The Cincinnati Bengals roster is stacked.
That's what many would have you believe as we edge ever closer to the season opener.
But just how much talent does Andy Dalton have at his disposal, and is Mike Zimmer's defense as dominant as it seems?
Cincinnati are looking to progress past the wild card round in 2013 following back-to-back losses to the Houston Texans.
Those players that tasted defeat in Houston will need to step up this year, while many of the rookies will be expected to contribute immediately.
So let's take a look at what we can expect from every starter in this year's lineup.
Every time the Bengals are discussed, there's one phrase that seems to be recycled more times than can be comprehended. It goes like this:
The Cincinnati Bengals' hopes in 2013 come down to Andy Dalton.
Warranted or not, the Bengals have become the bandwagon team in the AFC. So it's only natural that there are detractors. For them, Dalton is the biggest reason for doubting Cincinnati.
It was at halftime in Houston last season that his flaws became clear. He had minus six passing yards, he couldn't connect with A.J. Green, and for the second straight year, the Bengals were heading home early.
Dalton isn't going to suddenly become an elite QB, but now he doesn't have to be.
Marvin Lewis and Jay Gruden have added Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard to the offense, which should take the pressure off Dalton. The Bengals now have two-headed monsters at tight end and running back, while A.J. Green is just...A.J. Green.
The excuses will be few for Dalton in 2013. He has all the tools to get the job done.
The two attributes we need to see from Dalton in 2013?
Poise and consistency.
It looks like BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard will split carries 50/50 in 2013.
Green-Ellis struggled to be much of a force last year, barely breaking 1,000 yards and averaging only 3.9 yards per carry.
Green-Ellis will continue to play a valuable role for the Bengals this year, his play contrasting and complimenting that of Bernard, the rookie second-round pick out of UNC.
Bernard has already shown he's adept at catching the ball and racking up yards after the catch, and while he may not have elite speed, he's agile and elusive. He's also proved he can punch it in on the goal line.
Andy Benoit of MMQB thinks Bernard can be a big contributor for the Bengals:
He doesn’t have big-time power or top-end speed, but he moves well in confined areas and has the stop-start control that will allow him to thrive on shotgun carries and screens. He’s a reliable receiver and a serviceable cut-blocker. Basically, he’s a third down back. Except in today’s game, a back like this can play any down.
Both Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard will be integral to Cincinnati's success this year. If Marvin Lewis and Jay Gruden are confident that they can carry the load, it'll take significant pressure off Andy Dalton.
The battle rages on at full back.
The position remains one of the few question marks in the Bengals offense.
Orson Charles continues to make the case to be the Bengals' new H-back, while John Conner aims to stress his ability to run through brick walls.
According to Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer, RB's coach Hue Jackson continues to pound the table for Charles:
Running backs coach Hue Jackson loves Charles’ versatility, but there is still a learning curve when it comes to blocking. The fullbacks got a combined seven snaps last week against Dallas (Conner 5, Charles 2). Said Lewis about Charles: “He needs snaps and experience.”
Both players will be hoping for a big performance in their final preseason tilt.
Tonight's matchup may go some way toward showing us who will get the nod.
An injury scare for Andre Smith provided some drama on Hard Knocks this week.
He tweaked his knee against Dallas, but tests came back negative.
Right tackle Andre Smith said before Tuesday's practice that the plan is for him to be ready for the Sept. 8 regular-season opener in Chicago...."I feel a lot better than I did a day ago," Smith said.
However, the three-year $18 million contract seems to have been a good investment.
According to Cincy Jungle, Smith quietly had a strong training camp, shaking off his offseason rust and weight gain.
Smith has had a bad rap, and deservedly so, but he's become one of the most dependable members of the Bengals offense and has clearly benefited from playing alongside Kevin Zeitler.
Kevin Zeitler had a fantastic rookie season, but because he's an offensive lineman, you probably didn't hear about it.
The former Wisconsin Badger was drafted by the Bengals in the first round last year. An unsexy pick, but a great one.
