Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green

CINCINNATI -- It's so easy to pin a team's failures squarely on the shoulders of the man who has the football in his hands more often than anyone else.

If he's the highest-paid player on his team, the finger-pointing seems even more fitting.

Combine that with a quarterback who has been as inconsistent as Andy Dalton is, and it becomes that much easier to target such a signal-caller for complaints about the Bengals' recently poor postseason play.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports"He's not a one-man team," A.J. Green said of teammate Andy Dalton. "... He can't beat the team by himself."
But the truth is, as two prominent members of the team pointed out this week, the Bengals' problems go much deeper than Dalton. This is a teamwide issue; one that won't be ameliorated until each player at Paul Brown Stadium looks in the mirror and comes to such a realization.

It appears some already have.

"We really know that we have to all get to the next level. We have to do better," coach Marvin Lewis said Thursday during an appearance on ESPN's "NFL Insiders." "That includes our quarterback, Andy Dalton. He's got to continue to raise the level around him, and he's got to raise his own level to bring everybody to his level all the time."

To get Dalton to step his game up, Lewis wants the quarterback's receivers, running backs, offensive linemen and defensive and special-teams teammates to do the same.

Apparently A.J. Green has been listening.

Like Lewis, Green spent the week in Arizona participating in Super Bowl week interviews. Green spoke with NFL Network's Michael Irvin about the Bengals' playoff troubles. Cincinnati has been to four-straight postseasons, but lost in the opening round in each. The franchise hasn't won a playoff game since January 1991, most recently losing at Indianapolis 26-10 in a wild-card round game earlier this month.

Green, who was drafted four years ago with Dalton, explained how bothered he gets when the bulk of blame settles onto his quarterback.

"He's not a one-man team," Green said. "When you look at those games ... we don't play well as a whole. We don't protect him well, we're not running the ball good and we're not playing defense. He can't beat the team by himself.

"We're all the supporting cast of our team and we have to step up our game to help him."

Green was unavailable in this year's playoff game after suffering a concussion in the regular-season finale. Regardless, he hasn't been very good in the postseason, catching only 13 passes for 162 yards and no touchdowns off 32 targets in three games.

Dalton, who had one of his worst regular seasons statistically, actually had one of his better playoff performances against the Colts. He only threw for 155 yards, but had his second-highest passer rating of the four playoff games, and he didn't throw an interception. Through the first three playoff games, he threw six.

Consistency and stability are among the reasons Lewis believes the Bengals will eventually clear this postseason hurdle.

"The thing we need to do is we've got to keep putting physical people out there, and people who understand that each play is so critical to our success," Lewis said. "We've got to raise our level. We've been at this spot for four seasons now and it's not good enough.

"What I've told our coaches is that we've got to start again. We've got to start from scratch."

Bengals 'farm system' ranked 10th

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
CINCINNATI -- One of the cornerstones of success for NFL teams revolves around their ability to identify talent, and to grow with it.

Of course, there is no "farm system" in the NFL like there is in Major League Baseball, but professional football hinges nonetheless on the ability of its youngest stars to produce when their times to shine arrive. In recent years, the Cincinnati Bengals have been regarded in league circles as being among the best at finding, evaluating and building through the draft process.

Look no further than the 2011 draft class as an example.

Since the year Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were taken in the first two rounds of the draft and became instant starters, the team has undergone an unmatched run of success. Each of the four seasons since that one, the Bengals have made it to the playoffs. It's the first time in franchise history they have advanced to the postseason in that many consecutive years. Of course, despite reaching the postseason each of those seasons, the Bengals still haven't advanced beyond the wild-card round.

Still, the broader point remains. Since 2011, many of the Bengals' most productive players have been drafted by Cincinnati. Draftees such as Jeremy Hill and Dre Kirkpatrick emerged in 2014. So did undrafted Bengals signees like Ryan Hewitt and Vincent Rey.

For years the Bengals have used the draft and undrafted free agency to land players. Very seldom have they viewed veteran free agency as the place to land talent to build with, unlike many other teams. Economically speaking, it has made more sense -- particularly after the latest collective bargaining agreement -- for them to sign cheap, young players and to re-sign them four years later when their contracts expire. Since talented players will always be available for drafting, it can be a cyclical philosophy, if executed properly.

So it was no surprise the Bengals' "farm system" ranked 10th in an exercise conducted earlier this week by ESPN Insider Matt Williamson. Matt ranked each team based on the existing 25-and-under talent they had. The goal was to rank teams by the way they were set up for the next 10 years. He took into account positional value, durability, contract status and performed a sort of balancing act so as not to punish teams like the Packers whose quarterbacks are in the prime of their careers.

Age was measured by how old the players were on Jan. 1. Dalton and Green may have gotten Cincinnati's recent run going, but they weren't included in this exercise since they are both 26.

Among the players of note Williamson mentioned in his analysis were Giovani Bernard (23 years old), Hill (the youngest on the team at 22), Vontaze Burfict (24), Kevin Zeitler (24) and Tyler Eifert (24). If the Bengals continue building around these players in particular, Williamson surmises they would make the Bengals a top-10 team over the next 10 seasons.

