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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Based on the type of responses we're getting in our AFC North inbox, Cincinnati Bengals fans are very excited about the 2009 season.
About six weeks ago, I pegged Cincinnati as a potential sleeper and our AFC North community -- including Bengals fans -- thought it was an April Fool's joke (read some of the comments). Now everyone is finally starting to see the potential to improve this season.
Ethan from Versailles, KY writes: Hey James, with now the additions of Roy Williams, Rey Maualuga, and Tank Johnson with the rest of the Bengals' defense, how would you rate our defense overall in the NFL?
James Walker: Ethan, on paper the pieces make sense. Williams struggles in pass coverage, but if protected properly, he could make an impact stuffing the run in a physical division. Maualuga is a first-round talent who could be a steal if he's coached up. And after struggling in a 3-4 last year with the Dallas Cowboys, Johnson gets to play in a 4-3 scheme where he excelled earlier in his career with the Chicago Bears. Now it's up to the coaching staff over the next several months to mesh it all together. If the Bengals jump into the top 10 defensively this year (up from No. 12 in 2008), I think the team would be happy with that.
Nima from San Francisco writes: Hey James, I'm a big Bengals fan and after all their offseason moves and recoveries, it looks like the only two positions to be worried about are RB and OL (do you agree?). They made a move at RB already, but do you see them making any moves at OL, especially C?
James Walker: A team cannot plug every hole, Nima. The Bengals did a lot to address most of them, but I think the center position remains arguably their biggest issue. Besides the injury to quarterback Carson Palmer, a major reason the Bengals went 0-4 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens in 2008 was because they got no push up the middle. Much of Cincinnati's season will depend on how well it does against those two teams, and not being able to move Casey Hampton and Haloti Ngata plays right into its rival's hands. I'm also having a hard time seeing the Bengals winning those battles up the middle with the current group of centers, which could be a problem.
Phil from Chelsea, Michigan writes: Hi James, I enjoy all the information you provide. I know the Bengals biggest weakness was the offensive line, but I am concerned about the wide receiver position. Chad Ocho Cinco may be past his prime and while Chris Henry has talent he has yet to put it all together. Have you heard or seen anything that makes you think that Andre Caldwell or Jerome Simpson (or anyone else for that matter) is ready to step up and become a playmaker?
James Walker: Good question, Phil. The jury is still out on Caldwell and Simpson. Their rookie seasons didn't blow me away, but a lot of receivers make strides in their second years. These players were drafted high last year in anticipation of filling in for T.J. Houshmanzadeh, who bolted for free agency this offseason. The fact that, a year later, the team spent a lot of money on Laveranues Coles told me the organization didn't feel Caldwell and Simpson were ready for starting roles. But the Bengals feel one of these two could be a solid third receiver. Chris Henry also is an option.
Eric from Cincinnati writes: I really think the Bengals have made some moves to contend in the North. If they stay healthy, would it be a far-fetched assumption?
James Walker: Like I said earlier, Cincinnati struggled in the past against the Ravens and Steelers because of their physicality. But if Cincinnati finds a way to steal a game or two from those teams, who knows? The Bengals made a lot of additions who will play big roles, and I want to first see how it all comes together on the field. It will be interesting in the Queen City to say the least.