Cincinnati Bengals: Rey Maualuga and 5 Bengals Ready for a Breakout Season
After a 2009 season in which the Cincinnati Bengals swept the AFC North and clinched a playoff berth, the team struggled mightily last season despite lofty expectations.
Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco lobbied for the team to sign veteran wide receiver Terrell Owens. Though T.O. posted impressive numbers, the experiment did not translate into overall success for the Bengals offense.
The team's defense, which finished top-five in the league in 2009, was plagued with injuries and inconsistent play. Such an integral part of the Bengals' 2009 playoff run, the 2010 version of this defense lacked the intensity and discipline which allowed it to be so successful a year before.
Searching for a spark on both sides of the ball, the Bengals awarded regular playing time to several youngsters who, previously, were merely role players.
With the Bengals seemingly willing to move on from several key veterans next season, these young, budding talents will dictate the overall success of the team for years to come.
Let's take a look at third-year linebacker Rey Maualuga and five other young Bengals who are on the verge of a breakout season in 2011.
LB Rey Maualuga
The Cincinnati Bengals found great value in the second round of the 2009 draft when they selected Rey Maualuga out of USC.
Maualuga, at the time, was widely considered the most talented of a trio of stellar USC linebackers: The other two being Brian Cushing, current Houston Texan and winner of the 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year award, and Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers, who has quickly become one of the most feared defensive players in the league.
Character concerns dropped Maualuga to the second round where the Bengals thought he was just too good to pass up. While his raw ability, strength and athleticism earned him a starting role on the Bengals defense, success has been much more slow to find him than it has his former USC teammates.
Perhaps that is because during his first two years in a Bengals uniform, Maualuga has been playing away from his natural position of middle linebacker. When the Bengals brought Maualuga on board, the team already had seasoned veteran Dhani Jones manning the middle of the field.
Jones is set to become a free-agent and although he has led the team in tackles for three straight seasons, he is by no means the raw athlete with incredible upside that Maualuga is. However, he does an outstanding job of operating as a vessel for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer on the field, communicating with other players and making sure everyone is where they are supposed to be.
Following a DUI arrest in January 2010, Zimmer may have his doubts as to whether Maualuga was mature enough to handle such duties, which is probably why he hasn’t made the move from SAM linebacker to middle linebacker yet.
However, Zimmer now appears to be comfortable handing Maualuga the reigns to his defense. In April's draft, the Bengals selected speedy linebacker Dontay Moch out of Nevada in the third round and hope to groom him to become the team's SAM linebacker of the future. With this move, Maualuga's transition to the middle appears to be imminent.
Zimmer also flirted with placing defensive end Michael Johnson at SAM linebacker last year, which worked out quite well until injuries in the trenches forced him to move back to the defensive line.
Regardless, the Bengals should place Maualuga in the middle and see what they have there. Middle linebacker is Maualuga’s natural position, and that’s where he wants to play. Allowing Maualuga the freedom and roaming ability that comes along with the middle linebacker position fits his skill set perfectly, and will pay dividends for the team's defense once they make the move.
TE Jermaine Gresham
In all fairness, one couldn't expect greatness from Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham straight out of the gates during his rookie year.
Gresham spent his final year at Oklahoma on the sidelines with a broken leg, so it was inevitably going to take him some time to get back into the swing of things and adjust to the pro level.
Nonetheless, Gresham racked up 471 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie campaign. Not too shabby, but nowhere near indicative of Gresham's talent.
Gresham is a rare talent at the tight end position and possesses all of the physical tools to become a centerpiece of new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's West Coast offense next season, which will feature rookies starting at quarterback and wide receiver.
Look for rookie signal-caller Andy Dalton to find Gresham in a number of different ways early and often in his career- making this rare breed of tight end much more than a mere check-down or red-zone option.
DE Carlos Dunlap
Desperate for an additional playmaker in their secondary, the Bengals tried everything they could to move to the top of the second round in the 2010 NFL Draft to select USC safety Taylor Mays.
It's a good thing they didn't, because things played out nicely for them when Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap fell into Cincinnati's lap in the second round instead.
Dunlap struggled to get on the field early for the Bengals last season, but once starting defensive end Antwan Odom hit injured reserve and Dunlap began earning regular playing time, he proved to be virtually unblockable and wreaked havoc in the backfields of opposing offenses.
Playing in only 12 games, Dunlap registered 9.5 sacks, just a half-a-sack behind rookie-leader Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions.
Cincinnati may have hit a home run with this monster of a defensive presence. Expect even more from Dunlap next season when he will earn regular playing time and, in all likelihood, a starting position.
WR Jerome Simpson
With former six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Ochocinco expected to be released once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, the Bengals will look to one of their young, promising receivers to start along side first-round pick A.J. Green.
The early favorite seems to former second-round pick Jerome Simpson.
It took nearly for three years for Simpson to cash in on his potential for which the Bengals drafted him in 2008. However, his final two performances of 2010 have the Bengals licking their chops wondering what they can expect from him in 2011 and beyond.
Once Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens were sidelined with season-ending injuries, Simpson and fellow third-year receiver Andre Caldwell assumed starting positions. Simpson came out of nowhere with two touchdown catches against San Diego's top-ranked passing defense in Week 16. A week later in Week 17, he grabbed 12 passes and racked up 123 yards against the Baltimore Ravens, which was no small feat either.
It turns out the Bengals may have had a gem roaming their sidelines for quite some time now. Pair Simpson opposite stud rookie receiver A.J. Green next year, and he should expand upon the monster numbers he posted toward the end of the season last year.
CB Adam Jones
Last year, cornerback Adam Jones showed flashes of why he was selected sixth overall in 2005 by the Tennessee Titans.
The Artist Formerly Known as Pacman displayed a rare combination of speed and skills that made him one of the top slot corners in the league to complement former first-round picks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall.
Unfortunately, Jones' productive season was cut short when he was placed on injured reserve with a herniated disc following a loss to the Atlanta Falcons in October.
Jones is now in the final year of a two-year deal and the Bengals appear to be prepared to insert him as a Day One starter should the team lose Joseph via free agency.
Jones has spent the offseason getting back into peak shape and if he can manage to stay healthy, could become one of the cornerstones of Cincinnati's defense next season alongside Hall.
WR Jordan Shipley
Shipley proved to be dangerous and dependable in the slot, hauling in 52 passes during his rookie campaign.
Shipley's numbers will only continue to increase with more playing time, especially if opposing defenses focus most of their attention on other receivers such as fourth-overall pick A.J. Green, Jerome Simpson or tight end Jermaine Gresham.
Look for new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to draw up plenty of different ways for rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to get the ball in this playmaker's reliable hands in 2011.
RB Bernard Scott: A poor man's Chris Johnson, Scott is an excellent change-of-pace back, but doesn't possess the durability to carry the load by himself. If the Bengals lose starter Cedric Benson, however, Scott may be forced to pick up an extended role in this offense. Scott has great home-run potential, so even if the Bengals retain Benson, they should explore different ways to get this speedster the ball.
DE/LB Michael Johnson: Johnson played great opposite defensive end Carlos Dunlap toward the end of the season last year. He's tall, long and just as effective batting down passes at the line of scrimmage as he is rushing the passer. The Bengals also like Johnson's versatility. When Johnson doesn't have his hand in the dirt on passing downs, they love to experiment with him at outside linebacker.
DT Geno Atkins: Though he's considered undersized for his position, last year's fourth round selection has a knack for getting after the quarterback. Look for him to earn more playing time alongside DT Domata Peko next season and terrorize backfields on passing downs.