I'd agree with that assessment, but I would take it a step further. Because of the Bengals' aforementioned philosophy on building through the draft, and their success doing it of late, I wouldn't be surprised if they eventually became a deep playoff contender the next 10 seasons. Of course, myriad other factors (like coaching) must work out for that to happen, but from a personnel standpoint, there is no reason the Bengals can't continue being a playoff team the majority of the next decade.
CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis received a pair of firm endorsements from his top two assistant coaches who told on Tuesday they believed Lewis pulled off one of his best head-coaching jobs in 2014.

"Outstanding," Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said.

"It was the best coaching job Marvin had outside of Andy Dalton's and A.J. Green's rookie year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said, referring to the lockout-affected 2011 season. That also was the year that began a playoff streak that reached four seasons earlier this month. Like all their playoff appearances since 2005, the Bengals have failed to get out of the wild-card round in each of the last four years.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
John Grieshop/Getty Images"It was the best coaching job Marvin had outside of Andy Dalton's and A.J. Green's rookie year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said.
In the immediate wake of the latest postseason defeat, a 26-10 loss at Indianapolis, calls sounded for Lewis' firing. Inside the offices at One Paul Brown Stadium, they fell on deaf ears.

Team president Mike Brown had no plans of making a swap at the top of his coaching staff. Like others around the organization, he continues to believe Lewis gives the organization its best chance for finally clearing the playoff hurdle.

"What's happened here, which is great, is that it's expected that you're going to be in the playoffs," Jackson said. "The expectation's changed. At one time, that wasn't even the expectation. Now, that's the expectation, and this is a good, young team. He did an outstanding job. One, of coaching his coaches. Two, of coaching the football team, motivating the football team and leading the team and the staff and putting us in position."

Jackson wants those still irked by the string of first-round exits to blame the players and the coaching staff.

"We have to reward him for a job well done," Jackson said. "He helped get us to the dance, and now we have to go dance."

The Bengals went 10-5-1 and were potentially a lost fumble away from winning the AFC North.

The assistants lauded Lewis specifically for the way he managed, with two first-year coordinators and two new position coaches, the flood of injuries that hit the team at various times of the season. One of the newest position coaches, linebackers coach Matt Burke, was hit by the injury bug harder than most others. Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict only finished two games after dealing with head, neck and knee injuries. Fellow starters Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur missed multiple games due to hamstring issues.

There also were injuries to tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed all but one quarter of the season opener; receiver Marvin Jones, who was hampered by injuries since early last offseason and never made it on the field for a game; and tight end Jermaine Gresham, receiver A.J. Green and offensive tackle Andre Smith. Veterans Geno Atkins and Leon Hall played all year, but spent all last spring and summer rehabbing serious injuries instead of spending their time actually training for optimal play during the long season.

"If you want to know the truth, it's amazing," Guenther said.

Neither assistant wanted to call the season a success. Both were quick to point out the many flaws their sides of the ball had in 2014, and how they are working with Lewis to resolve them and to finally win that playoff game.

"I would hope everybody feels it in the pit of their stomach like our coaches do, like I do," Jackson said. "You've got to have that fire that burns in order to get over to the other side. We've got to take it and work our tails off to get there."
It only took a matter of minutes for A.J. Green to come off the board during Wednesday night's Pro Bowl draft.

Taken with the third overall pick, the Cincinnati Bengals receiver was drafted by the Pro Bowl team that will be coached by former Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame receiver and current ESPN analyst Cris Carter. Green was the first non-quarterback taken, and the second player selected by Irvin and player-captains, Antonio Brown and J.J. Watt. Brown and Watt were named captains of the team Tuesday.

Green was the only Bengals player actually picked in the draft, as the other four Pro Bowl selections were assigned to their teams as part of this second year of the "unconferenced" format. Before Wednesday's draft, players either were voted or named as alternates to one single Pro Bowl team that was subsequently separated into two teams with the draft.

To help keep Sunday night's all-star game in Arizona fair, certain players were assigned to each team.

In the Bengals' case, quarterback Andy Dalton was assigned to Carter's team with Green, while punter Kevin Huber and defensive tackle Geno Atkins were assigned to the other team coached by Hall of Famer Michael Irvin. It means if Atkins and Dalton are on the field at the same time, the lineman actually could sack his quarterback.

Atkins only had three sacks this season after coming off an ACL tear last year. By all accounts, physically, he was fully healthy all year. He had 12.5 sacks in the last complete season he played before this year, 2012.

Dalton threw for 3,398 yards and 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 2014. Green, who was voted to the Pro Bowl with Huber, caught 69 passes and set career-lows with 1,041 yards and six touchdowns. Hurt off and on, Green missed parts of five games. Huber ranked fourth this season in net punting, but he led the league in percentage of punts inside both the 10- and 5-yard lines.

This is Green's fourth Pro Bowl, Atkins' third, Dalton's second and Huber's first.
CINCINNATI -- Free agency is right around the corner for the Cincinnati Bengals, who have 15 players with contracts that expire in March.

Of the 15, 13 are unrestricted free agents and two are restricted free agents. To help you understand what decisions the Bengals must make with each of them, we're taking a daily look at a free agent and the reasons why he will or won't be re-signed.

