After spending Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine, I am prepared to describe four key players that the Bengals anticipate adding to the roster next season.
- A sideline-to-sideline tackling machine at linebacker with a high football I.Q. Plays with an attitude. Prone to excessive penalties. Possible concussion concerns.
- A fluid receiver with the ability to stretch the field. Makes tough catches in the red zone. Ideal complement to pair with A.J. Green.
- An elite pass-catching tight end. Stands 6’6” with long arms. Has size to beat defensive backs and speed to beat linebackers. Must continue to improve as a blocker.
- A road-grading right tackle with surprisingly nimble feet. Must keep an eye on weight.
Those players are Vontaze Burfict, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, and Andre Smith.
Don’t get me wrong, Cincinnati will undoubtedly add an immediate contributor or two (maybe more) in this year’s draft. The Bengals are on a run of six straight productive drafts as they’ve placed at least one player on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team in every season.
2014: Jeremy Hill
2013: Giovani Bernard
2012: Kevin Zeitler
2011: A.J. Green
2010: Carlos Dunlap, Clint Stitser (not a stellar group of rookie kickers apparently)
2009: Quan Cosby (as a punt returner)
But regardless of who the Bengals add in the draft, it’s hard to imagine that any of the rookies will have a bigger immediate impact than the return of Burfict, Jones, Eifert, and Smith – assuming that they’re healthy.
Burfict is recovering from the most serious injury after having microfracture surgery on his left knee. Marvin Lewis told reporters at the Combine that he expects the Pro Bowl linebacker to be back on the field this season.
“Vontaze is working his tail off in rehab and it’s an important offseason for the Cincinnati Bengals and Vontaze Burfict together,” Lewis said. “He’s one of our dynamic players and he’s a dynamic leader. We’re a better team with Vontaze on the field, so we hope to get him back full speed and healthy as quick as we can. It’s important. He knows the importance of it for us, for him, and for his career.”
Coach Lewis added that Jones and Eifert are on good recovery timetables as they return from ankle and elbow injuries respectively.
“(Jones) is fine, healthy, and he’s ready to go,” said Lewis. “He’s got a lot of prove. It’s an exciting time for us. He’s a young player with a lot of ability, a lot to prove, and a lot on the line. I like guys with a lot on the line.
“Tyler’s development, if you are familiar with him, was a little bit retarded this year because he was injured nine plays into the season. He’s doing well. It’s important that we get Tyler back and productive in his third season for us.”
Adding Jones and Eifert to an offensive that includes Green, Hill, Bernard, and Mohamed Sanu would give Andy Dalton as many offensive weapons to distribute the ball to as nearly any quarterback in the NFL.
Two years ago with minimal injuries among running backs and receivers, Dalton set franchise records for single season passing yards (4,293) and touchdown passes (33). However, he also threw a career-high 20 interceptions. His INT total dropped to 17 last year, but his rate per attempt slightly increased.
“We’ve got to get Andy to continue to take care of the football all of the time,” said Coach Lewis. “He doesn’t have to feel pressed. We know the next down is coming. The one area where we weren’t quite as good this year was protecting the football. We have got to do a better job of that. There were times where he became a little impatient and his patience has to continue to grow.
“To be a productive NFL quarterback, we want that interception number to be down. That’s the most important thing. There are going to be some interceptions that happen. There are going to be some balls that go off hands that are tipped, and so forth. But the ones that he is directly responsible for – we want to make sure that that number is almost non-existent.”
Over the last four seasons, the Bengals are 40-23-1 despite playing in one of the toughest divisions in football. That’s the sixth-best record in the NFL during that period behind New England, Green Bay, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle. Despite their playoff failures, the Bengals roster is good enough to contend.
But it’s hard to overcome a rash of injuries that wipe out entire position groups as the Bengals had at times last year at wide receiver and linebacker.
“When you get a lot of injuries at one position, your depth is non-existent,” said Lewis.
That’s why the return of Burfict, Jones, Eifert, and Smith is so important. It allows the Bengals not to draft for need but to continue their highly-successful approach – particularly in the early rounds – of taking the highest-rated player regardless of position.
“We want to upgrade the football team in general so there’s not one area,” said Lewis when asked about draft priorities. “We have to upgrade every area.”
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