Biggest Questions the Cincinnati Bengals Must Answer over Draft Week
As the 2014 NFL draft inches closer, the Cincinnati Bengals have plenty of questions they need to answer. No, not as many as do teams like Houston and Jacksonville, but they still have a lot to answer in terms of their long-term goals.
The string of success that has come from the Bengals over the last three seasons began with the 2011 NFL draft. With guys from that draft becoming free agents and other tenured athletes like Andrew Whitworth and Leon Hall appearing to be on the back nine, it may be time for Cincinnati to start preparing to go in a different direction.
This is not at all to imply that the Bengals aren't headed in a good direction—my thought is that the core of this team is beginning to break down one way or the other. It's time to determine who will be wearing orange and black on Sundays for the future.
Cincinnati's clock is running down—what must it address?
Is the Team OK with Michael Johnson's Replacements?
Star defensive end Michael Johnson left for Tampa Bay in free agency, which left a gaping hole in the Bengals defense. Carlos Dunlap has ensured a starting spot on the other side of the defensive line, but the other one is open.
It's looking like Wallace Gilberry is the favorite to start, particularly because he recorded 7.5 sacks in limited time in 2013. Other options include young Margus Hunt and longtime Bengal Robert Geathers.
Still, there are some who think that Cincinnati could try to start fresh to replace Johnson, perhaps drafting a guy like Dee Ford. Personally, I do not see a reason to use a first-round pick for what would turn out to be an insurance policy.
Hunt, while unproven, is a large man with pretty decent speed. He can blow back an offensive line at will if he's learned the NFL game. Gilberry showed a lot of promise last season as he rotated in and out and played due to injuries. These two alone should be able to hold down the end position.
Will the Team Shore Up the Offensive Line?
On paper, it looks like the Bengals offensive line is in decent shape. Andrew Whitworth is a star left tackle, Andre Smith is one of the game's best on the right side, Kevin Zeitler is proving to be worth the first-round selection, while Clint Boling and Trevor Robinson have some left to prove.
Therein lies the problem—two of the positions have something to prove. Boling has started for two seasons now, and while he hasn't really been bad, he's not been overly impressive. Robinson has seen time rotating with Kyle Cook, but like Boling, he hasn't been great.
Along with that, Anthony Collins left the team for Tampa Bay. Andrew Whitworth has dealt with knee injuries the last couple of seasons. And you never know which Andre Smith you'll get.
While it has a solid core, Cincinnati should consider adding more: Get some young talent in there to take over in the case it should become needed because it doesn't have any quality insurance policies right now.
Is Another Running Back Coming to Cincinnati?
This is certainly not a pressing need for the Bengals but possibly one that could use some attention. Giovani Bernard is clearly a star in the making, but the veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be heading out of Cincinnati soon.
The NFL now operates on a two-back system for most teams, so it's never too early to start thinking about who the replacement for Green-Ellis could be. Terrance West (pictured) from Towson has a powerhouse running style and could be a perfect complement to Bernard.
The Bengals have Rex Burkhead, but he's not blowing anyone away at this point. Once Green-Ellis leaves, there's going to need to be a solid player waiting, and that man could be in this draft.
Will They Get Younger in the Secondary?
There are a lot of big-name cornerbacks on the Bengals' roster right now—Leon Hall, Terence Newman, Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones. Three of those, however, are probably facing the fact that their best years are behind them, while Dre Kirkpatrick is still a question mark.
A backup question for this slide could be, "How much confidence do they have in Dre Kirkpatrick?" It's just too hard of a question to answer at this point given the small sample size.
Cincinnati must draft at least one cornerback. The Bengals would be better served with two, as this class of cornerbacks is rather impressive, but to get at least one is prudent. Newman and Jones can't keep up as well anymore, Hall is now more injury-prone than most of the team and I've already discussed the idea behind Kirkpatrick.
Kyle Fuller and Jason Verrett would make for solid first-round picks, while Marcus Roberson could be a legitimate later round selection. The Bengals will have a lot of questions to answer if they do not choose to scoop up a cornerback at some point during the three-day draft.
How Confident Are They in Andy Dalton?
The question surrounding Cincinnati right now generally circulates around the quarterback, Andy Dalton. After three solid regular seasons in the NFL, Dalton has routinely performed poorly in the postseason.
Dalton and the Bengals really haven't released any news that they're close to a deal, so the assumption as the season comes closer will be that the team will base its decision on his performance this year.
Which brings me to this week—there's no one behind Andy Dalton right now who can take his job. Jason Campbell is there to serve as a veteran presence, but barring some incredible outburst at a time when Dalton gets hurt, he won't be the guy.
This draft is not particularly talented in terms of quarterbacks, but there is a huge load to choose from. The current thought, particularly from Matt Miller of Bleacher Report, is that the Bengals will choose Aaron Murray in the third round. Zach Mettenberger, Jimmy Garoppolo and the rising Tom Savage may also be options at that point.
By not drafting a young quarterback, it could be a sign that they're planning to stick with Dalton for the future. That's not a guarantee, but it would certainly give that idea. Along that same token, drafting a quarterback would likely let Dalton know that his clock is ticking.
It will be interesting to see how the Bengals react. With Teddy Bridgewater's meteoric fall from grace after his disastrous pro day, it's not unthinkable that he'll fall all the way to pick 24. Will Cincinnati take him in that situation?