We started with quarterback Jason Campbell. Then looked at running back Cedric Peerman, receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, receiver Brandon Tate and tight end Alex Smith.

We continue with tight end Jermaine Gresham:

Year signed: 2010

Length of previous deal: Five years

2014 cap value: $4,832,000

2014 role: Starting tight end.

Why he will be re-signed: Despite the drama Gresham created late in the season when he decided not to play in two meaningful games due to injuries, there are reasons he still could find himself back in stripes. The question, though, is if any of the reasons to keep him outweigh the concerns some around the team have about him. That's doubtful. But if he were to be re-signed, it likely would be because the Bengals still believe a two-tight-end scheme can work. A season-ending injury to Tyler Eifert in Week 1 put a wrench in Cincinnati's plans to enact such a system in 2014. It caused greater focus to be placed on Gresham, who embraced the larger role as the season wore on. By the second half of the season, he finally became a weapon in the red zone and in goal-line situations. He also has tremendous value as a run-blocker, which was a reason his absences against Cleveland and Indianapolis in the final month of the season were so problematic. Had it not been for the two pregame scratches that surprised some around the team, he stood a chance to be given an offer in free agency. Now, it's tougher to envision.

Why he won't be re-signed: Gresham won't be re-signed in part because of the questions about his desire. He also had comparatively underwhelming statistics in 2014, considering he was the primary playmaker at tight end due to Eifert's injury. With other pass-catchers out much of the year, Gresham became one of Andy Dalton's top passing targets. But somehow, he still had his second-least productive season from a yardage standpoint. He had 460 receiving yards during the regular season (and 62 receptions, the second-most of his career), a figure that trailed only his 458 in 2013. While Gresham dramatically cut down on the penalties this season -- dropping to six after having 10 in 2013 and nine in 2012 -- he still had problems holding onto the ball. He had six fumbles in his last two seasons.
CINCINNATI -- Free agency is right around the corner for the Cincinnati Bengals, who have 15 players with contracts that expire in March.

Of the 15, 13 are unrestricted free agents and two are restricted free agents. To help you understand what decisions the Bengals must make, we're taking a daily look at the respective free agents and the reasons why they will or won't be re-signed.

We started with quarterback Jason Campbell. Then looked at running back Cedric Peerman and receiver Dane Sanzenbacher.

Now, we continue with receiver Brandon Tate:

Year signed: 2014 (signed low-round tender as restricted free agent)

Length of previous deal: One year

2014 Cap Value: $1,024,000

2014 Role: Backup receiver, and punt-return specialist.

Why he will be re-signed: After warranted concern about him last offseason, it appears Tate stands an even better chance of being re-signed and granted a roster spot for the 2015 season. That's because the Bengals learned all too well this season how important having depth, particularly at the receiver position, really is. Injuries forced them to go without Pro Bowler A.J. Green for parts of five games, and to miss Marvin Jones the entire season. Rookie James Wright's late-season knee issue also affected the position group, forcing players like Tate and Dane Sanzenbacher into larger roles. In Tate's case, after barely being thrown to his first three seasons, he had a significantly larger role in 2014. He caught 17 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown. He also was targeted 27 times this season after drawing just 26 total targets his first three seasons as a Bengal. Tate had just one drop this season, and though he might not be as good a punt returner as Adam Jones, Tate still proved his worth on special teams, meaning there likely will be a role for him in 2015. If the Bengals find themselves choosing between re-signing him or Sanzenbacher, Tate probably is the last man standing.

Why he won't be re-signed: Part of the decision to bring players back goes beyond the football field. In Tate's case, there has to be a decision made about how long of a deal the team would want to offer him. He was extended a one-year deal last offseason and jumped on it, but given his contributions this past season, he might have earned more years onto a possible extension. Will that be two years? Three years? It might make the most sense to expect only a two-year deal for the 27-year-old. It's doubtful the Bengals would re-sign Tate, though, if he only wanted a one-year deal. After all, they already have four other receivers who are eligible to enter free agency next offseason. It wouldn't make much sense to set themselves up to have to sign a fifth. Other than the length of his contract, the only other reason the Bengals would turn from Tate is if they believe they have a chance to draft an immediate contributor, one who they feel could be a better option than him.
CINCINNATI -- While watching the Indianapolis Colts get dismantled by the New England Patriots in Sunday night's AFC Championship Game, many Cincinnati Bengals fans probably pondered some variation of the question above.

After all, the Bengals were one of three teams this season that played the Colts and Patriots. The Ravens lost to the Colts and Patriots, and the Broncos split two meetings against Indianapolis and lost their only game versus New England.

The Bengals played the Colts and Patriots a combined three times this season, and lost each game. They also swept the Ravens and Broncos, though, in three games.

So what does that say about Cincinnati? More pertinent to this post, what does Sunday's 45-7 Colts loss to the Patriots say about how good or bad the Bengals' 2014 season was?

Truthfully, it's hard to say.

When the Bengals faced both teams, they dealt with varying injuries. They also played all three games on the road. The first was a Sunday night showdown at Gillette Stadium on Oct. 5, when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 292 yards in a 43-17 blowout of the Bengals. It was Brady's first game after an embarrassing 41-14 Patriots loss on "Monday Night Football" in Kansas City.

