Questions loom as Bengals head into offseason

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Questions loom as Bengals head into offseason

Breakdown of Bengals Free Agents

Unrestricted

K Josh Brown

CB/S Nate Clements

S Chris Crocker

DE Robert Geathers

DE Wallace Gilberry

QB Bruce Gradkowski

LS Clark Harris

LB Thomas Howard

P Kevin Huber

DE Michael Johnson

CB Adam Jones

LB Manny Lawson

RB Brian Leonard

LB Rey Maualuga

CB Terence Newman

K Mike Nugent

OT Dennis Roland

RB Bernard Scott

DT Pat Sims

OT Andre Smith

LB Dan Skuta

WR Brandon Tate

Restricted

S Jeromy Miles

TE Ricahrd Quinn

Exclusive Rights

WR Andrew Hawkins

LB Vincent Rey

Unrestricted Free Agent

A player with four or more years of experience whose contract has ended. They are free to sign with any other team without compensation to his old team.

Restricted Free Agent

A player with three years of experience whose contract has ended. The player’s current team has the right to match any offer from another team, and should it not match, it is entitled to draft-pick compensation.

Exclusive Rights Free Agent

A player with two years of experience whose contract has ended. If his current team offers a three-year veteran player minimum salary, he has to take it or leave the NFL. The players are not free to negotiate with other teams.

2013 Bengals Opponents

Home Away

Baltimore Baltimore

Cleveland Cleveland

Pittsburgh Pittsburgh

New England Buffalo

New York Jets Miami

Indianapolis San Diego

Green Bay Detroit

Minnesota Chicago

Despite a young, improving roster with many key players locked up through 2013 and beyond, the Cincinnati Bengals are facing a number of questions heading into the offseason.

The team experienced a breakthrough of sorts by reaching the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 30 years, but consecutive first-round losses highlight the need for some changes that will enable the franchise to continue moving forward.

Of the 53 players on the active roster and 13 on Injured Reserve, 27 are free agents. And the process of evaluating talent, potential and depth already has begun for head coach Marvin Lewis and his staff.

“I’ve asked our (position) coaches to write evaluations of their players, and the coordinators to write evaluations from their side of the football,” Lewis said. “I’ll spend time over the next weeks – a month or so – with people in charge of that upstairs, and we’ll formulate the plans.

“We hope to get the majority of our guys back,” he continued. “We know it’s unrealistic to think we’re going to get 100 percent of them back, but we’ll enhance, fill in and continue to build upon the great nucleus we have of mature guys and younger guys and get us to a championship.”

While a big key would seem to be improving an offense that sputtered down the stretch and was almost non-existent in the 19-13 playoff loss to Houston, the bigger focus may be on the defense, where six starters and a handful of regulars are headed for free agency, which begins March 12.

The key piece among that group is defensive end Michael Johnson, who had a career-high 11.5 sacks to finish one shy of Geno Atkins for the team lead.

“I think they’ll get Michael Johnson done,” said Dave Lapham, longtime Bengals color analyst. “If they have to (franchise) tag him, they have to tag him. He’ll definitely be back. I think Adam Jones will be back. I would think the way Terence (Newman) played, he’ll be back.

“Rey Maualuga? They’ve got to make a call there,” Lapham added. “They’ve got to make a lot of calls. You can’t re-sign everybody. At some point you have to make some decisions.”

Maualuga had a solid year after a slow start, but he could find himself expendable after playing poorly in the playoff loss while rookie Vontaze Burfict, a natural middle linebacker, excelled and led the team in tackles after taking over as the starting outside backer when Thomas Howard got hurt.

Howard also is a free agent, but interest from other teams may not be strong with him coming off a serious knee injury that forced him to miss the final 15 games.

Atkins, who is heading to a second Pro Bowl in his three years in the league, is signed through 2013, but look for the Bengals to offer him an extension this offseason to keep in him in stripes longer. It’s going to take a lot of money to lock up one of the best defensive tackles in the league, which of course will have ramifications when it comes to chosing which free agents to re-sign.

“Hopefully we’ll get them all back,” defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. “The good thing about these guys, and the ones that are not free, I’ve really become fond of all of them. They understand how we do things. They understand the team concept that we play with. They understand what’s expected of them.”

The biggest decision on the offensive side of the ball will be whether to re-sign right tackle Andre Smith, who is coming off his best season as a pro.

“There’s going to be more than one team in the league that’s going to offer him premiere right tackle money,” Lapham said. “They have to decide if they want to match that kind of an offer or spend it elsewhere. Can they play Andre and still play the other guys they want to pay and extend Geno and all the other things they’d like to get done?”

Another big question on offense involves Bernard Scott. The Bengals were counting on him to be the speed complement to BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ power this season, but a wrist injury shelved him early and a knee injury ended his season in October.

With three picks in the first 55 (21, 37 and 55) of the NFL Draft thanks to the Carson Palmer trade, the team could opt to part ways with Scott and go after a dynamic, breakaway runner who can provide the home-run threat the offense has been missing.

“To me the Christmas-type draft would be a safety in the 20s, a running back in the 30s and then after that when you get to the 55 spot, it could be a linebacker, it could be an offensive tackle, it could be a lot of things,” Lapham said. “That Carson Palmer trade is going to be the gift that keeps on giving. If Dre (Kirkpatrick) pans out like they hope, then you get a quality running back to boot that’s going to be around for however many years and be a big factor for you, boy, that would be a heck of a deal for Carson.”

In addition to filling holes on the roster, the Bengals could be forced to do the same with the coaching staff. Zimmer interviewed for the head coach opening in Cleveland, while offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has interviewed for the opening in Arizona and is scheduled to meet with Philadelphia on Monday. There also are reports San Diego wants to talk to him.

“If guys have opportunities to be head coaches, I’m going to be as supportive as I can,” Lewis said. “I’m happy for them. Hopefully the next people to move into those jobs, if they’re successful enough to move on, will have those same opportunities.

“What’s important for me is that I have to worry about the state of the organization and football team after that point,” he continued. “But I’m going to do everything I can to be as supportive as I can if they have opportunity, and if that’s something they choose to do. That’s the second part of it – sometimes you just don’t choose to do it. I’ve been in that situation myself, where the grass isn’t necessarily always greener.”

Assistant coach Hue Jackson, who has offensive coordinator and head coach experience, would seem to be the natural fit to replace Gruden if he leaves. But Jackson is reportedly being targeted for the offensive coordinator job in Carolina.

It all has the makings for an active offseason, even though the core of the team is solidly in place. As groundbreaking as it has been to make the playoffs two years in a row and three of the last four, the Bengals cannot afford to keep losing in the first round if they want to keep a jaded fan base interested and supportive.

“We’ve got great fans, and they’ve seen a lot of good things over the last two seasons,” Lewis said. “And it will continue to get better and better, I believe. But as I told the guys today, we don’t get to start again where we left off. We’ve got to do incredible work and get after it. We’ve laid some good pillars, some beams down, some foundations and spikes, and that’s a good thing. We’ll continue to enhance the football team. We’ll continue to get better.”

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