The Cincinnati Bengals enter the 2011-2012 NFL season ranked dead last in the ESPN Preseason Power Rankings. Having lost Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens and Antwan Odom, (among others) Cincinnati looks on paper to be a depleted roster set for failure in the regular season.
That said, you can never truly know what kind of team you have until you take to the field and compete. The Bengals will have their first chance to show what they've got tonight as they take on the Detroit Lions in a Week 1 preseason matchup.
Coaches, critics and fans alike will be taking a close look at Cincinnati throughout the entire preseason and here are three key things to keep an eye on...
Carson Palmer is a thing of the past in Cincinnati and it should be interesting to see who Marvin Lewis and his coaching staff elect to be his successor under center.
A recently released depth chart lists rookie Andy Dalton as the Bengals' number one, but second-stringer Bruce Gradkowski is a proven veteran who has much more experience playing under Jay Gruden and his West Coast offensive scheme.
Both quarterbacks will have a chance to plead their case for the starting spot, but more importantly they will both have a chance to get on-cue with Cincinnati's talented young receiving corps.
The Bengals are expected to be a run-heavy offense this season, but in order to run the ball effectively they will have to develop a respectable passing attack as well. Somebody has to step up as the leading man in Cincinnati and we should get an idea of who that somebody might be over the course of the preseason.
Rey Maualuga has been a solid contributor over his young career, but this year he will have his first chance to truly lead the Cincinnati defense.
With Dhani Jones no longer on the roster, Maualuga is making a move from outside linebacker to his more natural position of middle linebacker. He will undoubtedly be the core of the Bengals' defense this season and his play and on-field leadership will go a long way toward determining how successful they can be.
Cincinnati brought in two additional linebackers in Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson through free agency, and they could potentially have a seriously dangerous linebacking unit on their hands should everyone play up to their full potential.
For the past few years Cincinnati had been blessed with two of the league's most talented cornerbacks in Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph.
However, Joseph took his talents to Houston through free-agency this offseason and the Bengals were left scrambling to find a viable replacement.
Luckily, they were able to land former San Francisco star Nate Clements, but many are questioning whether Clements has enough left in the tank to fill the gaping hole that Joseph left in the Cincy secondary.
Only time will tell.
Keep a look out for Clements, Hall and the rest of the Bengal corners throughout the preseason as their play will be drastically important once the regular season rolls around.