Along with the added pressure of playing a more perturbed Brady, the Bengals were without their top defensive playmaker, linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Concussion concerns forced Burfict to miss a second straight game. His absence factored in the Patriots' ability to establish a balanced offense identity. In addition to Brady's strong passing performance, New England rushed for 220 yards.

Two weeks later, it was the same story when the Bengals visited Indianapolis, dropping another game in blowout fashion, 27-0. The Bengals didn't have Burfict for three-and-a-half quarters after he suffered a neck injury ealy in the game. They also were without Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green, who missed the Week 5 game against the Patriots, too. Green had a toe injury that had bugged him all season to that point.

Burfict's absence handcuffed defensive game plans and opened holes the Colts exploited. Green's absence made it easier for both teams to focus on shutting down the Bengals' run early with stacked-box defensive fronts, because the Colts had little respect for a passing game missing Green. In both games, the Bengals fell behind early and were blasted in the second half as fatigue hit the defense.

Cincinnati's wild-card round playoff loss at Indianapolis followed much the same pattern. Missing Burfict (season-ending knee injury) and Green (concussion), among others, the defense had holes and the offense featured an anemic passing game, and a rushing attack that struggled against stacked fronts. The Bengals lost 26-10.

So was Sunday's blowout more of an indication of how good the Patriots are? Or was it a sign that the Colts were a so-so team and the Bengals weren't very good?

It's probably more of the former. New England has been great this season. The Bengals and Colts had their moments, too. It would have been interesting to see how many more flashes of success -- particularly against New England and Indianapolis -- the Bengals could have had if they had been healthier.

Either way, we know this: a playoff team, the Bengals still were one of the AFC's best this season.
CINCINNATI -- After devoting the first question of Saturday's installment of this weekend's mailbag to Andy Dalton, we're using this entire Sunday portion to discuss what might happen with the Cincinnati Bengals when free agency begins.

Will this be the year the Bengals finally open up their wallets for an outside free agent? Will they cut anyone? Will they welcome back a key offensive lineman?

Let's dig in and try to come up with some answers:

@ColeyHarvey: I could spend an entire post answering only this question (and I will, soon enough). Time will tell who the Bengals consider worthy of returning and who they think deserves to look for work elsewhere. A lot of it will depend upon the direction the powers that be think the organization is heading. For instance, it's not likely the Bengals will draft a quarterback this season, but they have a decision to make regarding veteran Jason Campbell. If they don't re-sign him, they will have a spot open that must get filled if they believe AJ McCarron isn't ready for No. 2 backup duties. At the very least, they'll need another quarterback to take into training camp to help keep starter Dalton's arm fresh. It all depends if the Bengals see Campbell in their immediate future or not.

As for which of the free agents could be re-signed, here are the ones I see having the best odds of being retained: Cedric Peerman, Brandon Tate, Clint Boling, Taylor Mays, Mike Nugent and Rey Maualuga. Emmanuel Lamur and Devon Still are restricted free agents who are likely to receive low-round tender offers. It'll be interesting to see what the Bengals do with Still, given the emphasis they're placing on bettering the pass rush and also the positive press his daughter's fight with cancer has provided the team. He certainly could be subject to getting cut. So, too, could veteran defensive linemen Domata Peko, Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers. The team wouldn't take a cap hit if it got rid of either of them.

@ColeyHarvey: There are definitely targets out there, Layne. Of course, the headliner is Ndamukong Suh, the defensive tackle who so many Bengals fans would love to have if Peko were released. I still can't see Cincinnati swinging a run at Suh in part because of the franchise's insistence on avoiding big free-agency splashes. I also can't see the Bengals making such a costly signing -- even if they can afford it this offseason -- because they have several big contracts, including receiver A.J. Green's, that expire after this coming season. They have to think about life beyond the present. That said, there are some good and cheaper defensive line targets out there such as Terrance Knighton, Adrian Clayborn, Corey Wootton and Corey Peters.

@ColeyHarvey: One other point I wanted to make on the last question is this. When you evaluate the Bengals' position needs this offseason, you see that many of them actually ought to favor draft supplementation over free agency help. Because the defensive line need is so immediate, that's the only position group where I could see free agency coming into play. That's also the only position where recent draft efforts haven't had the immediate payoffs that others have. At other positions (offensive tackle, tight end, cornerback, receiver), the Bengals would be better served using this year's draft to shore up holes. That said, I can't see Cameron being the answer right now if Cincinnati fails to re-sign Jermaine Gresham and/or Alex Smith. As for the interior linebacker McClain, that would depend upon what happens with Maualuga. At the moment, I can't see the Bengals letting him get away. Defensive coaches respect what he's meant to the team, particularly in run-stop scenarios.

@ColeyHarvey: Boling was one of the players I had listed in my earlier response, so yes. At the very least, I think the Bengals should re-sign him. We'll see what they ultimately do. All things considered, the left guard had a strong year. He didn't much look like a player who was coming off ACL surgery. He also showed a measure of versatility -- something offensive line coach Paul Alexander loves his players to possess -- when he was pressed into starting at right tackle following Andre Smith's season-ending triceps injury. I guarantee you other teams who might be interested in Boling are aware of all of that, too. Sure, he'll command a larger paycheck, but as the Bengals start a transition to a future line that in the coming years won't include veteran Andrew Whitworth, it makes sense to start locking up potential key long-term pieces such as Boling.

