With the flurry of NFL offseason action nearly in the books, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take stock of every team’s offseason. Find all our Offseason Report Cards here.
The Cincinnati Bengals' front office operates almost more like an NCAA team than an NFL organization. When a player's time is up in Cincinnati, there are no tears shed, no bemoaning the franchise's frugal financial plan. Rather, the Bengals "recruit" a replacement via the draft and move on with their business.
"We’ve continued to cultivate the nucleus of the team by coaching them, drafting them, re-signing them, allowing them to mature here," head coach Marvin Lewis said after signing a contract extension in March, one that will carry him through the 2015 season. "The leadership of the team stays pretty much intact."
Cincinnati sat idly by this offseason as DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins and CB Brandon Ghee (among others) departed via free agency. Promising young WR Andrew Hawkins, a restricted free agent, then did the same by inking an offer sheet with the Browns; Cincinnati declined to match and let him walk.
Amid a quick-moving, free-spending NFL market, the Bengals are one of the outliers.
According to the NFL Players Association website, Cincinnati still holds more than $24 million in cap space for the upcoming season, including approximately $8.7 million in carryover cash unspent in 2013. Rather than reach to use that money -- or retain the likes of Johnson and Collins -- the Bengals are focusing their attention on the upcoming extensions needed for WR A.J. Green and LB Vontaze Burfict. A separate, very interesting discussion lingers regarding QB Andy Dalton's future with the team.
In many ways, the steadfast commitment to building internally is admirable, and it has produced playoff berths four of the past five seasons. It has not produced a postseason win, though, something that has eluded the Bengals since 1990. And it definitely did not help this team, 11-5 and the runaway winners of the AFC North last season, to improve itself much on paper for 2014.
The Bengals believe they are Super Bowl contenders. They also believe in their cautious approach.
Can those two coexist?
Best acquisition: Darqueze Dennard, CB.
Here at Audibles, we had Dennard ranked as the top cornerback in the 2014 class. He was the third CB taken, behind Justin Gilbert (No. 8 overall) and Kyle Fuller (No. 14).
The Bengals may have addressed that position in Round 1 regardless of Dennard's availability, but adding the feisty, aggressive Michigan State product to a secondary carrying several aging and/or banged-up parts may have been a best-case scenario. Dennard fits well into the style of defense Cincinnati employs, meaning he should have a chance to leapfrog the likes of Terence Newman and Adam Jones for playing time.
Dennard and 2012 first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick, plus 2007 first-rounder Leon Hall, who is en route back from an Achilles tear, will allow the Bengals to work their inside-out method of roster building at cornerback.
Biggest loss: Michael Johnson, DE.
Poll a bunch of NFL personnel and there likely would be at least a few votes here for Collins with the Bengals still shuffling their line without him. In Johnson, however, the Bengals lost arguably the most coveted pass rusher in free agency this offseason. That's in spite of a disappointing 3.5-sack output in 2013, off the heels of 2012's 11.5-sack effort.
The post-Johnson plan: hand Carlos Dunlap an even larger role, then allow second-year end Margus Hunt to battle with Wallace Gilberry on the other side of the line. Rookie Will Clarke (more on him momentarily) or veteran Robert Geathers also may be in the mix -- Geathers, the longest-serving Bengal entering his 11th year with the club, ended 2013 on injured reserve.
Regardless of what the decision winds up being, the Bengals will not know for sure that they can replace Johnson until the regular season begins.
Underrated draft pick: Will Clarke, DE.
The Bengals did not draft Clarke thinking he would be a Day 1 fill-in for Johnson off the edge. But he could provide a similar punch in a year or two, which recalls that Lewis line about Cincinnati giving its players time to mature in the system.
Dunlap has one DE spot on lockdown, leaving just that second starting job up for grabs. Hunt should be ahead of Clarke in the race for playing time. The eventual hope, true to Bengals form, will be the Hunt-Clarke duo proving proficient enough for Cincinnati to bid adieu to Gilberry (30 in December) and Geathers (31 in August).
Clarke is the prototype for what most teams target in Round 3: high-upside yet slightly unproven players. There is ample untapped talent in Clarke's repertoire, and the Bengals definitely will offer him time to develop.
Looming question for training camp: Will Jeremy Hill make BenJarvus Green-Ellis obsolete?
Cincinnati's decision to nab Hill in Round 2 -- despite having a backfield duo of Green-Ellis and 2013 second-rounder Gio Bernard -- was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. Given the aforementioned "in with the new, out with the old" concept surrounding this franchise, the natural question after that pick was if Green-Ellis' time was up. And ... well, it might be.
While the Bengals worked hard to limit Bernard's touches last season (170 carries and 56 receptions), he was without question the more electrifying backfield option. In fact, he finished just 61 yards back of Green-Ellis' rushing total of 756, despite 50 fewer carries. The 3.4 yards-per-carry average Green-Ellis posted was the lowest of his career, a plodding and underwhelming performance.