Andy Dalton was a Pro Bowler as a rookie, but has he already hit his ceiling? (Getty Images)
With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
In SI.com's season preview last year, five of us predicted that the Bengals would have the league's worst record. Three of us predicted that Marvin Lewis would be the first coach fired.
A 6-2 start in Cincinnati made us look very foolish. And although the team sputtered down the stretch, going 3-6 the rest of the way (including a playoff loss to the Texans), things were looking up. After thinking the Carson Palmer era would end the team's long-lasting miseries, the arrival of a new QB-WR duo of the future -- Andy Dalton and A.J. Green -- and the purging of some negative influences signal another possible light at the end of the tunnel.
2011 Record: 9-7 (third place, AFC North); lost to Texans in Wild Card round
Key Additions: CB Terence Newman, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, G Travelle Wharton, CB Jason Allen, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, G Kevin Zeitler, WR Mohamed Sanu
Key Subtractions: WR Jerome Simpson, LB Keith Rivers, DE Frostee Rucker, DE Jonathan Fanene, G Nate Livings
Team Strengths: WR, CB, DT
Team Weaknesses: RB, DE
Three Things to Watch:
1. How will the Bengals' trio of offensive treasures follow up their big rookie years?: Part of the reason we at SI.com -- and a number of other prognosticators -- were so down on the Bengals last year was because there were new faces at integral spots on offense, all of whom had a distinct lack of experience. Rookie second-round QB Andy Dalton. Rookie first-round WR A.J. Green. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who had never been a coordinator at the NFL level. With the lockout wiping out all offseason activities, how could those three possibly get situated in just one training camp?
Of course, they did just fine. Dalton and Green were both in rookie of the year discussions, and for good reason, and Gruden was the mastermind behind the work they did. But can the three be even better this year?
All reports on Green from minicamps so far indicate that he's poised for a big, big season. Dalton, however, has been subject to reports that the Bengals have doubts about how good he can be, and whether his arm is strong enough. Obviously, a lot of the Bengals' success this year depends on them being wrong about Dalton.
2. Can this year's draft class contribute right away?: The Bengals added to the enthusiasm from their surprise season by having perhaps the league's best draft, getting a number of talented players at need positions with good value. Weaknesses in the secondary, defensive tackle and receiver were all addressed with multiple players, with offensive line, tight end and running back also getting some help. Now the question becomes: What can the Bengals get out their 10 picks this year?
Obviously, it would be a miracle if all 10 turned into valuable contributors at any point in their careers -- draft history says that's too much to ask. Still, a majority of these picks should turn into good players, and a few will do so right away. The best bet for immediate help comes from two receivers: third-rounder Mohamed Sanu and fifth-rounder Marvin Jones, two absolute steals. Second-round DT Devon Still and fifth-round S George Iloka can make a quick impact as well.
3. How will the secondary hold up?: As you can see in the key additions above, the Bengals made it a point to stock up at corner (they also added rookie Shaun Prater in the fifth round), which was desperately needed because they were in dire straits at that spot. The unit's only real player last year, Leon Hall, probably won't be ready by Week 1 after an Achilles' injury last November.
Free agent signee Terence Newman is not as good as he used to be, but he's a serviceable body, and the pairing of him and Nate Clements gives the Bengals at least a steady, veteran presence. Dre Kirkpatrick adds talent, but there are concerns about his character and true ability. One player to look for is Jason Allen. The former first-rounder never lived up to his draft status, but he's the type of talented nickel corner good teams need, and there's still the chance the light fully turns on for him. Adding Iloka as depth to the starting duo of Reggie Nelson and Taylor Mays was needed, too. But how quickly can the new bodies catch on, and will it be enough to hold up until Hall comes back? If there's one unit that could derail the Bengals' season, it's this one.
Outlook: The AFC North has long been owned by the Steelers and Ravens, but don't be shocked if the Bengals make a very serious run at the division this year. The Steelers are getting used to a new offense, and the transition thus far has been rocky to say the least. They're also getting older on defense. The same can be said for the Ravens -- with Ed Reed and Ray Lewis aging, and Terrell Suggs' injury, it's not a stretch to envision a slight dropoff from the perennially dominant unit.
Those two teams will still be talented, and should at least approach double-digit wins, so the Bengals aren't in for a cakewalk. Still, they have enough talent to be right there in the thick of the division race, and I wouldn't be shocked at all to see them win it. At the very least, the Bengals look like a lock (or as much of a lock as you can have in June) to be one of the AFC wild cards.
The future looked bright last year in Cincinnati. After the developments this offseason, it looks brighter.
-- By Tom Mantzouranis