@ColeyHarvey: As mentioned earlier, Green (No. 18) could hit free agency next spring when his rookie contract expires. The Pro Bowl receiver had his fifth-year option exercised last offseason, meaning that when the 2015 fiscal year begins in March, he'll be going into the crucial final season on his first deal. Does that mean 2015 will be his final year in Bengals stripes? Not likely. The Bengals have another year before possibly losing him. They could (read: are expected to) extend Green the franchise tag next year, giving them at least one more season before figuring out if they are going to lock him down long-term. So it could be until March 2017 before the Bengals have to decide on committing to him. Being a Pro Bowl selection in each of his first four years certainly gives Green ammunition for being made a Bengal for life.
CINCINNATI -- How well did Year 4 of the Andy Dalton maturation process go?

That's the first question we're addressing in Saturday's Cincinnati Bengals mailbag. When Hue Jackson took over as offensive coordinator last January, it appeared Dalton might actually take another step forward. Jackson vowed to place a renewed focus on the run; a tactic that was expected to ease the pressure on Dalton's shoulders and not force him into being the team's primary playmaker.

But some things changed. Injuries happened. Plans got altered. How, then, did those factors affect Dalton's once-promising trajectory?

@ColeyHarvey. This is a really good question. If you look at his full body of work this season, it might appear on the surface as if Dalton regressed. After all, he once again failed to win a playoff game, and his passing numbers were down. His 3,398 yards tied for the fewest in a single season in his career. He had the exact same number his rookie year. The 19 touchdown passes Dalton threw also were the fewest of his career, while the 17 interceptions were the second most. When you put those statistics together, regression is exactly what you get. But like Pro Bowl offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth often points out, you can't always read into the numbers. Sometimes they don't tell the full story, and that's what you're getting at, wanderer.

It's safe to say that Dalton's overall production was limited this season due to a couple of different factors. The high rate of injuries to his pass-catchers -- five key passing options missed two or more games -- changed some of what Dalton could do. So did Jackson's insistence on getting the running game involved. Dalton attempted the fewest passes of his career -- nearly 100 fewer than he did in 2013. Despite that, he actually had a higher completion percentage. When Dalton looked good in 2014, he looked really good. When he didn't, he was a turnover machine waiting to happen. While I'm of the mind to say he neither progressed nor regressed, it's hard to deny how much better his season could have been had his pass-catchers all been healthy. Healthier receivers mean more plays get made. They also mean opposing defenses have less incentive to load the box and focus purely on stopping the run -- something that happened to the Bengals late in the season.

@ColeyHarvey. Speaking of one of those injured receivers, thanks for the question, Coach. I must be honest, I'm not sure what you mean by "look elsewhere." There is absolutely no reason in the world for the Bengals to look for a receiver to replace Jones. They could turn to the draft to develop receiver depth, but that's the only looking the Bengals will do at the position. Jones will be back in 2015 after not playing a down this past season because of ankle and foot injuries. Will he be the No. 2 receiver playing opposite A.J. Green? Time will tell. I don't think that spot is promised to anyone right now. Mohamed Sanu certainly had a strong start to the season, helping fill vacancies left by Green when he was injured, but he didn't produce as well by the end of the year. Drops also became an issue for him. Much like we expected last preseason, anticipate a healthier Jones to compete with Sanu at the No. 2 receiver spot.

@ColeyHarvey. As far as the Bengals and their first-round pick, I can see them going one of two directions right now: either drafting a dependable offensive tackle or focusing on a pass-rusher. I can't see them making that high a move for receiver because it's not that pressing of a need right now. The only way I could see it being that big of a need in this draft is if the Bengals already have a feeling they won't be able to re-sign three of the four receivers who will be up for free agency in 2016. (Green, Sanu, Jones and Greg Little are entering the final years of their contracts.) Otherwise, their attention ought to be on bringing in a tackle who can eventually take Andrew Whitworth or Andre Smith's place. Whitworth will turn 34 late next season, and Smith could re-sign elsewhere next offseason. In addition to that, the pass rush was so poor in 2014 the Bengals need to address it. Regardless of which position they draft at No. 21, just know it will be the player the Bengals deem the best available.

@ColeyHarvey. Some might say cornerback is another position the Bengals might consider drafting in the first round. I can't see that happening right now, personally, primarily because of the quandary Stew presents here. Cincinnati picked a corner (Darqueze Dennard) 24th overall last May, and he's barely been able to get on the field because of the talent above him. We'll see what happens with the 36-year-old Terence Newman, but it does seem Dre Kirkpatrick's strong 2014 season may have earned him a starting job. If that's the case, Dennard would be the odd man out of the rotation once again. Because of the faith that still exists in Adam Jones and Leon Hall, it could be tough yet again for Dennard to see time outside of special-teams play. That said, though, Hall and Jones are free agents next year. So Dennard's time to start may not be far away. I'll say this, coaches are desperate to find more defensive roles for Dennard.
CINCINNATI -- This offseason's free agency period is still two months away, but that doesn't mean it's too early to take a quick look at what the Cincinnati Bengals might be bracing for a year from now.

