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Cincinnati Bengals 2011 Season Preview

Following the end of the lockout, the Cincinnati Bengals the-rear wide receiver and half of one of the best defensive back duos in the NFL.

All this before the team even got training camp underway.

A six-game downward swing in the win department will often bring overhaul to a roster, but head coach Marvin Lewis can't be too excited with some of the changes that took place. Sure, he'll probably need less aspirin not having to deal with Chad Ochocinco's antics any longer, but the fact that he is going from a veteran starter under center in Carson Palmer to rookie Andy Dalton in addition to the surprising loss of cornerback Johnathan Joseph could keep him up at night anyway.

The Palmer drama started the earliest, with the 31-year-old saying in January -- following a 4-12 season for Cincinnati -- that he wanted a trade despite signing a six-year extension after the Bengals' 11-win campaign in 2005. Team president Mike Brown refused to budge, however, and Palmer opted to retire rather than try to help Cincinnati rebound and shoot for a second division title in three seasons.

"Carson signed a contract, he made a commitment, he gave his word," said Brown. "We relied on his word. We relied on his commitment. We expected him to perform here. If he's going to walk away from his commitment, we aren't going to reward him for doing it."

One player who did get a trade out of town was Ochocinco, who was dealt to the New England Patriots in late July. His departure leaves the Bengals without their top two receivers from last year in No. 85 and Terrell Owens. But it was the loss of Joseph through free agency that may have hurt the most for a defense that finished middle-of-the-road a season ago.

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was stunned by Joseph's departure, but knows the show must go on.

"I still have an expectation level of this defense," Zimmer said early on in camp. "It may not look like I pictured it a day ago, but we're going to figure it out. I've had defenses that have been No. 1 in the league with guys no one knew, so we'll figure it out."

The Bengals and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden will also have to figure out how to improve their 20th-ranked offense with a pair of rookies -- Dalton and wideout A.J. Green, the fourth overall pick of the 2011 draft -- hurled into the spotlight, though the club did re-sign workhorse running back Cedric Benson.

While Cincinnati used the draft to add to its offense, the Bengals were busy attacking free agency to plug holes on the other side of the ball. Two of their potential starters in 2011 came from San Francisco in corner Nate Clements -- Joseph's replacement -- and linebacker Manny Lawson. The defense won't have much room to go through its growing pains, however, even if Lewis is comfortable with Dalton as the starter.

Like it or not, the wrong foot is exactly what the Bengals may get off to.

Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Cincinnati Bengals, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2010 RECORD: 4-12 (4th, AFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009, lost to N.Y. Jets in AFC Wild Card

COACH (RECORD): Marvin Lewis (60-67-1 in eight seasons)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jay Gruden (first season)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Zimmer (fourth season with Bengals)

OFFENSIVE STAR: Cedric Benson, RB (1111 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 8 total TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Leon Hall, CB (44 tackles, 4 INT, 11 PD)

2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 20th overall (27th rushing, 13th passing), 22nd scoring (20.1 ppg)

2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 15th overall (19th rushing, tied 14th passing), 24th scoring (24.7 ppg)

KEY ADDITIONS: QB Andy Dalton (2nd Round, TCU), WR A.J. Green (1st Round, Georgia), TE Bo Scaife (from Titans), OLB Manny Lawson (from 49ers), CB Nate Clements (from 49ers), QB Bruce Gradkowski (from Raiders), OG Max Jean-Gilles (from Eagles), OLB Thomas Howard (from Raiders), CB Kelly Jennings (from Seahawks), S Taylor Mays (from 49ers)

KEY DEPARTURES: QB Carson Palmer (retired), WR Chad Ochocinco (to Patriots), WR Terrell Owens (not tendered), TE Reggie Kelly (to Falcons), DE Antwan Odom (released), DT Tank Johnson (released), MLB Dhani Jones (not tendered), CB Johnathan Joseph (to Texans), S Roy Williams (not tendered), QB Jordan Palmer (released), OG Evan Mathis (to Eagles), DT Clinton McDonald (to Seahawks), CB Keiwan Ratliff (not tendered), S Chinedum Ndukwe (not tendered), S Tom Nelson (released), K Clint Stitser (released)

