Bengals: What to do this offseason, Part II

Now let’s take a look at what the Cincinnati Bengals should do on defense and special teams this offseason, beginning with the defense.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Bengals are in good shape here with a young and extremely-talented unit. Rookie second-round pick Carlos Dunlap from Florida is a candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and leads the Bengals with 8 sacks. The team’s rookie record is 8.5 (Justin Smith in 2001) and it will be interesting to see if Dunlap can surpass that in the season finale at Baltimore this Sunday.

But by far the more-interesting thing if you’re a Bengal fan is to think about this young man’s future in the league. At 6-foot-6, 277-pounds, he’s a big defensive end, yet one that has proved right away that he can get to the quarterback. And remember, this guy was a big-time playmaker in college as well, and if not for a DUI arrest his junior season (final year in college) he would have been a first-round pick, no questions asked. So, did the Bengals get a steal here? Yes, a hell of one. If he stays healthy, he will lock down one of the defensive end positions for the foreseeable future and has all the makings of a future star.

The other starting DE in 2011 will be Michael Johnson (6-7, 268) and he’s more of a speed-rusher off the edge. Johnson was a third-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2009 and is coming into his own this season. He and Dunlap could be a nice pair of bookends for years.

At defensive tackle, Domata Peko (6-3, 320) is a solid player and he’s locked up under contract for the next four years. He’s a good anchor inside and plays the run well, which might allow the Bengals to use 2010 fourth-round pick Geno Atkins more next season. Atkins is undersized for a DT at 6-1, 293, but he’s an outstanding pass-rusher for an interior player. He and Peko could develop into a good tandem. And the Bengals still have Tank Johnson and Pat Sims under contract as well. Chances are Johnson will be the starter next year if he returns healthy as expected, but Atkins will push him for playing time.

So, as for what to do this offseason on the D-line … it’s simply not an area of need for the Bengals. They would be better served to address their actual needs (like O-line and safety) in the early part of the draft and in free agency. Then again, when discussing the draft, I’m always a “best player available” guy. So, if there happens to be a can’t miss defensive lineman out there, you take him. But there doesn’t appear to be such a player in the draft this year, so don’t look for any early D-line draft picks from the Bengals.

LINEBACKER

First things first, it’s time to let Dhani Jones go and move Rey Maualuga to his natural position of middle linebacker. That’s a no-brainer and hopefully it finally happens this offseason. Jones is slow and there’s a reason he was released by two good organizations like the Eagles and Giants earlier in his career. Plus, Maualuga – the team’s 2009 second-round pick – is a budding playmaker and needs to be in the middle where he belongs. He can be a wrecking ball in there and create serious havoc.

Looking at the weak-side linebacker spot, I’m not a big Keith Rivers fan, but the 2008 first-round draft pick is a sure-fire starter again next season. It’s not as if he’s terrible, so the team won’t give up on him yet. But he doesn’t do anything especially well and isn’t as physical as you’d like from an NFL linebacker.

On the other hand, I like Rivers’ backup, Brandon Johnson, quite a bit. Hopefully the team finds a way to bring him back. He’s a good all-around player with above-average athletic ability and plays with a mean streak.

With Maualuga moving to the middle (hopefully) that leaves a spot open at the strong-side linebacker position. Could this be an area the Bengals address somewhat early in the draft? (With a second/third round pick?) It wouldn’t surprise me. I’d also like to see them take a hard look at the free agent SAM linebackers available this offseason. Something definitely needs to be done there.

SECONDARY

I think the team has to re-sign cornerback Johnathan Joseph who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season. It won’t be cheap (in fact, it will be extremely expensive) but he’s one of the best all-around corners in the NFL when healthy. And I’m not ready to write him off as undurable just because two out of five seasons he’s battled some injuries. That happens in football. It would be foolish to allow a Pro Bowl-level corner leave when players of his ilk are so hard to find. The Bengals will be set for years with Joseph and Leon Hall if they play their cards right. Mike Brown has plenty of money; pony it up for J-Jo. Then you don’t have to mess with trying to find corners in the draft or in free agency for a long time.

At safety, what a cluster eff the Bengals have on their hands. They have a bunch of average-at-best guys and nothing more. They also have a lot of questions: Will they bring Roy Williams back? Will they re-sign Chinedum Ndukwe who is scheduled to be a free agent? Will they keep Chris Crocker around?

There is also Reggie Nelson, a 2007 first-round pick by the Jaguars who the Bengals traded for this year in exchange for cornerback David Jones. He does have some intriguing talent, but it remains to be seen if he’s anything more than a serviceable backup at safety and special teams contributor.

The Bengals certainly need to add a safety in the draft and perhaps in free agency. I would love to see a good safety fall in their lap in let’s say the third round of the draft.

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR

The good news for the Bengals’ D is that Mike Zimmer is under contract next year and will be back with his aggressive, attacking style. Whether Marvin Lewis returns as head coach (which, amazingly, is suddenly looking like a possibility if you believe some of the reports out there) or the front office decides to go in a different direction, Zimmer will be running the 2011 Bengals’ defense. And that makes this fan/blogger happy. He’s simply one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL, as he proved against Philip Rivers and the Chargers last week. (Much to the detriment of my fantasy team, which would have won my league if Rivers had anywhere near the type of game he’s accustomed to having this year. Instead, Zim’s crew shut him down, sans a garbage-time touchdown.)

SPECIAL TEAMS

I think Mike Nugent will retain his job as the team’s kicker once healthy. It’s no sure thing, but that’s what I’m betting for now. He gets good distance on his kickoffs, he has good range on his field goals and he’s generally accurate.

Punter is set with 2009 fifth-round pick Kevin Huber, who isn’t great, but is a solid player at his position in the NFL. Hopefully Huber will just continue to make small strides and he will have a long career in this league.

As for the return games, I somewhat like Bernard Scott as the kickoff returner, but I wouldn’t mind it if the Bengals found a guy late in the draft that could come in and compete at punt returner and kickoff returner. Someone who truly specializes in that craft.

Speaking of punt returner, I was a big Quan Cosby fan last year, but he hasn’t been quite as good this year. It will be interesting to see what the team decided to do there. But don’t forget Mike Brown has a history of going cheap on special teams. For example, he would never go out and sign a top kickoff/punt returner as a free agent. So, the best chance the Bengals have of finding one is through the draft.

Maybe a second WR after they take A.J. Green with their top overall pick? Whoops, this was supposed to be about defense and special teams, and there I go beating the Green drum again.

But if you think it’s time to get rid of Chad Ochocinco (and it is) and you already know the team isn’t re-signing Terrell Owens (they aren’t) they need another deep threat to go along with Jerome Simpson. Green might be the best player available when the Bengals draft.

Just sayin’.

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