Though tight end Jermaine Gresham and linebacker Rey Maualuga headline the 15 free agents the Bengals have to figure out how to handle this offseason, there are 17 more players under contract who would be free to leave beginning next March. Four of the 17 alone play receiver, with Pro Bowler A.J. Green headlining the group.

Green's free agency status is a bit of an anomaly, though. It's likely that after his fifth-year option (one that will pay him about $10 million for the 2015 season) expires, Green will be extended the team's franchise tag next offseason, or a long-term deal will be negotiated. If the Bengals were so inclined and had the money to do it, they would give Green a new deal this offseason to avoid using the franchise tag.

For now, it doesn't appear that will be happening.

Beyond Green, there are are several other big names to watch who will be entering the final years of their existing deals this fall. Andrew Whitworth, Marvin Jones, Adam Jones, Leon Hall, Reggie Nelson and George Iloka are among those who could become free agents next offseason. Six of the 17 would be 30 by the start of the 2016 season.

Here is an early look at the Bengals' complete list of potential 2016 free agents:

WR Green
WR Mohamed Sanu
WR Greg Little
WR Marvin Jones
OT Andre Smith
OT Whitworth
DE Robert Geathers
DE Wallace Gilberry
DT Brandon Thompson
LB Vincent Rey
LB Chris Carter
CB Hall
CB Adam Jones
S Nelson
S Iloka

LB Jayson DiManche
LB Nico Johnson

Note: The unrestricted free agents are to account for $51,207,888 of the Bengals' salary cap in 2015. That would be more than 37 percent of the Bengals' salary cap for 2014. No one knows exactly what the overall salary-cap figure for the 2015 season will be.
CINCINNATI -- Now that the Cincinnati Bengals' season is over, we turn our attention to the offseason.

There are many questions the Bengals must answer. Let's take a look at five of them:

1. How does the pass rush improve?

One of the biggest problems the Bengals had this season, particularly in the playoff loss at Indianapolis, was getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. While coaches and players are quick to point out the complexities of the pass rush -- for instance, it's more important how the unit manages the rush on third downs, some have said -- the fact is the defense wasn't as good getting to quarterbacks as it has been in the past. The Bengals finished the regular season with 20 sacks, the second-fewest since Marvin Lewis became head coach. They also allowed 243 passing yards per game, 36 more than they did in 2013. Defensive tackle Domata Peko was one of the players who said earlier this week that change would be coming to the defensive line next season as the Bengals seek to get a better rush.

2. Where to turn in the NFL draft?

So what change could be coming to the defensive line? Different players and line combinations is one possibility. When the Bengals begin whittling down their draft board in the coming weeks, there probably will be several defensive ends and tackles on them. It's possible that Cincinnati will address its line woes in free agency, but it's more likely that ultimately gets done in the draft. The last three seasons, in particular, they have turned to the draft to tighten up the line, selecting Devon Still, Margus Hunt, Brandon Thompson and Will Clarke. Other position areas to watch when the draft comes around: offensive tackle, linebacker, tight end and receiver.

[+] EnlargeBengals
AP Photo/Michael ConroyIt seems unlikely that Jermaine Gresham will be one of Andy Dalton's targets next season.
3. Is Jermaine Gresham coming back?

For now, it seems the answer to that question is "no." Gresham disappointed some around the team when he didn't play in Sunday's playoff game and in the game at Cleveland four weeks before that after testing out respective injuries during pregame warm-ups. He also has fallen out of favor with fans and appears content with having done so. The free-agent tight end has had better years, but he didn't have an abysmal season, catching 62 passes. Used as one of Andy Dalton's top targets following injuries to A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones, he was a key option in this year's passing game. With Eifert expected to be healthy before training camp and Ryan Hewitt coming off a strong rookie season, the Bengals -- again, for now -- seem content moving along from Gresham and going a different direction.

4. What can Dalton do to take the next step?

This was a big question last offseason, particularly with Dalton getting close to signing a massive new deal. It's safe to say that overall, Dalton this season didn't live up to the six-year contract extension he signed in August that could pay him up to $115 million. He had issues with interceptions (he threw 17) and lost a fourth straight playoff game. He also witnessed a steady decline in his passing numbers at the end of the season, around the same time the Bengals' rushing game became a prominent piece of their offense. Dalton said earlier this week that he expects to go to Southern California to work with throwing coach Tom House again. Dalton's time with House seemed to pay off early this season, as his throws looked vastly better than they did in previous seasons.

5. Will the Bengals need a new offensive coordinator?

While Dalton continues to figure out what he can do to harness some of what he had at the beginning of this season, he could end up with a new offensive coordinator as well. Hue Jackson reportedly met with the Buffalo Bills on Wednesday about their head coach vacancy. Other opportunities could come as well, meaning he could soon be on his way out after spending one year with Dalton. If that happens, the Bengals will need a coordinator who can push Dalton much the way Jackson did this season. This question could be the first to get answered this offseason.
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Injuries and changes at their top two assistant-coaching positions had many convinced at the start of the season the Cincinnati Bengals would struggle to repeat as AFC North champion.

