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|2002 RECORD: 2-14
TEAM RANK (NFL): Defense (17th); Offense (18th)
Free agents -- DE Carl Powell (Redskins), LB Kevin Hardy (Cowboys), DT John Thornton (Titans), CB Tory James (Raiders), TE Reggie Kelly (Falcons), FB Mike Green (Titans), QB Shane Matthews (Redskins), S Rogers Beckett (Chargers).
Draft picks -- 1. QB Carson Palmer (USC); 2. G Eric Steinbach (Iowa); 3. WR Kelley Washington (Tennessee); 4a. CB Dennis Weathersby (Oregon St.); 4b. FB Jeremi Johnson (Western Kentucky); 5. OLB Khalid Abdullah (Mars Hill, N.C.); 6. NT Langston Moore (South Carolina); 7a. OT Scott Kooistra (North Carolina State); 7b. DE Elton Patterson (Central Florida).
LB Takeo Spikes (Bills), QB Akili Smith (released), OT Richmond Webb (Steelers), FB Lorenzo Neal (Chargers), S Cory Hall (released), FB Nicolas Luchey (Packers), S Brian Leigeb (released), QB Gus Frerotte (Vikings), DE Vaughn Booker (released), QB Joe Germane (released), OT Reggie Coleman (Packers), LB Canute Curtis (released), C Brock Gutierrez (released), DE Eric Obogu (released).
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What are the realistic goals for Lewis and the Bengals this year?
Worst to first is the goal for any new coach taking over a team that has talent, but that's too much to expect for Marvin Lewis. Six or seven wins would be great, and that could and should happen. Lewis has made the biggest impact among the five new NFL coaches because he gave the Bengals their first winning offseason since the early 1990s. For years, free agents laughed at thoughts of signing with the Bengals. Lewis convinced five veteran free agents to accept more than $19 million of Bengals dollars to come to Cincinnati. Lewis' biggest challenge is changing veteran Bengals who have losing habits. That won't be easy, and he may have to weed out a lot of players to accomplish that goal. Lewis' hard line coaching style should improve the little things, and that will start the transition. The offense is the strongest unit. Quarterback Jon Kitna can rely on Corey Dillon's running and the rapid improvement of Chad Johnson as the team's go-to receiver. Peter Warrick is best suited to be the team's third receiver working mainly from the slot. Lewis' scheme will improve the front seven on defense, but the secondary needs a full season to come together.
It goes without saying that Lewis has his work cut out for him. A 55-137 record over a 12-year period (dating back to the Bengals' last playoff berth in 1990) signifies that something is terribly wrong. But Lewis already has shown that he's up for the challenge.
The whole time Cincinnati appeared destined to take quarterback Carson Palmer with the No. 1 pick, Lewis insisted that the team already had a starter for 2003 -- Jon Kitna. This and other acts in Lewis' brief tenure have illustrated a leadership and direction that have been lacking for quite some time.
What they've added?
Lewis is unquestionably the biggest offseason addition. Obviously, onlookers will analyze the progress on defense quickly, but Lewis has been brought in for much more. The Bengals haven't just piled up losses over the past decade -- they've been generally uncompetitive, and Lewis is expected to change that formula.
As expected, Lewis' first priority was the defense. He addressed the line by bringing in end Carl Powell, who played under Lewis in Washington last year, and tackle John Thornton. The Bengals suffered a big loss when middle linebacker Takeo Spikes, who made it clear last year that he wanted out, joined the Bills. However, Cincinnati quickly signed Kevin Hardy. The Bengals also have upgraded the cornerback spot, signing veteran Tory James and drafting Dennis Weathersby, who slid to the fourth round after getting shot and wounded in April.
Offensively, Lewis brought in another familiar face in former Washington quarterback Shane Matthews. But Matthews likely won't get much time given that Cincinnati has named Kitna the starter and Palmer will be groomed to take over eventually.
What they're missing?
If the Bengals are to have a reversal of fortune, they'll need an emergence of a second receiving threat opposite Chad Johnson. Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans have been disappointments and Danny Farmer is not an option. Kelley Washington might someday fill the role, but projecting such big things of a rookie who was plagued by injuries in college might be a bit much.
One of fantasy's best-kept secrets last season was the emergence of wideout Chad Johnson as a fantasy starter. Going undrafted in fantasy circles, Johnson became a measure of consistency for all receivers. After Jon Kitna became a more proficient passer, Johnson finished as fantasy's ninth-best wideout in the season's second half. He posted five 100-yard games and produced six straight contests of at least 10 fantasy points. Coach Marvin Lewis wants to install a more explosive downfield passing attack. This will help Johnson gain more yards in 2003 as he had 1,166 yards last season. With Kitna's steady arm still leading the offense, Johnson remains a fantasy starter for many squads.
-- Roger Rotter, ESPN.com Fantasy editor
The offensive line also poses concerns. Corey Dillon had 1,311 yards last season but had his second-worst yards per carry (4.2), and Kitna was tied for the third most interceptions (16) in the conference. The Bengals released veterans Richmond Webb and Reggie Coleman and drafted guard Eric Steinbach, who could move to tackle, and Scott Kooistra.
On defense, the Bengals appear set. They have talent and depth in a number of areas. Last year, Cincinnati had just nine interceptions, so James could push for a starting job at corner.
What it all means?
Regardless of how competitive Lewis makes them, the Bengals are not a playoff team this season. Every team will sell itself as having Super Bowl aspirations, and several squads have a legitimate shot, but the Bengals aren't one of them.
In the past 12 seasons, only once have the Bengals finished as well as 8-8. Only three other times did they win at least six games. To think that Cincinnati, which won just two games in 2002, would keep many of the same players in skilled positions and yet manage to win an additional six or seven games is unrealistic.
If the past couple of months are any indication, Lewis will have the Bengals focused and ready to play in September. And that already puts them a couple steps ahead of past seasons.
James C. Black is an NFL editor for ESPN.com.