He epitomised the Mike Mayock's favourite NFL Draft phrase: "Plug and Play" throughout his rookie campaign, giving Andy Dalton some stability following the injury/departure of Bobbie Williams.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked him the tenth best guard in the league last year:
One of the most impressive rookies in this year’s very strong class, Zeitler has "All-Pro" written all over his future. Once he has time to learn the run game, he’ll be one of the highest-ranked players on our list.
The combination of Zeitler and Andre Smith on the right side might just be one of the strongest in the NFL in 2013.
Kyle Cook is a player that generates the same sort of fan sentiment that Rey Maualuga has in the last few years.
Strong performances go under-appreciated, while mistakes lead to pitchforks and angry mobs.
Cook looks to have beaten out Trevor Robinson to start at center, for now at least.
Following the loss in Dallas, Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer saw positives in the statistical breakdown of his performance:
For those of you who love to bash Kyle Cook, look away, I know you won’t be interested in these facts. For the second straight week he graded positively in every category with a high grade in run blocking and clean sheet in the pass game.
Cook may not be Jeff Saturday, but he continues to be a serviceable and competent member of the Bengals' strong offensive line. As far as 'weak links' go, they could do a lot worse.
After Travelle Wharton went down at the start of the 2012 season, Clint Boling stepped into his place and looks set to stay there for a long time to come.
He's not only managed to be a competent left guard, he's thrived in the position.
According to Strype Hype, his performance didn't go unnoticed:
Displaying good instincts, Boling was actually one of the best guards during the beginning of the season. Clint Boling was ranked as the 23rd best offensive guard last season by Pro Football Focus, showing how far he has come since the 2011 season.
Boling will need to start strong this year, especially if Andrew Whitworth misses any time.
He still needs to improve his run-blocking ability, as the arrival of Giovani Bernard looks set to bring with it a re-focusing on the run game.
Right now, Kevin Zeitler is a few strides ahead of his counterpart on the left, but Boling has some great lineman to learn from and has a genuine opportunity to create special in partnership with Whitworth.
Andrew Whitworth's knee was one of the big storylines of this weeks Hard Knocks, as he watched the Cowboys game from home.
Judging by the extent to which his children were jumping on it, it doesn't appear to be anything too serious.
Whitworth holds the Bengals' current best record for consecutive starts at 67. It's that stat that shows you just how dependable he is and through that just how important he is too.
As the veteran and leader of a fairly youthful offensive line, Whit's presence will be sorely missed if he sits out Week 1.
However, all signs seem to point toward him being good to go.
A.J. Green has the ability to send Bengals fans into Belieber-like fits of joy every time he steps out on to the field.
It was exactly that way when he returned against the Dallas Cowboys following his injury scare in the early days of training camp.
Still worried about his health? Don't be. Green certainly isn't:
I felt good. I felt 100 percent, Green said. It’s great to be back out there. It seemed like a long time since I got hurt, but I knew I’d be back in plenty of time.
The Bengals have been extra careful with A.J. Green and rightfully so.
They're hoping that they can ride their star wide receiver all the way to the postseason once again in 2013.
Judging by his performance in Dallas, leaping over Micah Pellerin for a grab that was a heel away from a TD, he hasn't missed a step.
Expect big things.
Mo Sanu will get the nod opposite A.J. Green as the Bengals' No.2 wide receiver.
Despite being the frontrunner on paper, Sanu could see his targets shared somewhat with Marvin Jones.
Sanu caught 16 balls for 154 yards and four touchdowns in 2012, before suffering a season-ending foot injury.
He has the ability to line up in the slot, out wide, poses a threat on the ground and also brings a wildcat look with his ability to throw the ball.
Sanu has a lot of competition for receptions in 2013, but Jay Gruden will have something exciting planned for his niche skill set, and Sanu should be able to make himself incredibly useful to Andy Dalton.
Jermaine Gresham is determined to live up to his first round tag in 2013.
He's already spoken of the guilt he feels for dropping a crucial pass in the playoff loss to Houston, and he seems intent on making up for it.
That, coupled with the pressure that rookie first round pick Tyler Eifert brings, has seen Gresham undergo a transformation this offseason.
His previously low effort levels finally appear to have gone through the roof.