Despite all of that, they almost did it. For six of the last seven weeks of the regular season, they led the division, helped in large part by a tie that should have really been a win. Had they made a 36-yard overtime field goal against Carolina, they would have finished with a somewhat unexpected 11-win season.

It was in the regular-season finale that they lost the division following a 27-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. On Sunday, they lost something bigger: a fourth straight playoff game. The defeat calls into question what the future ought to look like for a talented team whose Super Bowl window might be closing.

Team MVP: Three players deserved true consideration for this. Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth didn't allow a sack all season and led all qualifying offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking efficiency metric that accounts for how few times the linemen allow pressures on their quarterbacks. Cornerback and return specialist Adam Jones keeps playing better the older he gets. On Friday, he earned first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors as a kick returner. As well as those two played, though, rookie running back Jeremy Hill was the real difference-maker. His 929 rushing yards in the final nine weeks of the season led all backs and provided a much-needed spark to the Bengals' offense. He's a legitimate rookie of the year candidate.

Best moment: Amid a steady rainfall on a chilly December night in Cincinnati, the Bengals defeated future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning for the first time when cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick picked off two of Manning's passes in the final three minutes. The first one, with 2:41 left, was the product of Kirkpatrick making a smart, outside-shoulder read on his receiver's route. It looked like Manning practically threw the short pass directly to him. Kirkpatrick's subsequent return for touchdown put the game out of reach, helping give the Bengals a playoff berth and allowing them to prove they can win in prime time.

Worst moment: The low moment of the season came in Week 6 when kicker Mike Nugent was brought on at the end of an overtime period to kick a game-winning, 36-yard field goal. The ball sailed wide right as time expired. The game ended in a 37-37 tie that was one of the difference-makers in getting the sub-.500 Carolina Panthers into the postseason. It was the last miss Nugent would have before pushing another wide at Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale. He went 15 straight before the 50-yarder didn't go through the uprights at Heinz Field. The 10-year vet further redeemed himself with a franchise-long 57-yarder at Indianapolis on Sunday.

2015 outlook: Just as the 2014 season seemed promising last January, so does the 2015 campaign at this point. Though it remains to be seen what changes might come to the coaching staff and personnel ranks following a fourth-straight playoff loss, little else should be lost in positions of value. If anything, the Bengals will have gains -- and big ones -- entering next season. Receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones will begin the year healthy, with a more experienced Mohamed Sanu. Tight end Tyler Eifert will presumably be at full strength, as will linebacker Vontaze Burfict. As four of their biggest-name free agents, decisions on Jermaine Gresham, Rey Maualuga, Terence Newman and Devon Still could create intrigue during the offseason.
CINCINNATI -- With Jermaine Gresham out nursing a bad back, the Cincinnati Bengals were forced to get creative with their formations and offensive schemes in Sunday's wild-card round playoff game at Indianapolis.

Backup offensive linemen Mike Pollak and Marshall Newhouse might not have been expected to contribute much with a healthy starting offensive line, but Gresham's injury forced them onto the field regularly as part of heavy, unbalanced line fronts. The Bengals still might have had some of those designs in the game plan anyway, but with the team unexpectedly missing one of their best run blockers, it made sense to add more onto the line.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Hill played only 21 snaps in Sunday's loss to the Colts.
Gresham's absence also meant rookie H-back Ryan Hewitt had to be thrown on the field a little more regularly than he may have previously anticipated. According to Pro Football Focus, he was on the field for 53 snaps. That was the second-most snaps he took in a game this season, after the Week 15 win over Cleveland.

Much like the day of the 30-0 victory over the Browns, Gresham tested out an injury -- in that case, a toe -- before being a pregame scratch. In both instances, those who saw him could tell he was in some pain, but given the magnitude of both games (there postseason implications tied to the game at Cleveland) many were surprised to see him inactive for them.

The absence of A.J. Green also meant a shift in responsibilities at receiver, where Mohamed Sanu was part of all but one of the Bengals' 62 offensive plays. Fellow receiver Brandon Tate was on the field 79 percent of the time. Cobi Hamilton, signed off the practice squad last Wednesday, played 45.2 percent of the snaps at receiver.

Also of note offensively: Giovani Bernard outpaced Jeremy Hill in running back snaps. Bernard played 41 to Hill's 21. Part of that was the product of an ankle injury that kept Hill out for periods of the second half. After the game, Hill told ESPN the ankle felt fine and wasn't a factor in his 47-yard rushing performance.

On defense, an early-game injury to linebacker Rey Maualuga put rookie Marquis Flowers on the field for 23 of the 77 plays.

From PFF, here are the complete offense/defense snap counts from the latest first-round playoff loss:

OFFENSE (62 plays)
OG Clint Boling (62), OT Andrew Whitworth (62), OT Eric Winston (62), OG Kevin Zeitler (62), C Russell Bodine (62), QB Andy Dalton (62), WR Mohamed Sanu (61), H-back Ryan Hewitt (53), WR Brandon Tate (49), RB Giovani Bernard (41), WR Cobi Hamilton (28), RB Jeremy Hill (21), TE Kevin Brock (20), OT Marshall Newhouse (16), RB Rex Burkhead (10), OG Mike Pollak (6), WR Greg Little (4), FB Domata Peko (1).

