The Cincinnati Bengals, a well rounded playoff team, have been quiet all free agency, something that hardly helps a team that is on one of the toughest divisions in football and most likely the top in the AFC. But this free agency, the Bengals might have gained ground on both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. With the Ravens and Steelers losing quite a few key players to free agency or retirement, the Bengals have stayed young and re-signed their own players in what looks to have possibly made them favorites to win the division over the SuperBowl Champions.
The Bengals have a few key players testing free agency. Most notable is Right Tackle Andre Smith who had a phenomenal year and established himself as a top tackle if his health and attitude stay in line, the Bengals are already working with him and hope to finally re sign him during the course of next week. Cornerback Terence Newman, who revitalized his career with 75 tackles after a bad year in Dallas left him free to sign with the Bengals, is also a free agent who the Bengals are trying to keep, and Linebacker Ray Maualuga who despite never living up to true potential had 122 tackles and was a big defensive part of the middle of the Bengals run stop defense. The Cincinnati Bengals also have both Strong Safeties Chris Crocker and Nate Clements as unrestricted free agents which might leave a deep whole on the secondary, still not as big a hole as the others teams have to patch up.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have already lost star wide receiver Mike Wallace to Miami, top Cornerback Keenan Lewis to New Orleans, Guard Willie Colon to the Jets and 5 year Steeler Running Back Rashard Mendenhall to the Cardinals. Also worth mentioning the release of James Harrison, one of the toughest (and most vocal) players in the league. Might actually help the Steelers wallet more than hurt their own defense. The addition of quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and Matt Spaeth have been the only signings so far, two players who figure to contribute very little in the Steelers plans. The Baltimore Ravens on the other hand, have lost various different players with a broad set of skills on both the defensive and the offensive side. The heart of the Ravens, defense and organization, has now retired and left the Baltimore Ravens heart to quarterback Joe Flacco, or at least that’s what I feel a $120 million dollar contract earns you. His possible replacements, Paul Kruger or Dannell Ellerbe, have now left the team via free agency for the Browns and Dolphins respectively, leaving a lonely Terrell Suggs ready to lead. Both safeties have also out of the team with Ed Reed still looking for a team in free agency and Bernard Pollard having been released. Capable cornerback Cary Williams was also lost, as he signed with the Philadelphia eagles. Not much has been lost on the offensive side to free agency though Tight end Dennis Pitta hasn’t been resigned yet. And lets not forget about the huge trade between the Ravens and 49ers that saw Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, a huge part of the Ravens playoff run to paradise, leaving the Champions for the runner-up team. Not his choice of course.
What makes the Bengals the biggest winners so far in the AFC North is the young pieces that have turned out to be solid NFL players at such a young age.For the Steelers, losing a dynamic player who scored 32 touchdowns and had 235 receptions with 4000 receiving yards in his 4 years as a Pittsburgh steeler is going to hurt, specially having a rival team with an even better threat in AJ Green, who has 162 receptions and 2407 total receiving yards as well as 18 touchdowns in only 2 years. And for the Baltimore Ravens, how do you stop this threat having lost 6 top contributors on your defense. Though I agree the addition of Chris Canty and Marcus Spears will help Haloti Ngata and the rest of the pass rushers to get to the quarterback more often, I still think Green has become such a threat in so little time, that there is no end to his play making ability, specially the way he finds the end zone.
Sure the Steelers and Ravens have one major thing over the Bengals. Quarterbakcs Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco are both more established, more confident, and well, most importantly, champions. Andy Dalton isn’t a bad quarterback however, 47-29 touchdown to interception ratio in his first 2 years tells you that you have to take the good with the bad when it comes to quarterbacks, adding to the 7027 passing yards hes accumulated with 629 completions. It might be early in his career but it is clear to see that his ability is limited. He might have better days in sight as of now, but he won’t turn his accurate arm into a deadly weapon, and his ability against the rush still leaves more to desire. Dalton is still a solid option, if he minimizes the mistakes he can improve greatly, specially with the core of young guys. A play making speedy running back and a solid slot receiver will give Dalton all the weapons to see if he can improve, or if he has peaked.
This is THE biggest team sport however, and the more consistent team is the Cincinnati Bengals at this point. A solid weapon like Benjarvus Green-Ellis as a running back, a star wide receiver with a solid young group around him, a defensive line that combined for the NFL league lead in sacks, with Geno Atkins as the pro bowler star, and a solid defense which ranked 6th in the league. The Bengals are set to take over the AFC North. Whether they stop there or go even further is up to management up to this point, who they will sign to stop the likes of Arian Foster and Ray Rice remains to be seen. Another year with a quick playoff loss would be painful for them, specially if it comes against the Houston Texans.