- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Now we will explain how to rebuild this struggling franchise.
Coming off a division title and playoff appearance in 2009, Cincinnati is having its most disappointing season in recent memory. The Bengals are 2-10 and headed toward one of the top picks in the draft.
It will be a very interesting offseason in Cincinnati. The Bengals have key decisions to make on their coaching staff, as well as positions such as quarterback, running back and receiver.
The AFC North blog put on its general manager hat and spent this week sifting through the Bengals' roster to determine who stays and who goes. We came up with a blueprint that will get this team headed in the right direction.
Keep in mind, this is not a prediction of what the Bengals will do. It's our guide to what we believe the Bengals should do.
Analysis: Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has four games left on his contract, and to our knowledge there have been no recent negotiations. It's a good time for Lewis to step away. He has fought battles against heavy-handed ownership for eight seasons and done all he could, leading the downtrodden Bengals to two playoff appearances. There is already speculation Lewis may have interest in the head-coaching opening at the University of Pittsburgh, where he has local ties. He dodged that question earlier this week. Don't expect a big-name hire in Cincinnati. The Bengals don't want to pay the kind of money it takes to land someone like Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden, and big-name coaches wouldn't go to a team that doesn't have a GM, ownership makes the football decisions, and there are average facilities and very few scouts. Our best pick is Hue Jackson. He's a former receivers coach in Cincinnati and has done a great job in stops with Baltimore, Atlanta, Washington and Oakland. As offensive coordinator in Oakland this season, he has helped make the Raiders a playoff contender and is very familiar with the AFC North. Jackson is a rising star and would be an excellent choice. Mike Zimmer remains the best in-house candidate. He has the respect of the locker room and helped turn around the defense in recent seasons. Perhaps a Jackson (HC) and Zimmer (DC) tandem would infuse much-needed energy into this team.
Analysis: This is probably the toughest decision the Bengals will make this offseason, but it wasn't difficult for the AFC North blog. We're convinced it's time to part ways with quarterback Carson Palmer. The QB, who is in the middle of a $118.75 million contract, will be one of the NFL's highest-paid players next season with a base salary of $11.5 million. We can't justify paying Palmer that type of money based on his production the past few seasons. The Bengals have a good shot at the No. 1 overall pick, and that's the perfect spot to draft a quarterback. We think Andrew Luck from Stanford is the best of the group. If the Bengals do not have the top pick, maybe Auburn's Cam Newton is another possibility later in the first round. If the Bengals can't land either, our next step would be sticking with Palmer and seeing whether he's willing to take a pay cut. It's a tough business.
Analysis: We like second-year running back Bernard Scott. But there are still questions about whether he can be a feature tailback. With Cedric Benson's contract expiring, it's time to search for a new running back. The Bengals got solid production out of Benson the past two years at little cost. But he's only averaging 3.5 yards per carry this year, and we need more from that position. We would find a bruising back and pair him with the quicker Scott . Pending free agent Michael Bush, 26, would be a good fit. He's the backup tailback to Darren McFadden and one of Jackson's main weapons in Oakland. The Bengals rarely spend a lot of money in free agency, but this signing would be worth it. Also, we would re-sign backup running back Brian Leonard, who is very good on third down.
Analysis: We like Chad Ochocinco -- but not at the price the Bengals would have to pay him. A $6 million team option is a bit much for a 32-year-old receiver who's had two bad seasons in three years. We would let Ochocinco walk, but the Bengals will consider keeping him. Teammate and pending free agent Terrell Owens is an interesting case. He's having a great year, but he's 37 and probably wants the security of a multiyear extension. Another team may give it to Owens, but we're looking to get younger at receiver. This is a position we would attack in the draft, probably in the second or third rounds. This also gives Jordan Shipley, who is solid, a bigger role in the offense next year. You can't be strong everywhere when rebuilding.
Analysis: No questions here. The Bengals drafted Jermaine Gresham in the first round this year and he has produced (47 receptions for 409 yards and three touchdowns). He's only going to get better next season and beyond.
Offensive and defensive lines
Analysis: The offensive line needs work. Tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Bobbie Williams are mainstays, but the other three positions could use depth. We would not extend Andre Smith's contract to six years. We're keeping his deal at four years to see whether we can get anything out of him at right tackle in the final two seasons. Some have suggested moving Smith, who broke his foot for the second straight year, to guard. But we're already paying Smith left tackle money to play right tackle. So we definitely wouldn't pay Smith left tackle money to play guard. We would upgrade center and one guard position via the draft and free agency. The defensive line must be more productive, but there are some good young players there. We like Carlos Dunlap's recent production and would start him at defensive end in 2011. He's earned it with his play down the stretch. Geno Atkins has shown flashes and also would be in competition to start at defensive tackle next to veteran Domata Peko. End Robert Geathers hasn't been the same since micro-fracture surgery, and it's time to find his replacement. If the Bengals don't draft a quarterback in the first round, another pass-rushing defensive end would be the logical choice.
Analysis: Bengals outside linebacker Rey Maualuga has played out of position his entire pro career, and it's time to move him to his natural spot at middle linebacker next season. He will be a better player when he can use his best attribute -- his physicality -- instead of constantly chasing tight ends in coverage. Dhani Jones, 32, will be a free agent, and it's time to cut ties with him. Keith Rivers stays outside, but we need another outside linebacker. Maybe Michael Johnson can step into that role. He's not a natural linebacker, but he's athletic enough to play the position. We're also not sure we can trust his consistency for 16 games. We'd probably add someone else via the draft or free agency to compete with Johnson for the starting job.
Analysis: The Bengals' secondary had a down year with a lot of injuries, but we still think it's in pretty good shape. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph is the one free agent we believe the Bengals must re-sign. He's the Bengals best cornerback, and the secondary doesn't look the same when he's not playing. Joseph makes corner Leon Hall and the safeties better. There were some negotiations before the season between Joseph and the Bengals, but nothing came to fruition. Adam Jones will return from a season-ending neck injury and is a solid third cornerback. Starting safety Chris Crocker also had a season-ending knee injury and remains under contract. Chinedum Ndukwe, a pending free agent, plays hard and would be a good safety to keep for depth. Roy Williams is often injured and too one dimensional for our liking. So we would let Williams go and try to add another starting safety.
Analysis: Punter Kevin Huber stays, although he hasn't had a great year. But the Bengals must find a dependable kicker. Mike Nugent did fine before he was injured, so maybe he's a candidate for training camp when he gets healthy.
Whew! Now that was a major reconstruction.
It's time for the Bengals to rebuild and turn the franchise over to younger players. It's not going to be a quick fix. But if the Bengals follow these moves, they will be better than they were this season and in solid position for long-term success.