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Top Free Agency Priority: Protect Dalton

As the Bengals prepare to enter the free agent market — albeit two days later than most other teams — the goal should be simple. Cincinnati needs to do all it can to protect quarterback Andy Dalton.

Dalton, the 2011 second-round pick threw for 3,398 yards and 20 touchdowns in a Pro Bowl campaign. Putting the pieces in place around Dalton to prevent a sophomore slump should be Priority No. 1 for the Bengals in the coming weeks.

Gone, or at least free to walk, are running back Cedric Benson, receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell and both of Dalton’s starting guards Nate Livings and Bobbie Williams.

While resigning any of the aforementioned players is an option, this is the time to dream about what could be. Here’s a glance at some interesting names the Bengals could pursue on the offensive side of the ball:

RUNNING BACK: The first names that come to mind are New England’s BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Oakland’s Michael Bush — both who have been scheduled to visit with the Bengals this week. Bush, who grew up in Louisville, Ky. and played for the Cardinals in college, is likely the top priority. A powerful runner and a serviceable receiver out of the backfield, Bush has amassed more than 3,500 yards in four seasons with the Raiders. He could be Cincinnati’s opening day starter in 2012 if, as both Mike Brown and Bob Barker like to say, “the price is right.”

Green-Ellis, a sure-handed back would be a lower-priced option but wouldn’t provide the same ability as a receiver (just 26 catches in four years) that is important in the west coast offense.

WIDE RECEIVER: The Bengals are young at receiver. Very young. So young, in fact, that their most established receiver is 2011 rookie A.J. Green, who has 65 catches. Jordan Shipley (56) has the second-most of anyone on the roster. Shipley, Andrew Hawkins, Ryan Whalen and Brandon Tate make up an interesting array of targets behind Green but the team is searching for a No. 2 to line up opposite its budding star.

Don’t look for a high-priced veteran addition after recent failures like Laveranues Coles and Antonio Bryant, though a Mario Manningham or a Brandon Lloyd would make things interesting. Assuming Cincinnati stays true to form and doesn’t chase one of those “name” players, I’d like to see someone like Early Doucet or Jerricho Cotchery — someone who can make tough catches over the middle and move the chains — come in to play that No. 2 spot.

OFFENSIVE LINE: This is the position that Cincinnati doesn’t just need to restock, but it must improve on in 2012. The interior line was a major weakness a year ago and the running game suffered as a result.

I look for one of the Bengals three picks in Rounds 1-2 to be an o-lineman, but they’ll also need to search for help in free agency. Former Eagle (and Bengal) Evan Mathis would be a quality signing and instantly improve the left side of Cincinnati’s line.

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