2011 NFL Predictions: 5 Cincinnati Bengals Poised for a Breakout Year
So another NFL preseason is in the books, and despite a multitude of bumps in the road, the 2011 Bengals are beginning to take shape.
With fan expectations considerably lower than they were last year, (the few remaining) Bengals fans will take pleasure in the growth of the young roster in 2011, as each and every member of the team strives to define their role in the next generation of Cincinnati Bengals.
With that in mind, there are a number of emergent players who have caught the eye this preseason and look to continue their gutsy play well into September and beyond.
Here are five players that will thrive in 2011.
Fifth-year player and former first-round pick Reggie Nelson is the first name on my list. Acquired in a trade from Jacksonville last year, Nelson has greatly increased his already-strong athletic ability and has seen a huge improvement in his physical presence since joining the Bengals.
Nelson tied the team high of two forced fumbles in 2010, and added two interceptions to his resume, one of which he returned for a Bengals season-long of 56 yards against the Ravens.
He had a rock solid training camp this year and is without a doubt the most improved player on the roster from last year.
What's impressed me most about Nelson is that he doesn't shy away from contact, despite not having the size of someone like Taylor Mays. More often than not, when you see a pileup of guys on the defensive line, Nelson is in the mix and I can't commend that enough.
He has been great at giving his all on every down and the hope is that the enthusiasm continues into the regular season, especially when the team's record isn't looking too pretty.
There's no doubt that Nelson will see a lot of work in 2011 with Andy Dalton leaning on the defense to rectify his mistakes, and it will provide him with the perfect opportunity to have a great year.
Picked up in the third round of the 2009 draft, Michael Johnson was referred to by Marvin Lewis as: "one of the best pass-rushers he has ever worked with," and he is finally beginning to show exactly that.
Arguably the standout player in the final preseason game against the Colts, Johnson was relentless in his pursuit of Kerry Collins, racking up a sack and a takeaway in the first quarter, exhibiting a strong pass-rushing ability.
The combination of Michael Johnson and backup left end Carlos Dunlap (assuming 2010 was no fluke) going forward is certainly something to look forward to.
Johnson spent most of 2010 in the front four due to injuries, and his move back to his natural position at right end is something I eagerly anticipate for the 2011 campaign.
He will be looking to build upon his 35 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2010, and if last night was any indication of just how hard Johnson can play on every down, he's going to have a great year and could well be the team's sack leader come season's end.
Now this one may cause disagreement, but here me out if you will.
Despite being selected one round after teammate and starter Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell has more game experience than any of the Bengals' starting receivers, with 87 career receptions to his name.
Despite having less upside than Jerome Simpson, Caldwell has proved a dependable and durable receiver in previous years, with solid performances both in camp and in the preseason this year. While many have celebrated the emergence of Jerome Simpson, Caldwell has been quietly working away and looking better every game.
New offense coordinator Jay Gruden "can't say enough good things about Caldwell," and there is a possibility that he could move above Jordan Shipley on the depth chart to play in the slot.
That might not be the best move for Caldwell, who is much stronger on the outside. He would best be utilised in a rotation with Jerome Simpson, who, despite winning well-deserved praise for his blocking ability, has struggled to get into a rhythm with Andy Dalton thus far.
Caldwell and Simpson have both shown an incredibly professional attitude and determination to be everything they can as receivers, improving with every game. Not only that, they have shown a sense of enthusiasm for each other's ability that undoubtedly comes from living in the shadow of a one Chad Ochocinco.
It's for this reason that I think these two receivers can grow and get better together, and feeding off of each other in a rotation could get more production out of the both of them.
The nod here goes to Caldwell, who, with more experience than Simpson, may well bring more receptions in 2011.
Back in 2009, Chris Pressley languished in the Bengals practice squad before ultimately being traded to Tampa Bay. Fast-forward a year and he's back again, this time finding himself in the starting lineup with a new offensive coordinator demanding a lot from him.
It's been a frustrating journey for Pressley, who has finally found himself in a position to make an impact in the backfield. Given the opportunity, Pressley has not wasted time in turning a few heads.
With new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden utilising more two-back sets than his predecessor, Pressley has seen a lot of action as the team's starting fullback.
Pressley started in the final three games of 2010, and his contribution both on the ball and off it allowed a Bengals running game that struggled in 2010 to rack up 380 yards, their best three-game rushing performance all year.
His ability to open up running lanes by throwing some devastating blocks really helped Brian Leonard on Thursday, and will be integral to Cedric Benson having a big year.
Bengals fans who became enamoured with Pressley during 2009's HBO Hard Knock's will be happy to see his return, with many believing him to have untapped potential.
It will be exciting to see how Jay Gruden utilises Pressley when the season begins.
In 2010 Jermaine Gresham tied with fellow Bengal Jordan Shipley for the most receptions by an AFC rookie, with 52. While his production was dwarfed by other tight ends in the league, you have to remember that Gresham had to endure Carson Palmer's "T.Ochocinco tunnel vision," that didn't often see the ball thrown in his direction.
With the West Coast offense coming to town, and both height and soft hands leaning in Gresham's favour, he could be a primary target for Andy Dalton, who has struggled on deep passes this preseason.
Gresham is certainly not devoid of talent, the first-round pick has bags of potential and Jay Gruden likes what he sees: "Jermaine and (the other tight ends) haven’t made a major splash yet, but I think they will by the time we get rolling Week 1...Jermaine is still learning but has all the talent in the world."
Gresham will be required to be versatile in the West Coast offense, and will have to be able to both block and make plays himself. Jermaine certainly has the versatility and this system should fit his skill set perfectly.
Expect Gresham to play a big role in short-yardage and goal-line situations, being targeted often and scoring some touchdowns. This will be especially so if the Bengals use a lot of two-TE sets to give Dalton more options as is common with rookie QBs.