With the draft less than three weeks away, the Bengals can take pride in a very successful off-season to date.
Consider that the team has seen no free agent starters sign elsewhere during the free agency period so far. Their starting defense that finished fourth overall in 2009 returns completely intact. DT Tank Johnson and S Roy Williams were re-signed.
They’ve added WRs Antonio Bryant and Matt Jones to try to revitalize the passing game, and they picked up two high draft picks (3rd and 4th round) through the league’s compensatory formula.
They will get to kick off the NFL pre-season close to home in the Hall of Fame Game, one of five preseason tilts for the team, and one of two that will be nationally televised. They’ll likely garner at least one prime time game during the regular season, and are looking generally healthy heading into OTA’s.
Not bad for a defending division champion.
As the draft approaches, there are a few things the team can still do to solidify the roster, settle the franchise, and open up their possibilities in the draft. Here are three critical moves the team should make in advance of the draft on April 21st:
Sign an Offensive Guard
The team is clearly leaning towards bringing Bobbie Williams back, but after weeks of reports that the two sides were close, there is still no deal. Williams has been an absolute rock for the offensive line, and the deal makes sense for both sides. Williams knows the playbook, has a good rapport with the players and coaches, and is a little old to be starting anew someplace else. Look for a deal done before the draft. If Williams won’t sign, the team has entertained Texans OG Chester Pitts, who’s on record as saying he’d “love” to play for the Bengals. The team also has secondary options on the roster, with two part-time starters in Evan Mathis and Nate Livings that could both go full time. Another option could be mammoth former defensive tackle Jason Shirley. Shirley is still raw, but at 6-5 and 338, he has the potential to be a bulldozer in the running game and had some impressive plays in the preseason last year. The team could also consider sliding back-up tackle Anthony Collins to guard.
Barring all of the above, the team will need to draft a guard fairly high. Mike Iupati from Idaho could intrigue the team if he’s there at 21.
Sign a Tight End
There’s no secret that the team is considering bringing back long-time starter Reggie Kelly, who had a devastating, season-ending injury at the beginning of camp last year. Carson Palmer loves him, and he brings the kind of team-first attitude and professionalism Marvin Lewis craves in his players. He is also regarded as one of the best blocking TE’s in the league, which is more important to Bob Bratkowski’s offense than pass catching ability. On the flip side, Kelly is on the wrong side of 30, is coming off the aforementioned injury, and in truth his hands are no better than last year’s starters J.P. Foschi and Dan Coats.
There is hope that last year’s third round pick Chase Coffman will be fully healed and ready to contribute in 2010. Assuming this is the case, a combination of a healthy Kelly and Coffman would give the team both the blocker and the receiver, and allow them additional flexibility on when (or if) they go for a TE in the draft.
Many draft prognosticators have linked TE’s Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma), and Rob Gronkowski (Arizona) with the Bengals at 21. My gut feeling is the team won’t want to go TE in round one, especially considering both of these top guys, like the ones discussed above, are coming off injuries that sidelined them for all of 2009.
Sign Marvin Lewis
Outwardly, Coach Lew is unconcerned about his lame-duck contract status. Like the conversations regarding Bobbie Williams, Mike Zimmer, and others, Lewis has portrayed a quiet confidence that a deal will get done, but has also provided some elusive commentary relative to matters of control of the roster and the types of players the team brings in. Whether this indicates a rift with Bengals President Mike Brown or just typical Lewis vagueness is yet to be seen.
Signing Marvin Lewis to a multi-year deal before the draft allows the players and assistant coaches to get a sense of security about the future, and allows the coach himself to draft for what is best for the future of the team, not to fill immediate needs or gamble on all-or-nothing prospects to win in a make-it-or-break-it season.
The Bengals are coming off a division championship and a sweep of the AFC North in 2009. They return almost the entire roster and have 9 picks in the draft, including 4 of the first 100. Pittsburgh is dealing with off-field distractions and is coming off a down season. Cleveland has again decided to break it up and start over. Baltimore must fix an aging defense.
The team has a window of opportunity that they must seize. Making these three moves ahead of the draft will allow them to further their objectives, maintain stability, and continue to stay ahead of their divisional opponents.
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