Cincinnati Bengals: 5 Bold Predictions for the 2011 NFL Season
Heading into the 2011 with a new offensive philosophy and without several longtime veterans who have been mainstays in the Cincinnati for years, this is sure to be a new-look Bengals team.
Led on offense by two rookies in quarterback Andy Dalton and A.J. Green and handful of youngsters on defense, this Bengals squad is unlike any other for a better part of the decade.
Considering the youth movement overtaking the Queen City, let's take a look inside the crystal ball.
Here are my five bold predictions for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2011 season.
At Least Four Rookies Start on Opening Day
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All signs currently point to fourth overall pick A.J. Green becoming the Bengals' number one receiver and second-round choice Andy Dalton becoming the first Bengals opening day rookie quarterback since 1969.
With longtime Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco likely to be released, Terrell Owens going elsewhere via free agency and Carson Palmer at a stalemate with Bengals management, Green and Dalton earning starting positions comes as no big surprise.
However, I expect at least two other Bengals to emerge on the team's opening day starting lineup.
Offensive lineman Clint Boling out of Georgia and former West Virginia safety Robert Sands are my early favorites.
The Bengals have had nothing short of a revolving door at left guard for quite some time now, with Evan Mathis and Nate Livings both seeing time at the position. I expect Boling to beat both of the veterans out at the spot once preseason workouts begin.
Moreover, safety is a position the Bengals have desperately needed to address for quite some time.
Injuries have completely decimated this group for years, and the Bengals finally placed a long-term investment into the position. At 6'5" and 217 pounds, Sands will be an intimidating force roaming the backfield for the Bengals.
Roy Williams is past his prime, injury-prone and is a liability in pass coverage. Chris Crocker provided a spark for the team when they picked him up off the street in 2008, but is also fragile. Chinedum Ndukwe was a good find in the seventh round of the 2007 draft and is a regular contributor on special teams, but notoriously gives up big plays. Owner Mike Brown also praised the team's move of sending cornerback David Jones to Jacksonville Jaguars for former first-rounder Reggie Nelson last off-season, but Nelson is a suspect tackler.
Expect Sands to become one of the two best safeties in this group once preseason workouts get underway and ultimately crack the day one starting lineup.
As far as a dark horse goes, third-round linebacker Dontay Moch out of Nevada could be inserted at SAM linebacker. If Rey Maualuga makes the move to middle linebacker, which seems imminent, and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer places linebacker-defensive end hybrid Michael Johnson on the defensive line, I wouldn't be surprised to see the speedy linebacker earn significant time on the field.
Bengals Going Bowling
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The Bengals have struggled with drafting Pro Bowl-caliber players over the last decade.
Despite strong draft classes in recent years, the Bengals have not drafted a player who has been selected to the Pro Bowl since Carson Palmer, drafted in 2003.
Furthermore, the Bengals have never had a draft pick elected to the Pro Bowl on Defense. They have had one player drafted on defense reach the Pro Bowl, but it was Tremain Mack selected as a kick returner.
Check out these Pro Bowl AFC North statistics, courtesy of WhoDeyRevolution.com:
2 = Number Of Playoff Appearances By The Bengals Since 1991.
7 = Number Of Playoff Appearances By Browns/Ravens Since 1991.
13 = Number Of Playoff Appearances By Steelers Since 1991.
8 = Number Of Pro Bowl Players Drafted By The Bengals Under Mike Brown.
15 = Number Of Pro Bowl Players Drafted By The Browns/Ravens Since 1991.
16 = Number Of Pro Bowl Players Drafted By Steelers Since 1991.
14 = Number Of Pro Bowl Players Drafted By Ravens, Franchise Started In 1996.
However, this trend should come to an end.
One could make a strong argument that left tackle Andrew Whitworth and cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph have been snubbed in Pro Bowl voting in recent years.
Hall and Joseph each had strong 2009 campaigns with six interceptions each, but both failed to reach the Pro Bowl.
Despite blanking AFC North sackers such as James Harrison, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata in the past two seasons, Whitworth was overlooked for the 2010 Pro Bowl, probably in large part because of the team's porous record.
I expect a Bengal or two to finally break through and make the trip to Hawaii this season. Along with Whitworth, Hall and Joseph, Bengals to be on the lookout for are second year players tight end Jermaine Gresham and left end Carlos Dunlap.
Andy Dalton Throws for 3,500 Yards, 20+ TDs
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I'm sure I will catch a lot of flack for insinuating that quarterback Andy Dalton will post Sam Bradford-like numbers in his rookie campaign, but let me explain.
First, Dalton has weapons that Bradford could only dream of when he joined the St. Louis Rams last year.
Alongside top-pick A.J. Green, Dalton will get to work with three young, up-and-coming receivers—Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley—and a great second-year tight end with a ton of upside in Jermaine Gresham.
Should the Bengals re-sign pending free agent Cedric Benson, he and speedster Bernard Scott will provide Dalton with a respectable running game to keep defenses in check.
Green, Simpson, Shipley and Gresham are all great red-zone threats that will provide a number of scoring opportunities for Dalton.
Secondly, because of the youth and inexperience of the team, the Bengals will likely be playing from behind and/or in several close games this season.
Without the luxury of pounding the ball to protect a lead, I predict the Bengals will be forced to air it out in multiple games. It won't be pretty, and it probably won't result in playoff berth as it did for Bradford and the Rams, but Dalton will certainly have his opportunities to rack up a ton of yards next season.
Fortunately for him, he will have weapons at his disposal to do so.
Bengals Defense Returns to Elite Form
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Mike Zimmer's unit cracked the top-five in the league in total defense in 2009, but suffered a setback in 2010 due to multiple reasons.
Considering many factors, I expect to see the Bengals defense return to elite form if the team's offense can do it's part to keep it off the field for an adequate amount of time.
This squad began to find its way late in the season last year with the emergence of several key youngsters, including defensive ends Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins.
In fact, the stellar play of the trio has many pondering if the Bengals would be better suited to let this youth movement take over and cut ties with oft-injured veterans such as Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers.
Also, take into consideration Rey Maualuga's move back his natural position of middle linebacker and several key players in the secondary returning from injury, such as cornerback Adam Jones, and this unit should provide a strong core for many years to come.
Young Receiving Corps Shines Sans Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens
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Once Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens were sidelined with season-ending injuries, Jerome Simpson and fellow third-year receiver Andre Caldwell assumed starting positions in 2010.
Simpson came out of nowhere with 124 yards and 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.
Andre Caldwell also emerged in the absence of Ochocinco and Owens, racking up no fewer than 87 receiving yards in the team's final three games.
Second-year receiver Jordan Shipley—crafty and sure-handed—will provide a reliable option in the slot.
Now enter first-round pick A.J. Green, a rare breed of receiver who possesses the ideal length, speed, refined route-running skills, sure hands and plenty of big-play ability to become a perennial Pro Bowler and one of the league's top players at the position.
Best of all, this group is oozing with youth, which will allow rookie signal-caller Andy Dalton to build a rapport with this unit.