QB: While it is true that success has come in few bunches for Palmer with the Bengals, the franchise felt -- and perhaps rightfully so -- it was unfair for the former top pick of the 2003 draft to cut the line. Palmer threw for more than 4,000 yards twice in his eight NFL seasons and completed a career-best 32 touchdown passes in 2005 that led to his extension. He was forced to throw the ball often a year ago, setting a Bengals record with 586 pass attempts while getting picked off a career high-tying 20 times, and with the two sides playing hardball, Dalton is the one set to benefit. A four-year starter at TCU, the Bengals grabbed Dalton in the second round due to his intelligence and accuracy, and he should fit into Gruden's West Coast system well. Former Oakland signal-caller Bruce Gradkowski (1059 passing yards, 5 TD, 7 INT with Raiders) was signed to be the backup, with Dan LeFevour sticking around as the third quarterback.

RB: Despite his offseason charge of misdemeanor assault (hey, this is the Bengals we're talking about) that led to a 20-day jail sentence that was set to be served right before the start of this season, Cincinnati brought back Benson (1111 rushing yards, 7 TD) following his second straight 1,000-yard rushing campaign. The fourth overall pick of the Bears in the 2005 draft has resurrected his career in Cincinnati, but there may be some worry after he went over the 300-carry mark for a second straight season, finishing 2010 with a career-high 321 attempts. Backup Bernard Scott (299 rushing yards, 1 TD) has shown signs that he can handle a bigger load with his strength and instincts and could get more touches in 2011. Big back Brian Leonard (20 receptions, 1 TD) returns for his third year with the club, while Chris Pressley and Fui Vakapuna, who missed all of last year due to a shoulder injury, are battling for the fullback role.

WR/TE: In Ochocinco and Owens, the Bengals lose 139 catches, nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns from a season ago, but also the diva atmosphere that comes with the spotlight-seeking duo. They'll get none of that drama with the humble Green, who showed great size, speed and smarts at Georgia, pulling in the second most touchdown grabs in school history over his three seasons. The 25-year-old Jerome Simpson (20 receptions, 3 TD) also slides into a starting spot along with Green, with youngsters Andre Caldwell (25 receptions), Jordan Shipley (52 receptions, 3 TD) and rookie Ryan Whalen (6th Round, Stanford) adding depth. Shipley enjoyed an excellent rookie campaign last year by posting 600 receiving yards, as did tight end Jermaine Gresham, who made 52 catches and scored four touchdowns in his first NFL season. Third-year pro Chase Coffman has impressed this preseason and the signing of veteran Bo Scaife (36 receptions, 4 TD with Titans) gives Cincinnati plenty of options at tight end, provided the latter can overcome a preseason shoulder injury.

OL: The Bengals did a good job of keeping Palmer upright last year given his heavy workload, ranking second in the AFC in fewest sacks allowed per passing play, and the entire starting lineup is back for 2011 with one small -- albeit big in size -- change. Andre Smith, Cincinnati's 2009 first-round pick, was limited to just four starts last year due to a foot fracture, but the 335-pound talent should be the Week 1 starter at right tackle this year. Dennis Roland, who made the other 12 starts, moves to the bench with the switch. The rest of the line are 16-game starters from last year, including right guard Bobbie Williams -- the longest-tenured member of the group who's entering his eighth season in Cincinnati -- center Kyle Cook, left guard Nate Livings and left tackle Andrew Whitworth. The Bengals did sign guard Deuce Lutui to a contract, but he failed his physical and the club instead inked guard Max Jean-Gillis, a former Eagle, for depth purposes.

