For many professional athletes year three seems to be where things can really come together. The 2015 season will prove to be that year for the Bengals’ stellar draft of 2012. The entirety of the class possessed real skill and had potential to contribute in the NFL. Many of the players remain on the roster and this could be the year when the team really reaps the benefits.
The essential “junior” season may be most pivotal to the team’s first of two 1st round picks, Dre Kirkpatrick. After injuries derailed nearly his entire first year and impeded upon the beginning of his second, Kirkpatrick showed life when the Bengals needed him towards the end of last season. Terence Newman suffered a knee injury which thrust Kirkpatrick into a significant role in the secondary. He played 96% of the defensive snaps from week 15 through the playoff game contributing 15 tackles (9 solo), 4 passes defended, and 2 INTs, one of which was returned for a TD. This year he finally gets a true peer in Darqueze Dennard. It’s great to have veterans around to teach and help him transition to the NFL, but having some youth around him to relate and bond with will be a positive for the young cornerback. He needs to improve his defense of double-moves, but if he can build off the end of last season, he may be looking forward to a productive year ripe with opportunity.
After a strong showing in his rookie year, Kevin Zeitler didn’t enjoy the same level of success in 2013 due to an injury. Zeitler has proven he will be a more than adequate right guard for the Bengals, but he will have the chance this year to perform within Hue Jackson’s new run heavy system. This should play more to Zeitler’s liking (along with the rest of the aggressive offensive line). Nothing motivates a line like getting the push the offense needs to get yards and control the ball. Zeitler will have the opportunity to be more accountable towards the success of this offense and he should thrive in this new system.
2012 second round pick Devon Still has the most to prove this coming season. He’s been largely a forgotten player after being drafted with visions of him lining up next to Geno Atkins and completely collapsing the pocket from the inside. Most telling has been the team’s drafting in recent years along with the play of Wallace Gilberry. Between Gilberry, Margus Hunt, and this year’s third rounder Will Clarke, all have an ability to play at DT during passing situations. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther even commented on Clarke during this year’s draft saying he could put on weight and play DT. Guenther has commented about showing several different fronts this year and maybe even some 3-4 looks. This may give Still more avenues to succeed. I believe the team is searching for the guy to line up next to Geno during passing situations and Still needs to take this place soon if he isn’t to be negated entirely.
The Bengals’ first of two 3rd round picks was Mohamed Sanu. He may be the most interesting player to watch this coming year. Hue Jackson isn’t really known for possession receivers but he’s a creative coordinator and I have confidence in his abilities to use these type of guys. Sanu is a great red zone option with his strength against opposing cornerbacks and is a versatile player that Jackson should love. He’ll probably take a few snaps in the wildcat formation, make a trick play throw, run the football out of the backfield as well as make catches in the flat from here, and should provide a great target inside of 10-15 yards for Andy Dalton. The Bengals love versatility and no player may have more of this than Mohamed Sanu.
Brandon Thompson looks to build on a strong 2013. Thompson gained his opportunity due to the unfortunate ACL tear Geno Atkins suffered in week 9. He played admirably in his stead but few, if any, could fill the shoes of Atkins. Thompson was drafted with a run stopping role in mind, providing quality depth behind Domata Peko. His role may be expanded early in the season in order to allow Atkins to return properly from his ACL injury. He’s a big strong player in a division that is once again emphasizing the running game. He should provide a solid contribution this year, eating up blockers and allowing players like Vontaze Burfict to roam and make plays.
The 2013-14 off-season has not been the best showing for Orson Charles after his arrest for wanton endangerment in Kentucky. The message the team sends to him is important, forcing Charles to decide how he will handle himself going forward. It seems Jackson was attempting to groom him last year into the Marcel Reece role he once coveted. The more likely option will be to return him to his original tight end role. Charles was considered to be a steal in the fourth round. It will be important this year that he hones his skills as the team may see Jermaine Gresham leave in free agency after this year. Hopefully Charles proves to be that steal with a renewed focus and dedication to his game.
Marvin Jones had a stellar 2013 finally providing the team’s receiving complement to AJ Green. He produced double-digit TDs (10) and posted a similar yards/catch to Green: 14 to 14.6, respectively. The Bengals pride themselves on spreading the ball amongst its many receiving options and still Jones had 51 receptions. He’s strong at the point of the catch, something Green needs to improve upon, and in Jackson’s offense he may enjoy more deep balls off play-action. The key this year will be for Jones to adjust his game as he won’t be surprising opponents any longer. The opposition has a year of tape and awareness of him, and will adjust to him. If Jones stays committed to improvement, he has all the tools to continue to be a very effective receiver giving Jackson and Dalton the additional outside threat that will open up the field.
Seeking a compliment to Reggie Nelson at safety, the Bengals seem to have found one in 2012 fifth round pick George Iloka. He was a breath of fresh air to the secondary, finishing third on the team in total tackles (66) and providing solid run support and a gang-tackling mentality. This year he will need to step up his cover and ball skills and create more pass deflections and turnovers. His size gives the defense a favorable match up against opposing tight ends, allowing the team flexibility in its defensive play calling. Iloka should benefit from Darqueze Dennard’s addition, to the secondary, allowing him to make more plays on the ball and improve this defense’s already stellar unit.
Most impressively the Bengals may have made their best rookie decisions with their undrafted free agent signings, four of which still remain with the team. Vontaze Burfict was their crown jewel. He has flourished under Marvin Lewis who has even compared the young star to his first protégé, future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. He led the league in tackles last year and is the heart and soul of the Bengals defense, an amazing reality considering the players around him. Emmanuel Lamur may be the most exciting of the four to watch this coming year. He suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during a pre-season game after an impressive showing prior to this. He had received praise from coaches and his peers for getting bigger and stronger without sacrificing any of his safety-like speed. His addition to the unit will add speed and coverage ability, especially in the nickel set, allowing Burfict to roam and make plays. Trevor Robinson has been a backup center/guard to date. He played admirably in the past while Kyle Cook was hurt. This year it seems he will have to supplant both Mike Pollack and rookie Russell Bodine if he is to earn a starting spot in the middle. Brandon Joiner was an interesting acquisition in 2012 but spent a year in prison stemming from an incident in 2007. The Bengals continued to support the young man keeping him under contract throughout this. He suffered an injury in the pre-season last year and spent the year on IR. Many fans were interested following his acquisition but his battle to make the roster will be a long shot considering the team’s linebacking depth.
Year one is a player’s transitional year to the NFL where they have an opportunity to make an impact while opponents have little information on how to prepare for them. The sophomore slump often takes place seemingly because opponents learn about these young players and prepare for them accordingly. All this lends itself to players having an opportunity to really begin to define their careers in year three. The Bengals’ class of third year players are in a great position to make a real impact and finally get the Bengals that illusive playoff victory.