The two-headed monster that he produces with Eifert is likely to see Gresham moving the sticks and the rookie with the big vertical leap going up for balls in the end zone.
Likely starter George Iloka is set to miss his second preseason game in a row and yet another opportunity to put space between himself and the competition.
He's still recovering from a broken right hand after punching rookie linebacker Jordan Campbell in the helmet, and he's aware just how costly it might have been:
...probably the most regretful thing I've ever done and I've done some dumb things. But this is the most regretful in terms of consequences.
His absence will give Taylor Mays an opportunity to make his case for a roster spot, and correct a number of mistakes from last week in Dallas.
However, rookie Shawn Williams poses the biggest threat to Iloka's starting job according to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com
Even with Iloka's fast start and Mays's four seasons of experience, both may be just keeping the spot warm for Williams, the third-round pick from Georgia that has flashed while gaining experience and looks to be getting closer to getting it. To Mays's credit, he seems to have picked out the biggest difference between him and Williams.
No matter who lines up with the first unit in the season opener, it's clear that this will be a position of concern for some time to come.
Reggie Nelson is stalwart in the Bengals secondary.
With so much uncertainty opposite him, Nelson's presence is ever more crucial.
During the latter part of the season we started to see just how important a cog he is, as Andy Benoit of MMQB describes:
In the second half of last season, a lot of Mike Zimmer’s blitzes involved safety Reggie Nelson, who is excellent coming off the edge or picking up tight ends man-to-man after showing a false blitz look. False blitz looks have created as much pass-rushing pressure as blitzes themselves in Cincinnati. The reason for that is Zimmer’s commitment to having his inside linebackers crowd the A-gaps before the snap.
Last year, Nelson ranked third in tackles and tied for the team lead in interceptions. Throw in the fact that he missed two games and you start to see just how good he can be.
Until the Bengals find someone who can hold their own next to him, good performances from Nelson will be paramount.
The newest Mr. Money in the Bank.
DE Carlos Dunlap signed a $40 million dollar extension with the Bengals this year, thanks to Michael Johnson opting to test free agency.
The Bengals won't want to feel like they've backed the wrong horse and so they'll be expecting big things from Dunlap in 2013.
However, he's been sidelined for the last three weeks after suffering a concussion. Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com spoke to Dunalp, who's frustrated waiting to return:
That's the part that's frustrating because physically I feel I can still run, lift weights, whatever, said Dunlap, who got injured when he took on a run play. But it's not in my best interests right now. It's like a mind game now.
With a further two weeks to recover, it looks like Dunlap will be ready to go on opening day. Given his comments, it seems Dunlap would be happy to take the field tonight were it not for the leagues new rules on head injuries.
Domata Peko had a strong showing against the Dallas Cowboys last week.
He finished with four solo tackles, and was frequently first on the scene.
The eighth-year defensive tackle continues to be a fan favourite in Cincinnati and is one of the few leftovers of the previous Palmer/Ochocinco era.
This weeks' Hard Knocks gave us an endearing look into Peko's home life and the role he plays in the locker room. Whether it's helping the rookies or just his relentlessly positive attitude, Peko is an extremely valuable asset to this roster.
Expect Peko to lead from the front in 2013, in terms of effort if not statistics.
Big things have come to be expected from Geno Atkins.
Thanks to some added exposure from HBO, the spotlight will burn bright in 2013.
Last week, he showed (in an otherwise forgettable Bengals performance against the Dallas Cowboys) that he hasn't skipped a beat.
After the game, Cris Collinsworth said, "Geno Atkins almost single-handedly beat the Cowboys the other night. He is an unbelievable talent".
The Bengals need Atkins to live up to his reputation. His contribution will be the difference-maker for Mike Zimmer's defense. Expect him to challenge J.J. Watt for the Defensive Player of the Year title come seasons end.
Michael Johnson has every reason to have a big season in 2013.
He's already enjoying the $11 million that comes with being the Bengals' franchise player.
But, he's set to hit free agency next year.
That means Johnson will be auditioning for dollars each and every time he suits up.
He had his best season in 2012, tying for ninth in the league with 11.5 on the board.