DL: Though the Bengals would like to increase their total of just 27 sacks from last year, their line does have a desirable mix of veterans and up-and- comers. The left side features a pair of returning 16-game starters in end Robert Geathers (33 tackles, 1 sack) and tackle Domata Peko (42 tackles). Geathers has just 10 1/2 sacks in four years since posting that total in 2006 alone, but the emergence of rookie Carlos Dunlap last year factored into his low amount. Cincinnati's second-round pick in 2010, Dunlap (24 tackles, 9.5 sacks) set a club rookie record for sacks in a season as he finished the campaign very strong. The release of both tackle Tank Johnson and end Antwan Odom will open playing time on the right side for a trio of players. Second- year man Geno Atkins (16 tackles, 3 sacks) should earn the start at Johnson's spot over Pat Sims (31 tackles, 2.5 sacks), who made eight starts a season ago. Right end Michael Johnson (35 tackles, 2.5 sacks) began last year at linebacker, but injuries along the line shifted him back to the front four. Frostee Rucker (17 tackles, 1 sack) returns as a reserve end after battling a knee injury for part of last year.

LB: The Bengals will have a brand-new look at the linebacker positions, with Rey Maualuga (75 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) moving from the strong side to the middle to replace 2010 leading tackler Dhani Jones, whom the club opted not to re-sign. Cincinnati inked Thomas Howard (9 tackles with the Raiders) to take over the WILL spot until returning starter Keith Rivers (77 tackles, 1 sack) recovers from a wrist injury, while Lawson (59 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) is the new starter at the strong side. Howard made 62 starts with Oakland from 2006-09, but was relegated to a reserve role a season ago. Dan Skuta (16 tackles) was in play for the starting SAM spot until the signing of Lawson and will back him up instead, as will speedy rookie Dontay Moch (3rd Round, Nevada) once he's back from a broken foot suffered in the preseason. Special teams captain Brandon Johnson (38 tackles, 1 INT) was re-signed after battling through some injuries last year and can line up at different spots on passing downs.

DB: Corners Leon Hall (44 tackles, 4 INT) and Joseph combined for seven interceptions a season ago, but Hall will now have a new partner in Clements, who is looking to revive his career after a disappointing stint with the 49ers. Born in Ohio, Clements (82 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) was drafted by the Bills out of Ohio State and returns home after grabbing just 10 of his 33 career picks in his four years with the 49ers. He may get plenty of balls thrown his way with Hall lining up on the right side. A first-round pick in 2007, he has 18 picks over his first four NFL seasons. Morgan Trent (26 tackles, 1 INT) and Jonathan Wade are the backups and the Bengals also swung a deal in August to get fast corner Kelly Jennings (40 tackles, 1 INT) from Seattle. Oft-troubled defensive back Adam Jones (14 tackles, 1 INT) is expected to start the season on the PUP list due to a neck injury. Neither Roy Williams or Nedu Ndukwe are back, with strong safety Reggie Nelson and free safety Chris Crocker set to be the Week 1 starters. A former first-round pick of the Jaguars, Nelson (54 tackles, 2 INT) had a solid year in 2010 after playing his way out of Jacksonville, and the Bengals hope to get a similar turnaround from second-year man Taylor Mays, whom Cincinnati got in a trade with San Francisco after he fell out of favor with the Niners. Crocker (43 tackles, 2 sacks) will be returning from a season- ending knee injury suffered after nine games last year, while veteran Gibril Wilson will also be trying to return from a knee injury that cost him all of 2010.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Mike Nugent was putting together a solid season before a knee injury cut his season short after nine games. He was 15-of-19 on field goal attempts before going down, with two of the four misses coming from beyond 50 yards. Punter Kevin Huber ranked 14th in the NFL with a 38.2 net average and put 28 of his 71 punts inside the 20-yard line. Scott (22.4 kick return avg.) and Quan Cosby (7.5 punt return avg.) both return to their respective roles.

PROGNOSIS: Like it or not, the future will be thrust into the present for the Bengals. The loss of several key players, wanted or not, puts a pair of rookies in Dalton and Green right into the spotlight, and Lewis will need to use the duo often to prevent Benson from wearing down. Expect school to start early for the freshmen in an always-tough AFC North. Cincinnati will benefit from having a solid offensive line, but Zimmer will be up against the wall trying to mold a handful of new defensive players together. Things don't come easy in this division, and Cincinnati could be looking at another long and tough season.