April 21, 2014

Question Marks vs Weaknesses

The natural tendency for most people — analysts, fans and rivals alike — is to assume that any question mark about a team is by definition a weakness. If a player or position group is not considered a strength, then he/they must be a weakness, right?

Not necessarily. It is understandable to want to see guys “prove it” on the field before buying in, but having question marks about a spot does not automatically mean that it will be a liability.

The two frequently cited question marks for the Bengals are, of course, wide receiver and cornerback. Any national pundit is going to bring up these two areas when discussing the team. But while there are plenty of questions for these areas that will make for interesting camp battles, they are not the team’s weaknesses. In fact, they have a better than decent chance of being the stronger units in 2012.

Sound like crazy talk? Think about this…

Cornerback. After losing Leon Hall to an Achilles injury in November, the Bengals were left to face the daunting second half of the 2011 season with Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings as their starting CBs and a somewhat gimpy Adam Jones manning the nickel spot. Despite depending on this less-than-ideal combination for 7.5 games, the team still finished ranked 9th in passing defense, allowing only 211.6 yds/game through the air. (Only 4 teams — the Steelers, Browns, Texans and Ravens — allowed less than 200 yds/game passing.)

Now consider the changes. 1) Dre Kirkpatrick was taken with the 17th pick in the draft. Given Marvin’s history, he will not start for at least half of the season, but he will get reps along the way to bring him up to speed so that he can take over when he is ready. 2) Kelly Jennings is gone, replaced by Jason Allen and Terence Newman. Neither is an “A” list free agent, but either one is an upgrade over than Jennings. 3) Nate Clements, whom many are trying to write off the team because of age or salary, was the anchor at the position for the last two months. Even if he regressed a little from last year, he would still be very good. 4) Adam Jones may be healthy for the first time as a Bengal. 5) Leon Hall is still on schedule to return for camp. 6) Brandon Ghee seemed to finally have the light come on, garnering a fair amount of praise for his work in OTAs and minicamp.

Many fans are ready to write off Ghee, but don’t root against this kid. With Ghee finally playing up to the potential that the team saw two years ago, the team has seven strong candidates to fill no more than six spots. They can afford to have Jones come up lame again, or for Newman to not re-discover the mojo he had in Dallas when Zimmer was his DC, or for Hall to ease his way back onto the field. And they could have an extra guy who could be moved to help out with one of the teams true weaknesses: safety.

Wide Receiver. For people who want to see proof on the field, this group looks like a mess. All they see is one legit option (Green), one good but gimpy option (Shipley), a pair of nice stories (Hawkins and Whalen), one doubtful possibility (Tate), and a bunch of nobodies. On the surface, we can’t deny any of that. Only 5 of the 12 guys vying to play have any NFL game experience, and none have more than 17 games experience at the position.

But the surface doesn’t always show the whole picture. 1) Armon Binns has drawn praise from every NFL observer that has watched him in his time with the Bengals. And I mean high praise. They all love what they see. 2) Mohamed Sanu has also gotten his fair share of compliments for his steady hands and his nose for the soft spot in the middle. Filling in for Peter King, Eric LeGrand recently called Sanu “the steal of the 2012 draft.” [Full disclosure: LeGrand played with Sanu at Rutgers. So he may be a touch biased, but he also knows very well what the kid can do.] 3) Marvin Jones and Kashif Moore are both incredibly fast. One of them could bring back the verticality that the team has lacked since losing Chris Henry.

Both positions are question marks because we do not know who all will survive the cut and make up nearly 25% of the roster at these spots. But that does not mean at all that these spots are weaknesses. The team has enough talent to sift through at these positions that the final products should be strengths for the team once all of the cuts have been made.