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NFL Draft Preview: Blockers Bengals’ priority

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The Sports Xchange

CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals entered free agency with the goal of keeping as many of their own players as possible. They accomplished that as well as reuniting with several other players who had previously been with the organization.

This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who has followed this team the past decade. The franchise’s priority is on drafting and development while using free agency to supplement needs in a limited fashion. Out of six free agents signed from other teams, only linebacker A.J. Hawk (from Green Bay) and wide receiver Denarius Moore (Oakland) don’t have a previous history with the Bengals.

The Bengals re-signed kicker Mike Nugent and linebacker Rey Maualuga before free agency began. They wrapped up a five-year deal for left guard Clint Boling and a one-year deal with right tackle Eric Winston in the early days of free agency, then got deals done with reserves Cedric Peerman (running back), Brandon Tate (receiver/returner) and defensive tackle Devon Still after the initial wave of free agency had subsided. They also re-signed restricted free-agent linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, keeping him from getting away as they allowed wide receiver Andrew Hawkins to do last year when he signed with Cleveland.

Besides Hawk and Moore, the Bengals signed back defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Pat Sims, quarterback Josh Johnson and cornerback Brandon Ghee.

Michael Johnson is the biggest addition of free agency for the Bengals. He signed a five-year deal with Tampa Bay in free agency last year worth $43.75 million but an ankle injury in his first game was the beginning of an underwhelming season for Johnson. The Buccaneers released him this offseason, choosing to cut their losses, including taking on $7 million in dead money.

The Bengals and Johnson were more than happy to reunite. He was the team’s third-round pick in 2009 and grew from being a pass-rushing specialist into an every-down player. He was part of a defensive line unit that was the foundation of a top-10 defense. It wasn’t a coincidence the defense improved as Johnson and two 2010 picks – tackle Geno Atkins and end Carlos Dunlap – developed. After the Bengals finished last in the NFL last season with 20 sacks, the feeling within the organization is that everyone will benefit from this reunion. He’s not a savior but there is something to be said with a player’s comfort level. Johnson was never comfortable in Tampa Bay.

While there was nothing flashy about what the Bengals did in free agency, their approach allows them to go in any number of directions not only with their first pick at No. 21 overall but with any of the four picks they have among the first 99 choices, or the six they have in the top 135. They need to replenish both lines as well as linebacker, the secondary and wide receiver. There are no less than 16 starters/significant reserves that are eligible to become unrestricted free agents next offseason at this point, so this draft will be important in buffering against any potential losses next offseason.

2014 Record: 10-5-1, 2nd in AFC North

First Draft Pick: #21 Overall

BEST FIT: T Andrus Peat, Stanford

If “protect thy quarterback” isn’t Rule No. 1 for an NFL offense, it should be. The Bengals offensive line has done a good job of this over the years but it needs to look to the future. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is 33, entering his 10th season with the Bengals and is in the last year of his contract although there’s no reason to think his playing days are over. Right tackles Eric Winston and Andre Smith are also on the final years of their deals. Peat (6-foot-7, 313) fits right into the lineman type that line coach Paul Alexander likes: he’s smart, agile with size and can play multiple positions. It’s a deep position group full of first-round talents.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Defensive line: If protecting the quarterback is Rule No. 1 for an offense, getting to the quarterback is Rule No. 1 for any defense. No team in the NFL was worse at that last season than the Bengals, who had just 20 sacks. Signing Michael Johnson helped. The Bengals are counting on 2013 second-rounder Margus Hunt and 2014 third-rounder Will Clarke to produce more but you can never put pressure on the quarterback too much. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to be able to do so without having to call as many blitzes as he had to in 2014.

2. Tackle: As outlined above, the Bengals have to look to the future when it comes to their tackle position. The interior of the offensive line is in good shape; center Russell Bodine was a fourth-round pick last year, left guard Clint Boling has a new five-year deal and the decision to pick up the fifth-year option on right guard Kevin Zeitler while working on a long-term deal shouldn’t be a hard one to make.

3. Linebacker: The biggest unknown for the Bengals this offseason is the health of WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He suffered concussions in each of the first two games last season and had his season ended by a knee injury in late October that required one surgery. Burfict played in just five games last year and then underwent microfracture surgery after the season. He has not been cleared to participate in the team’s offseason workouts and his availability for the start of training camp is unknown. The Bengals had seven different players start games at linebacker for them last season. Their depth was sorely tested. That’s one of the reasons A.J. Hawk was signed but this position group can use more.


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