Free Agency is about wrapped up and the Bengals did what most thought they would: They didn't spend big, but filled a number of holes on the team with a combination of solid veterans and young players who have yet to meet their potential.
Looking back at the last month of activity for the Bengals, you have to be relatively satisfied with the moves they made. By all indications they've upgraded at left guard with veteran Travelle Wharton, and likely upgraded at running back as well. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (3yrs) doesn't seem to quite have the same speed as Benson, but looks to have better vision and blocking ability. He's also highly productive in short-yardage situations, something the Bengals struggled with as a team in 2011. Further, coming from New England you know two things: he's got a high football IQ and he's been well-coached.
The Bengals also kept key veteran free agents in Reggie Nelson (4yrs), Pat Sims (1yr), Manny Lawson (1yr), Anthony Collins (2yrs) and Adam Jones (1yr). All 5 were either solid starters or valuable role players on the 2011 playoff team. Signing Collins to a 2yr deal allows the Bengals great flexibility on the Oline with Andre smith entering a contract year.
The biggest loss in free agency is certainly Jonathan Fanene who led all defensive ends in sacks and also was a valuable asset in stopping the run. It's further disappointing that the team let him go when the deal he signed in New England was more than reasonable for a player with Fanene's career production. Frostee Rucker was also lost, but was coming off of his only solid year of production and health. The Bengals were smart not to match the offer he received from the Browns.
Replacing them on the roster for the time being are DE Jamaal Anderson (2yrs) and DE Derrick Harvey (1yr). Both are very athletic first round picks who haven't lived up to being top 10 selections. Kind of sounds like Adam Jones, who has played well when healthy here in Cincinnati. Based on contract numbers, it would be a surprise if Anderson does not make the opening day roster as he has already received a $500K roster bonus. Versatile defensive back Jason Allen was also brought in to help shore up the secondary.
Other free agents signing elsewhere include: LG Nate Livings, OL Mike McGlynn, and WR Andre Caldwell. Neither are major blows to the Bengals. Other Bengals free agents still unsigned include RB Cedric Benson, WR Jerome Simpson, TE Donald Lee, TE Bo Scaife, OT Dennis Roland, OG Bobbie Williams, LB Brandon Johnson, CB Kelly Jennings, and S Gibril Wilson. Simpson is the only one who has been reported as visiting another team thus far. LB Dan Skuta and LS Clark Harris are restricted free agents with offers on the table who are expected to rejoin the club at some point.
With all of that out of the way, let's take a look at key spots on the team that still need to be filled ( in no order):
Right Guard: The team has publicly praised both Clint Boling and Otis Hudson, but both have very limited experience between them. Recently signed Jacob Bell brings that experience with 100 career starts over his 7yr career. All possibly could fill the starters role come opening day, but at the same time none of them will likely prevent the team from taking a highly regarded guard in the draft if they have the opportunity.
Cornerback: Corner isn't a pressing need for 2011 but is certainly a need long-term. The current depth chart includes Leon Hall, Nate Clements, Adam Jones and Jason Allen. All four are capable starters but the Bengals need to bring in youth to pair with them. Clements has one more year in him but is probably done after that. Jones is injury prone and on a one year deal. Allen is capable as well but no spring chicken. The biggest wild card may be the status of Leon Hall. If he starts the season on the PUP list the depth gets shakier, though not dire. Expect the Bengals to address corner early in the draft. They have also been flirting with 9yr veteran Terrance Newman who played under Mike Zimmer as a rookie.
#2 Wide Receiver: Jerome Simpson is currently unsigned and likely looking at a minimum four game suspension from the league for violating the personal conduct policy. Simpson had his ups and downs in 2011 as the #2 WR and was likely hurt by not having a full off-season to digest Gruden's offense. His biggest issue was consistency. Other options for the #2 spot on the team currently are Brandon Tate, Armon Binns, and Ryan Whalen. Jordan Shipley is probably the 2nd best WR on the team but is probably best suited for the slot and is also coming off of a major injury.Tate put up respectable numbers as the #3 WR in New England in 2010, but wasn't a factor at wide receiver for the Bengals in 2011 after being picked up on waivers only one week before the season started. The coaching staff chose to have him concentrate on special teams where he returned both punts and kicks. Armon Binns joined the team late and reportedly impressed coaches to the point that offensive coaches wanted to play him, but there wasn't a spot on the gameday roster for him. The third option is Ryan Whalen who had 4 catches in his rookie season last year. Whalen is smart and runs good routes, which may be all the team needs in a #2 WR. He draws comparisons to former Bengals WR Kevin Walter who is currently the #2 WR in Houston opposite Andre Johnson.
Running Back: With the signing of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a lot of pressure was taken off the Bengals to draft a running back early later this month. Still, it would behoove them to draft a running back at some point to add some youth to the position group. BJGE is a nice addition to the team (both as a player and leader) but is not an elite back. Brian Leonard and Bernard Scott are both capable backs, but both also are 28yrs old. Cedric Peerman is 25, but unproven. Likewise with RB Aaron Brown (26) who was brought in last month. Leonard and Peerman are likely safe due to the valuable roles they play, leaving Bernard Scott at the possible odd-man out. Brown has an uphill climb to make the team.
Defensive End: Like corner, the Bengals aren't in bad shape at defensive end for the 2011 season. Long-term however, the Bengals need to be looking for options. Carlos Dunlap and Jamaal Anderson are the only 2 defensive ends signed past 2012. Veteran Robert Geathers has been dependable yet unspectacular through his 8yr career. Michael Johnson is coming off a career year and first as a starter, but has still not reached the level fans hoped for him when he was first considered a 3rd round steal in 2009. Recently signed Derrick Harvey is the wild card. He could finally live up to his potential under Mike Zimmer, or not make it out of training camp. Don't be surprised to see the Bengals draft a DE/DT tweener to push Derrick Harvey for the 5th DE spot.
In the next article we'll tackle some viable options in the draft for filling these holes.