The 2014 NFL offseason is now in full swing, and the Cincinnati Bengals will look toward free agency and the draft to fill team needs. Their season ended abruptly after a devastating 27-10 loss in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.
Now, Cincinnati must to everything it can to ensure that the team can finally take the next step when the 2014 season rolls around. The best way to do this is to bolster the team's starters and depth at every possible position.
The Bengals don't have many holes to fill, as they have one of the league's deepest rosters. Still, there is work to be done if they are to move into the ranks of the NFL's elite.
Let's take a look at five positions of need and how Cincinnati could possibly improve upon them by targeting specific free agents and draft prospects.
Cornerback is the biggest need for the Bengals this offseason. Although they still have a solid corps at the position, there are plenty of reasons why Cincinnati could use its first-round selection on another corner.
Top cornerback Leon Hall continues to be plagued by injuries—he has not been able to get through a full 16-game season since 2010. Terence Newman will be turning 36 when the 2014 season rolls around. Adam Jones is now a seven-year veteran and 30 years old. Dre Kirkpatrick looks promising but is still unproven.
Taking all of this into consideration, the Bengals must bring in additional talent to bolster this position.
Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
Dennard is one of the premier corners in this year's draft. He made a name for himself at Michigan State due to his ability to remain in man coverage without safety help over the top. His coverage skills are second to none.
Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
At 6'0" and 200 pounds, Gilbert is one of the larger corners in the draft. He has tremendous speed and will be able to stick with the better receivers at the NFL level. He has a keen nose for the ball and is always a threat to force turnovers.
Jason Verrett, TCU
Although not as big as Gilbert, Verrett is another ball hawk. He possesses great mechanics, and his fluid hips allow him to make the necessary adjustments to remain stout in coverage.
Verner will demand a higher contract; however, he would be worth it. The quick corner finished the 2013-14 season with 59 tackles and five interceptions. He has not missed a game during his four-year career with the Tennessee Titans.
At the age of 30, Grimes would be more of a short-term fix. He did have a fantastic season with the Miami Dolphins last year, as he recorded four interceptions and did not allow a touchdown pass throughout the entire season.
The Bengals' weakest position on the offensive side of the ball has been at center. Yet again during the 2013-14 season, Kyle Cook was ranked near the bottom of the list in regard to the league's centers. Pro Football Focus (subscribers link) gave him a negative-4.8 overall rating, which was low enough to rank 24th in the league.
There aren't many viable options at the center position this year—or at least options that can come in and start immediately. Nevertheless, the Bengals must figure something out if they are going to improve over the offseason.
Travis Swanson, Arkansas
The 6'5", 320-pound Swanson is easily the best candidate at the center position in this year's draft. He started all 50 games over his career at Arkansas and served as a team captain for his final two seasons. His athleticism gives him plenty of upside as he heads into the NFL.
Weston Richburg, Colorado State
Richburg saw his draft stock skyrocket after a fine showing at the Senior Bowl. He showed that he is capable of becoming a dominant center in pass protection and blocking for the run. He can handle strong bull-rushers up the middle and has the agility to block at the second level.
If the Bengals want to acquire Mack, they will have to spend some money. One of the best centers in the league, Mack is still only 28 years old. He could be one of the highest-paid free agents when the 2014 offseason is all said and done.
Brian de la Puente
This would be more of a bargain acquisition for the Bengals. De la Puente was given a positive-4.0 grade from Pro Football Focus this year, and he ranks in the middle of the pack at the center position. Although he is not necessarily a stud at the position, he would still be a massive upgrade.
Safety has been the Achilles' heel of the Bengals defense for quite some time now. Reggie Nelson has been solid at free safety; however, Cincinnati has struggled to find him a complement in the defensive secondary.
George Iloka had a roller-coaster season, showing some glimpses of fine play but looking lost at other times. 2013 draft pick Shawn Williams had every opportunity to earn the starting gig last season but could not put it together.
The Bengals should look outside the organization to shore up this position once again in 2014.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
Clinton-Dix has the speed and fluidity to get sideline to sideline when playing center field. He has the knack of watching a quarterback's eyes and making an early break on the ball. He is a physical tackler and can find success when asked to play closer to the line of scrimmage.
