CINCINNATI -- The question -- did their offseason moves make the Cincinnati Bengals worse? -- is one I've received often in the past month, particularly from passionate fans. They are concerned about the timing of the team's extensions and re-signings, the losses of Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, Andrew Hawkins and Mike Zimmer, and the lack of big-name free-agent additions.
Even as good a draft pick as cornerback Darqueze Dennard appears to be, there is also some unease about the rest of the draft class.
All of the anxiety is warranted.
If you ask some of ESPN's NFL Insiders the question above, they will answer with a resounding "yes." That was made clear Thursday when Insider Mike Sando published his offseason grades for all 32 teams, and handed the Bengals a C-plus. Some might say the "plus" was too high a grade. C-minus or worse was more like it, in their eyes.
Why might some feel that way? Because they are answering the question posed above the same way Insider Field Yates did.
"Ultimately, the question is, did this team go from three straight playoff appearances to taking the next step?" Yates asked in Sando's assessment of the Bengals' offseason. "I do not think they are enough improved to consider them challenging for one or two playoff wins. The loss of Zimmer is gigantic. They could miss Collins on their [offensive] line knowing some of the concerns relating to injury and other question marks with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. I understand the price tag for Michael Johnson was too high. I wouldn't be surprised if the money was going to contracts for nucleus players, but for now, they have money unspent that is just sitting and waiting."
The nucleus players Yates is alluding to are, for now, primarily quarterback Andy Dalton and linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Both are in the middle of contract negotiations with the Bengals that would keep them in Cincinnati after their rookie deals expire next March. They could easily could combine for more than $20 million in cap space if re-signed this offseason. The Bengals have about $24.5 million in unused cap dollars for the 2014 season. That ranks as the third-most cap space in the league.
Had Cincinnati been able to re-sign Johnson, the defensive end drafted in 2009, it likely would have cost between $8 million and $9 million per season. His deal with Tampa Bay, signed in March, is to pay him about $8.75 million annually.
Along with the slow progression in contract talks for Dalton and Burfict, and the losses of Johnson and Collins, the Bengals also were hit this offseason with the loss of longtime defensive coordinator Zimmer, who accepted Minnesota's head-coaching job. Though it's clear the Insiders think Zimmer's departure will be a serious blow to the Bengals, I disagree. It will be a challenge to move forward after losing such a sharp defensive mind and hard-coaching personality, but from a schematic standpoint they might even gain something by having Paul Guenther take over the coordinator's duties. It was Guenther who came up with some of the team's more creative blitz packages in recent seasons.
The loss of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden also could be bothersome, but new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson already has started addressing some of the areas that were most deficient for the Bengals last season; namely the running game.
Something else to remember: The Bengals might have lost a number of pieces, but the majority of their losses were anticipated. Plans had been in place for some time to slide Jackson into Gruden's old spot and Guenther into Zimmer's. Both departures had been expected, just as Collins' and Johnson's were. Aside from those losses, the Bengals kept much of the rest of their foundation in place.
So, Yates is right. It's not so much a matter of what the Bengals did or didn't do this offseason that is the question. It's about whether what they did was enough to make the Bengals a better team or a worse team. I'm not sure we can call them a worse team, but for now, there are some reasons to believe they won't be dramatically better than they have been the past few seasons.
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