The Cincinnati Bengals brought franchise quarterback Carson Palmer into the organization in 2003, when they made him the top overall pick. Chad Ochocinco predated him by two years, joining the Bengals in 2001 as a second-round pick. For the better part of a decade, those two players were the face of Cincinnati's franchise. That changed dramatically during the 2011 NFL Draft.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are now the future of the Bengals, while Palmer and Ochocinco - still under contract with the team - are likely to leave in one fashion or another. Very quickly, the Bengals are getting younger and remaining very talented, but they still have plenty of needs heading into free agency.
Needs addressed in the 2011 NFL Draft: The Bengals made out like bandits with their first four picks, nabbing their quarterback of the future (Dalton), arguably the draft's best prospect (Green), a hugely underrated pass-rushing linebacker prospect (Dontay Moch), and a versatile, unheralded offensive lineman (Clint Boling). Those four players have a chance to be stalwarts in Cincinnati for quite a while; their next two picks, safety Robert Sands and receiver Ryan Whalen, look like they'll stick, as well. For all of the talent the team added, however, needs still remain - and more could be created if the team can't retain some of its own talent.
Remaining needs: Priority No. 1 may still be quarterback, where the Bengals didn't even start Palmer as a rookie, and have only Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour behind Dalton. Josh Kirkendall, who runs SB Nation's CincyJungle.com, believes that a veteran quarterback will be a high priority for the Bengals - even though head coach Marvin Lewis has said that Dalton has the ability to start right away in Jay Gruden's offense.
"The last Bengals rookie quarterback to start the first game of the regular season was Greg Cook in 1969," Kirkendall tells us. "Every prospect quarterback since experienced a developmental period under a veteran quarterback. Jack Thompson and Boomer Esiason had Kenny Anderson. David Klingler had Esiason. Carson Palmer had Jon Kitna. Akili Smith made his first start during the fifth game of his rookie season, though he did play in three games prior. We tend to wonder how much the Bengals use Smith as a model of what not to do with rookie quarterbacks."
If either of the team's top two free agents - cornerback Johnathan Joseph and running back Cedric Benson - depart the team, that will create a new need, as well. Kirkendall believes Benson is the higher priority, and the more likely of the two players to return.
"Marvin Lewis and company did reportedly target Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas in the third round," Kirkendall said. "Unfortunately, the Miami Dolphins traded ahead of the Bengals into the second round and selected the running back, leaving the Bengals empty handed. Lewis has since admitted that the team's top priority now is the return of Benson.
"If I were to guess, Benson returning is close to a sure thing," Kirkendall continued. "Joseph's return, not so much. Mike Brown doesn't pay top dollar for players, even his own and Joseph will likely command something around Champ Bailey's contract of four years worth $43 million, including $22 million guaranteed."
Options in free agency: If the Bengals are able to retain Benson, it's hard to imagine them not at least sniffing around Matt Hasselbeck as soon as they can. The top veteran free agent quarterback available this off-season, Hasselbeck will be a coveted player for teams looking to bridge the gap between the present and the point in time in which a rookie quarterback will be ready to see the field. The Bengals fit that description, and Hasselbeck is well-versed in the West Coast Offense that Gruden will be installing in Cincinnati.
Cornerback will also be addressed in one form or another, whether that's retaining Joseph via a lucrative extension or the franchise tag, or targeting a mid-tier replacement to push Adam Jones for a starting job alongside Leon Hall. (Both Hall and Jones, by the way, are entering contract years, pushing the position up the priority list.) Depending on the shape of free agency, the Bengals shouldn't be lacking for options here.
Keep an eye on the defensive line, as well, where the Bengals have a lot of young and developing talent, but may lose the highly versatile Jonathan Fanene as a free agent. Fanene wouldn't be an easy player to replace, as he plays end and tackle for Cincy, even though young talent like Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Pat Sims and Geno Atkins appears ready to shine.