DEFENSE (77 plays)
LB Vincent Rey (77), S Reggie Nelson (76), S George Iloka (74), LB Emmanuel Lamur (69), CB Adam Jones (64), DE Carlos Dunlap (62), DE Wallace Gilberry (61), DT Geno Atkins (53), CB Terence Newman (51), Peko (47), CB Leon Hall (42), DE Robert Geathers (36), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (30), DT Brandon Thompson (28), LB Marquis Flowers (23), LB Rey Maualuga (17), DE Margus Hunt (16), CB Darqueze Dennard (15), DE Will Clarke (5), LB Nico Johnson (1).
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 26-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

Lamenting injury losses: All season, the Bengals have harped on how they hated using injuries as excuses. But the fact is, had it not been for ailments to certain players at critical times of the season, perhaps the year would have ended differently. In addition to playing another game without Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals learned Saturday they would be without Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. Hours before Sunday's game, they found out Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham would be missing, too. Asked about how hard Green and Gresham's absences made things for the offense, receiver Mohamed Sanu said, "Extremely hard. When they [the Colts] have their best players playing and we have some of our best players missing, you can't do what we want to do."

Health a key to 2015? Sticking with the injury theme, rookie running back Jeremy Hill said the biggest change the Bengals needed to undergo in the offseason was simply getting healthy. In addition to the trio above, the Bengals also were without Marvin Jones -- their second-leading receiver in 2013 -- and tight end Tyler Eifert, among others, this year.

'Look at the Panthers': Like most Bengals, safety George Iloka was disappointed with the outcome of Sunday's game. He knows this loss will "resonate with longtime fans" who haven't seen a postseason win since January 1991. "It's also going to resonate with us," Iloka added. "Like they say, you're only as good as your last game." He added that it didn't necessarily matter how a team got to the postseason. It only mattered what the team did once it got there. "You've got to find a way to come out with the win," Iloka said. "Look at the Panthers. They're under .500 and they found a way to win." Carolina beat Arizona in Saturday's NFC wild-card round game after finishing the regular season 7-8-1.

INDIANAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 26-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in a wild-card-round playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday:

What it means: Here we are yet again, writing the same story as last January. It's the story that has become a major part of the Bengals' identity. The team that won 10 games and tied an 11th in the regular season simply didn't show up Sunday. And we probably shouldn't be surprised. The Bengals team that took the field in what proved to be its finale mirrored the one that has been to six playoffs under coach Marvin Lewis ... and lost in the first round of each one. Most coaches who went through a similar stretch probably face job insecurity. Actually, scratch that. Most coaches wouldn't last long enough to go through a playoff stretch like Lewis'. They'd have been long gone before getting to this point. But Bengals president Mike Brown, loyal to a fault, isn't expected to fire Lewis. Few other forced changes probably will come to the coaching staff, one that had a pair of first-year coordinators. Still, their job statuses will be worth monitoring in the next few days.

Stock watch: Quarterback Andy Dalton has been the subject matter behind the "Stock watch" portion of our Rapid Reactions for most Bengals games this season. After another postseason loss, it makes sense that he is highlighted here once again. Dalton didn't play as poorly as he normally does in the playoffs, but he was far from great, either, finishing 18-for-35 with 155 yards. He also had no touchdowns and no interceptions en route to a 63.4 passer rating. Before this game, his combined postseason passer rating was 56.2. The interceptions were worth noting because Dalton has six career playoff interceptions compared with his one touchdown pass. His playoff stock was mostly neutral; it didn't rise much, and it didn't plummet, as has happened at times this season.

Game ball: Speaking of stock, clearly running back Rex Burkhead's is rising. Declared inactive for seven weeks this regular season, the fan favorite has been in the bottom reaches of the Bengals' depth chart much of the year. That changed Sunday, when he became a key part of the offense. With A.J. Green out with a concussion and tight end Jermaine Gresham also sidelined because of a back injury, the Bengals turned to Burkhead as one of their pass-catching options. It was apparent all week that they would try to get him more involved in the passing game when he spent the entire week practicing with the receivers. During the game, he lined up both in the slot and out wide. Burkhead finished with three catches on three targets for 34 yards. He also opened the game for the Bengals' offense with a 23-yard run on a reverse.

Nugent's big boot: Kicker Mike Nugent made history when he blasted a 57-yard field goal just before halftime. He got a little help from the goalpost, as the ball hit the left-side post at just the best angle to continue through the uprights. The field goal was the longest in franchise history and the longest of Nugent's career. His previous long was a 55-yard field goal against Oakland in 2012. That kick tied the previous franchise mark that was set in 1979 by Chris Bahr. Nugent's kick also was the second-longest for any kicker in NFL postseason history, behind only Pete Stoyanovich, who had a 58-yarder in 1991.

What's next? The offseason beckons. Questions about Gresham and free agency, as well as the Bengals' ability to shore up their poor pass rush, will be chief among those that will be asked and perhaps addressed.