Throughout the course of the four-game preseason, we discovered quite a good amount of new information regarding the Cincinnati Bengals. Despite the amount of similar pieces, this team is very different from its 2012 version.
The team has become more versatile and experienced since their loss in the Wild Card Round to the Houston Texans this past January—they seem determined to shed their historically snakebitten image.
It appears the right pieces are in place, as owner Mike Brown has seemingly turned over a new leaf and has begun to put this team in a position to succeed.
There were plenty of interesting findings regarding the new-look 2013 Bengals; however, eight of them stood out above the rest.
The 2012 version of Rey Maualuga was an embattled linebacker who had difficulty making tackles in open space and was just awful in coverage. He played so poorly that Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked him dead last among the 53 eligible inside linebackers in the league.
Despite these failures, head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer saw something in Maualuga. They believed the product the linebacker displayed on the field was nowhere near the ceiling of his potential.
So far, they're right.
Over the four 2013 preseason games, the faster, trimmed-down version of Maualuga has excelled. Now Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has the linebacker ranked 18th out of a possible 135 inside linebackers with a positive-3.1 overall efficiency grade.
Maualuga has excelled in coverage and has shored up his open-field tackling. He is contributing at a high level in all phases of the game. If he keeps this up over the regular season, this may turn out to be a genius move by the Bengals brass.
After the dust settled from the final roster cuts, we were left with one glaring lesson regarding the 2013 Bengals offense: They desire versatility.
The Bengals elected to keep converted tight end Orson Charles on the team as an H-back rather than hang on to John Conner, a traditional fullback who rarely misses his block. This move was made despite Charles' inability to grasp blocking out of the backfield as quickly as anticipated.
However, the versatility Charles brings to the offense is immeasurable to the Bengals. The added receiving threat and security blanket for quarterback Andy Dalton is exactly what has been lacking from the offense in years past.
Now, the addition of rookies Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert along with the new role for Charles gives this team limitless capability to create mismatches against even the toughest of NFL defenses.
A noticeable trend that came across as the preseason developed—and turned to reality as final cuts were announced—is that the Bengals are looking to win games now.
Decisions such as the release of promising rookie Cobi Hamilton solidified that message.
Hamilton looked strong during OTAs and early workouts; however, he struggled with consistency as time went on. In years past, he may have found a spot on the final roster while the Bengals continued his development.
The Bengals were lucky to get Hamilton back on the practice squad. But, taking the risk of losing him to keep a less-than-flashy veteran on the roster speaks volumes about this team's desire to win now.
All five offensive linemen have returned and, barring a setback from left tackle Andrew Whitworth, will start the 2013 season together for a second straight year.
Familiarity is of the utmost importance to an offensive line. Talent is important, but keeping the unit intact is unequivocal.
Even some of the most talented offensive lines in the NFL have struggled due to inexperience playing as a unit. Five players who cannot anticipate the move of the man on their right or left could be easily outmaneuvered by a tactically sound defensive line.
The Bengals offensive line started to jell as a unit late in 2012. Keeping these players together by re-signing right tackle Andre Smith over the offseason and taking the necessary steps to ensure longevity to its members can only increase the chance of success for the 2013 offense as a whole.
After selecting Shawn Williams in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft, expectations were that the Bengals had found their opening day starter for the season.
Not so fast.
After a bit of a lackluster training camp and preseason, Williams now sits third on the depth chart at the position.
Second-year pro George Iloka has been given the opportunity to prove what he can do and currently sits atop the depth chart. The always controversial Taylor Mays—a player many expected to be cut—is listed as his backup.
Only Iloka shone during training camp; he showed the coaching staff he has immensely improved in coverage since his rookie season.
However, all three of these players are unproven as regular-season starters, which puts the Bengals back to square one at strong safety for another season.
When 35-year-old linebacker James Harrison signed with the Bengals over the offseason, it was unknown what the team would be getting. Would he be the same threat as he was during his days in Pittsburgh?
So far, the answer seems conclusive: yes.
Though he only received limited snaps in the preseason—40 total—Harrison showed his signature aggression and toughness on each and every one of them.
Constantly in the backfield and disrupting plays as soon as they began, Harrison showed the Bengals he had not lost a step.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave Harrison a positive-3.3 overall grade for the 2013 preseason—that's good for sixth in the league out of 122 outside linebackers.
Joining an improved Maualuga and a very hungry Vontaze Burfict, Harrison could allow the Bengals linebacker corps to reach a whole new level of nasty in 2013.
The Bengals have completed their eight-man practice squad for the 2013 season. Five of the eight players are rookies.
This is an extremely young and versatile group of players that encompasses plenty of different positions and skill sets. Each member of the 2013 practice squad has plenty of upside and has a real chance to contribute down the road.
It was mentioned earlier that the Bengals are in win-now mode. That, however, does not stop the team from building for the future as well.
The Bengals 2013 practice squad includes right tackle Reid Fragel, wide receiver Cobi Hamilton, running back Dan Herron, center T.J. Johnson, linebacker J.K. Schaffer, cornerback Onterio McCalebb, cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris and quarterback Greg McElroy.
The notoriously stingy Mike Brown has apparently decided to enter a new territory recently. This is a place he has rarely frequented in seasons past: his pocketbook.
It was well known that negotiations were ongoing; however, the pace at which an agreeable contract was reached between the two sides was nothing short of extraordinary.
According to Ian Rapoport, the move keeps the Bengals at $10 million under the salary cap this season—a budget that was anticipated by the front office due to the upcoming extensions for Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green in 2014.
The Bengals are making all of the right moves and doing everything that good NFL teams do. Now, it's time to see if they can cash in.