton's favorite target in practice, that's been without A.J. Green attending while nursing a knee injury.
Bernard is the safer bet simply because he has more opportunities to contribute. Not only will he see carries in a conventional sense, he will be a solid checkdown option for Dalton if the pocket collapses. Through two preseason games he has already been targeted seven times.
Add in some potential contributions via kick returns on special teams, and Bernard has the opportunity to change the outcome of games, whether that's return kicks, breaking long runs or acting as a go-to weapon in the red zone.
WINNER: Giovani Bernard
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Tyler Eifert
Rey Maualuga is one of the most detested players on the Bengals roster after failing to live up to preposterous expectations.
Fans clamored for Maualuga to move to the middle of the defense and the coaching staff made the change after two seasons of stellar play on the strong side, which masked Maualuga's serious deficiencies in coverage as he was removed from the field in passing situations.
Last year Maualuga hit rock bottom, ranking as ProFootballFocus' (subscription required) No. 52 linebacker in the NFL—on a list that graded 52 players. After a brief free agency stint, Maualuga is back—and something has changed.
This is a case where we'll look to meaningless preseason games rather than past performances, because while preseason does not matter, there is plenty to learn on an individual basis.
Maualuga, at least so far, is a different player than the one that was the target of offensive game plans in 2012. Through two games he has made the correct reads, been quick to the ball with proper angles, and has shown a new level of speed from sideline to sideline.
The polarizing linebacker from USC has even played well in coverage. Bleacher Report's very own Sean O'Donnell brilliantly illustrated the new-look Maualuga recently.
There are other candidates for this award, especially along the offensive line with a guy like Clint Boling or from a safety like George Iloka, but as it stands now, Maualuga is going to run away with the award.
WINNER: Rey Maualuga
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Brandon Tate, Clint Boling, Kyle Cook, George Iloka
Talk about going from one generally despised player to another.
See, as much as fans want to give Rey Maualuga flack for not living up to expectations—folks at least had expectations for him. The talent has clearly been there. The execution—not so much. That's why Maualuga improving isn't a surprise.
It would be a surprise to see receiver Brandon Tate turn things around.
Tate joined Cincinnati in 2011 and has since only caught 13 receptions for 211 yards and a lone score. He's drawn the ire of Bengals fans for his performance on kickoff returns, which has been less than explosive despite averaging 24.8 yards per return last year.
Yet Tate, like Maualuga, has been one of the most impressive players in the 2013 preseason. Through two games he has looked like a different player, catching five passes for 84 yards and a score. His route running, catch radius and anticipation have all looked sharper.
What makes Tate a surprise other than the solid play out of nowhere is the fact he is squarely in the thick of the Bengals' deepest roster battle. His solid performance thus far has all but guaranteed a spot over guys like Cobi Hamilton and Ryan Whalen.
WINNER: Brandon Tate
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Margus Hunt, Emmanuel Lamur
Believe it or not, the past few years have been the first seasons in a long time it has been nearly impossible to predict a biggest disappointment in Cincinnati.
It would be disappointing if say, rookies like Giovani Bernard did not live up to expectations. But to claim it would be a surprise, considering any rookie can bust, would be a bit outlandish.
Expectations are reasonable for most players on the roster. Tackle Andre Smith could have a down year after cashing in on a new deal. Or Michael Johnson could not meet his sack numbers from a year ago after getting hit with the franchise tag.
But in reality, the only player that could disappoint because expectations are a bit out of touch with reality is former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison.
Harrison comes with much hype because of his body of work with a divisional rival and his unique attitude that has been on full display during HBO's Hard Knocks. His presence in the locker room will provide more bite to the Bengals' defensive personality rather than just bark (here's to you, Rey Maualuga of 2012).
On the field, if he can stay on it, is where Harrison will disappoint. As the starting strong-side linebacker we have already seen Harrison used in a variety of ways, especially as a pass-rusher from different spots—and even defensive end in hybrid looks.
The problem is Harrison is 34 and has had issues staying on the field. He's missed eight games the past two years because of injury and suspensions for reckless play. The new attitude is nice, but Harrison may not be on the field long enough to make the huge difference he has for past units.
WINNER: James Harrison
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Andre Smith, Michael Johnson
This is a bit unfair. Cincinnati's A.J. Green is arguably a top-five receiver in the NFL. Coming off a 1,350 yard, 11 touchdown campaign in 2012, Green is poised to easily be the Offensive Player of the Year yet again, health provided.
As suggested earlier, Green could see a statistical drop in 2013 with the presence of new weapons, but none of the other weapons on the offense are going to come close to sniffing Green's numbers. Last year the second receiving target behind Green was tight end Jermaine Gresham, and he fell short by 613 yards and six scores. Oh, and Green was targeted 70 more times than Gresham.
Not taking a statistical approach, Green will still be the most important player on the offense thanks to the extra coverage defenses have to roll his way, which will open up more opportunities for other weapons.
An argument could be made for elusive and versatile rookie back Giovani Bernard in this sense, because defenses will now have to account for the running game after BenJarvus Green-Ellis averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in 2012, but it is still too early to even dream of Bernard seeing the field enough to match Green's impact.
Green is easily the Offensive Player of the Year in 2013 from both a statistical and overall impact sense.
WINNER: A.J. Green
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Andy Dalton, Giovani Bernard
Like the offensive counterpart, this one is a bit unfair as well. There is no player that will be more integral from a statistical or overall impact sense than defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
Already named Most Valuable Player, it only makes sense for Atkins to be the Defensive Player of the year as well.
Statistically Atkins is well known. 2012 saw him put up 53 total tackles, 12.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and two passes defensed. As already mentioned, he was graded as the No. 1 tackle at his position by a long shot.
Also already detailed was the difference Atkins makes schematically. Not only does he simply bully offensive linemen with his absurd power (he benches 500 pounds and squats 550 per Rotoworld), Atkins also makes a huge difference against the run.
Next to tackle Domata Peko, Atkins clogs up running lanes and forces runners to cut outside to defensive ends and linebackers that have sealed the edge, or the backs are simply forced to run into a mash of bodies in the middle as Atkins bulldozes linemen into each other.
Schematically the Bengals would not be as successful without Atkins, this much is obvious. Add in the fact his talent makes others on the line and behind him look even better (imagine if passers had more time to throw against the up-and-down secondary the past few seasons), and it's easy to see why Atkins is both the Defensive Player of the Year and overall MVP.
WINNER: Geno Atkins
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Vontaze Burfict, Leon Hall, Reggie Nelson
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