Calvin Pryor, Louisville
Pryor is a large safety at 6'2" and 208 pounds. The hard hitter is a complete player, as he racked up 69 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, three interceptions and two forced fumbles during his final season with Louisville.
Byrd may be a bit of a pipe dream for the Bengals this offseason, as he will be demanding a high payday. The athletic safety has the ability to be a game-changer every time he takes the field. Despite only playing 11 games over the 2013-14 season, he accumulated 48 total tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and four interceptions.
Whitner has been one of the most physical safeties in the league over his eight-year career. Although his primary attribute is his sure tackling, he has improved in coverage and is quickly becoming an all-around complete player.
Defensive end is always an ongoing carousel of players for the Bengals. Even though the Bengals have a fair amount of pass-rushers, they could always afford to upgrade this department.
Cincinnati is expected to lose high-priced defensive end Michael Johnson in free agency this year. Carlos Dunlap has been fantastic over his short career, and Wallace Gilberry has been a nice surprise for the team.
However, after those two, the position thins out. Margus Hunt was drafted in the second round last year, but he still has a way to go before he is polished enough to take the field on a regular basis. Depth is needed here.
Kony Ealy, Missouri
Ealy is one of the most explosive playmakers at the defensive end position in this year's draft. His speed, toughness and athleticism make him a force against the run and when rushing the passer. He will need a bit of polishing, but he is way ahead of Hunt's learning curve.
Dee Ford, Auburn
Ford has one of the quickest initial bursts of any defensive linemen in the 2014 NFL draft. At 6'2" and 243 pounds, he is a bit undersized; however, the Bengals have not had any issues taking chances on players with those attributes (e.g., Geno Atkins).
Houston does not have the speed-rush ability as other defensive ends in the league. However, he found success on a shaky Oakland Raiders defensive line. Pairing him opposite Dunlap and Atkins on the Bengals defensive line would only increase his chances to find continued success.
Although he is not the player he once was, Tuck is still an effective pass-rusher. Over the 2013-14 season, he was resurgent and had one of his best campaigns in recent memory. He finished the year with 63 total tackles, 11 sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception. He would be a valuable piece to add to the Bengals rotation, while Hunt continues to learn the position.
All right, before anyone freaks out over this category, let's set up a preface. The Bengals will not be looking for a quarterback to replace Andy Dalton for the 2014 season. He will continue to start for the team.
However, he is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and if he does take a step backward, the Bengals could begin to head in a different direction. This offseason, Cincinnati has a chance to find a developmental prospect who shows promise and can be developed.
The Bengals will not spend a high draft pick on the position this year, but the quarterback class is deep and they could look to the middle or later rounds to bring in another signal-caller.
Aaron Murray, Georgia
Murray fits the Bengals offense nicely. His quick delivery and ability to slide around in the pocket make him a perfect fit for a West Coast offense. His deep passes have good velocity, and he shows nice touch on shorter throws. He could be developed into a future starter or quality backup.
David Fales, San Jose State
Fales excels with pre-snap reads. He is intelligent enough to decipher a defensive scheme before the snap and make appropriate adjustments. He has solid mechanics and shows the ability to work through his progressions. Fales is tough and can scramble for yards, bouncing back up after taking a hit.
Connor Shaw, South Carolina
Shaw received the ultimate praise from head coach Steve Spurrier last season, according to his draft profile on CBSSports.com: "He is the best quarterback ever." Spurrier was referring to all quarterbacks in South Carolina's school history. Shaw was extremely efficient in 2013, completing 63.4 percent of his passes for 2,447 yards, 24 touchdowns and just one interception.
Yes, Freeman was awful over the 2013-14 season. However, this is the same quarterback who showed a great amount of promise in Tampa Bay. Back in 2010, he completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns and six interceptions for a passer rating of 95.9. Perhaps the Bengals coaching staff could help him regain his form.
Henne did well with his opportunities on a terrible Jacksonville Jaguars offense last season. Although his final stats for the year were not overly impressive, he did show glimpses of fine quarterback play. In an offense as talented as Cincinnati's, Henne might continue his improvement. In the worst-case scenario, he could become a solid backup.