He's had his niggles during camp, with a sore back seeing him miss some time.
However, there's no reason to worry.
He told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com that it won't be a lingering issue, and that he bears no resentment toward the Bengals for slapping the franchise tag on him.
James Harrison is still the scariest man in the NFL.
That's the verdict following four episodes of Hard Knocks.
However, intimidation only goes so far.
According to Football Outsiders, Harrison faces a few questions in Cincinnati:
Harrison's transition to Cincinnati's 4-3 scheme probably won't be too difficult, as the Steelers drop their outside linebackers into coverage more than most 3-4 teams because they run so many zone blitzes, and the Bengals will surely move Harrison around and blitz him so he can get after the passer. The question is less how he adapts to a new scheme and more just how much he has left in the tank.
At 35-years old, Harrison is no spring chicken. It wouldn't be unfair to raise the question of whether this is simply one last pay-check for the former Steeler.
Just how invested in the Bengals' success is James Harrison?
It won't be long before we get an answer.
Vontaze Burfict exploded onto the scene in 2012.
The undrafted rookie free agent from Arizona State surprised everyone when he suited up with the first team. By season's end, he was the top tackler with 127 combined tackles.
In 2013, Burfict will need to prove that his rookie campaign was not simply a flash in the pan. It seems he's succeeding so far, as his preseason play has been fairly promising.
As Joe Goodberry of Cincy Jungle notes, he's even been entrusted with calling some of the huddles, (and is great at reading/calling out the opposing offense's plays) and seemed to run the defense with ease.
Burfict has an incredibly high ceiling and will be one of the most exciting Bengals to watch in 2013.
Did I mention he hits people like a freight-train?
Faster. Stronger. Better.
That about sums up Rey Maualuga's offseason/preseason.
Coming into this season, it had been suggested that the Bengals might show Rey the door in favour of Vontaze Burfict. That hasn't happened, with Burfict set to play alongside him and Maualuga receiving a shiny new contract.
If his recent work rate is anything to go by, it was money well spent.
Breaking down preseason tape, Josh Kirkendall of Cincy Jungle sees a noticeable improvement:
...His decision-making process appears quicker, he's more aggressive, relying on his instincts more, and the Bengals are designing a defense that uses Maualuga as a two-down linebacker. And that will improve Cincinnati's defense.
Maualuga is a lightning rod for Bengals fans. He's the first member of the defense to be held accountable should a lapse in play occur, fairly or not.
He looks to have made some serious strides in his conditioning and his mental game this offseason. If he keeps it up, 2013 could be his best year yet.
This time last year, Leon Hall was recovering from an achilles tear and the Bengals were facing the prospect of their top corner not being 100% for the 2012 season.
Despite a slow start, Hall played to his high talent-level, progressing as the season went on, as Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer describes:
...he had three interceptions in the final four games, including the playoffs. Two were returned for touchdowns. Hall credits his play during that stretch to the defense playing better. They were one of the top pass defenses in the league during the second half of 2012.
This year the Bengals cornerback unit remains largely unchanged, but with Terence Newman replacing Nate Clements at the No.2 spot.
Hall will be looked to to be a game-changer on defense, and it's a burden he's all too used to carrying.
It's bee a quiet offseason and training camp for him, but that's a good thing.
The veteran is healthy and ready to go.
Before Saturday night, it had been thought that Dre Kirkpatrick might challenge Terence Newman for a starting job after a solid camp.
However, the second year corner had a rough night against the Cowboys, as Paul Dehner Jr of the Cincinnati Enquirer noted:
[Kirkpatrick] allowed a touchdown to Dez Bryant, committed two pass interference penalties, missed three tackles while nine receptions were made on his coverage.
It's worth remembering that after sitting out the majority of 2012, Kirkpatrick is effectively still a rookie. Rookies have bad nights. It's ridiculous to call Kirkpatrick a bust.
It's all good news for veteran Terence Newman, who will start opposite Leon Hall when the season begins, and likely for the entire year.
Newman took criticism early in 2012, but he developed into a solid and reliable contributor.
He's re-emerged under the tutelage of Mike Zimmer, so expect that to continue throughout the regular season.