After finishing a meager 20th in overall offense in 2011, the Bengals have made a number of changes to their personnel in order to better implement Jay Gruden’s version of the West Coast Offense. There will be at least four new starters from last year, as well as new regular role players. And at every change made, I see an upgrade.
Travelle Wharton > Nate Livings
Despite Paul Alexander’s many protests that Livings had the makings of another Mike Goff, we fans knew what we saw: a phenomenal lack of push at the spot that could very easily (and justifiably) been Evan Mathis’ home. But when the Cowboys signed away Paul’s adopted son (bless you, Jerry Jones… words I never thought I’d say), the Bengals brought in a tough run-blocker in Wharton. Being able to call runs in the “1” and “3” gaps again will open up large segments of the running playbook.
Kevin Zeitler > Mike McGlynn
After deciding not to re-sign the tough veteran in Bobbie Williams, the Bengals had to do something to strengthen the other guard position. They did so by drafting Zeitler, whom I’ve read more than once referred to as “the next great lineman from Wisconsin.” Significant improvement upon McGlynn’s astoundingly bad rating of -9.1 by ProFootballFocus.com is certainly attainable for the new anchor at right guard.
BJGE > Cedric Benson
Ced did some great things early on in his time with the Bengals, but his production was declining each year as his fumbles grew. And his displeasure with sharing the load was neither secret nor appreciated.
We have read many references to how BJGE’s 3.7 yds/carry in 2011 (and 4.0 yds/carry for his career) are no improvement over Benson. But the comparisons are not true apples-to-apples. In NE, BJGE had no support personnel, just the threat of Brady’s arm to keep defenses on their heels. In Cincinnati, he will have a thumping FB in Chris Pressley as well as tight ends who actually do some blocking. These tools, which Benson had and BJGE didn’t, will make BJGE a better RB in 2012.
Orson Charles > Colin Cochart
I really don’t mean that as a slam of Cochart. I respect a kid who could make the jump from tiny North Dakota State and make an NFL roster. But unless he can beat out Donald Lee in camp, Cochart will spend 2012 on the practice squad or on another team.
Charles brings an innate sense for finding the soft spot in the middle of the defense and the hands to make many of the catches (although like most rookies, he needs to improve at that). Charles dropped at least a full round because of a DUI charge shortly before the draft, even though he had no character issues prior to that incident. But it is easy to view a guy with third round potential as an improvement over a CFA.
[New #2 WR] > Jerome Simpson
Simpson really did not have a terrible year overall in 2011, collecting 725 yds rec. But the problem was that he was so inconsistent. He got over half of those yards in just three games. Three! Because of his propensity to disappear, he could not protect A.J. Green and pull coverage away from him. As unproven as the next guy will be, it is hard to picture him repeating Simpson’s frequent futility, having five games under 30 yds and nine games under 45 yds. Ugh!
Bonus: Slot Receiver
As quickly as we became attached to Andrew Hawkins, we forget that he only had 263 yds receiving in 13 games played. I’m still a fan of “Baby Hawk” like most, but he faces some stiff competition. Shipley continues to on track to return from his knee injury. Sanu has a solid reputation of catching and blocking across the middle. And Ryan Whalen has a year in Gruden’s system like Hawkins. Whoever wants to wins the slot spot must have better results in the middle.
With these improvements, the Bengals addressed every need that they had on offense. Now it is up to new guys to go out and prove what they can do. If these new players all live up to their top potential, the Bengals’ offense will break into the top 10 in 2012; if they all disappoint, they will be roughly equivalent to 2011. But in going with the odds that they fall somewhere in-between, I see a squad that falls just outside the top 10 but, combined with another potent Mike Zimmer defense, is strong enough to win a lot of games this year.