ESPN Insiders consider Bengals one of NFL's best the next three years


CINCINNATI -- How strong should the Cincinnati Bengals be across the next three years?

Pretty strong, according to a trio of ESPN's Insiders.

In ESPN's Future RankingsInsider that were published Tuesday, NFL Insiders Mike Sando, Louis Riddick and John Clayton broke down each of the 32 teams based upon how it appears their rosters, front offices and coaching staffs will look within three seasons. Several factors went into the rankings. The three voters were asked to rate teams on a 0-100 scale in five categories: roster (excluding quarterback), quarterback, draft, front office and coaching.

Taking all of that into account, they ranked the Bengals eighth. That's up five spots from last offseason.

Although Sando noted the relatively high ranking primarily was the product of drops from teams like the Eagles, 49ers, Bears and Rams, the Bengals still had negligible changes in multiple areas from last year. The average of their rankings from Sando, Riddick and Clayton in three of the aforementioned categories practically stayed identical, while their non-quarterback roster slipped.

What helps the Bengals' three-year outlook the most? Sando believes it's their front office. He's probably right, considering the way director of player of personnel Duke Tobin has partnered with coach Marvin Lewis in recent years to make savvy decisions with respect to building the roster primarily through the draft.

Next offseason figures to be an important one for both men, not to mention executive vice president Katie Blackburn, team president Mike Brown's daughter who controls the majority of day-to-day team activities. Cincinnati currently has nearly 30 players who will be eligible for free agency next March, including Pro Bowlers A.J. Green and Andrew Whitworth, and rising stars George Iloka, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu.

Because of the changes that could be coming to the roster in the coming year based on free agency, it's kind of surprising to see the Bengals projected to still have a top-10 team three years from now. They certainly do have a top-10 roster this season, and Tobin and Lewis are a major reason why.

Although there is no uncertainty about Lewis' contractual status entering this season -- he signed another one-year extension earlier this offseason -- it isn't set in stone he'll be in charge of the team three years from now. One has to imagine that eventually the Bengals' patience will wear thin if Lewis continues to get them to the playoffs and still can't manage a postseason win. His one-year extension also only has him under contract through 2016.

There's also uncertainty, as Riddick pointed out, about quarterback Andy Dalton's postseason play. His success across the next three years could dictate how strong the Bengals ultimately are, particularly if the Bengals are able to keep much of their current talent in place around him.

It's also worth mentioning that the Bengals' future roster ranks third among AFC North teams in this exercise. The Ravens and Steelers are ranked fourth and fifth, respectively. If the Bengals are going to keep getting to the playoffs, they naturally will have to beat out both teams.

The fourth AFC North team, the Cleveland Browns, ranked 30th.