Bengals Offseason Report: Cincy Eyes The Next Step In AFC North

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 04: A.J. Green #18 of the Cincinnati Bengals tries to catch a second quarter pass next to Ike Taylor #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers but ends up drifting out of bounds at Heinz Field on December 4, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Bengals were one of the surprises last season earning a playoff berth. Did they do enough to keep up with the Steelers and Ravens in the AFC North?

The Cincinnati Bengals were one of the surprises of the 2011 season as they won nine games and made a postseason appearance, one of three AFC North teams to land in the playoffs. The Bengals were led by a pair of rookies in QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green as well as a top 10 defense.

The Bengals were among the league leaders in salary cap space entering free agency but spent their money cautiously, picking up a handful of key free agents. The Bengals were also strong in the NFL Draft, picking up what could be several immediate starters.

The Bengals play in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL but were still able to pull off a postseason appearance last season. Did they do enough this offseason to land in the playoffs once again?

Related: More Bengals News At SB Nation's Cincy Jungle

Last Year

The surprise with the Bengals is that they were so good so quickly, winning six of their first eight games and finishing 9-7. The Texans knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs in the Wild Card round last January. Even with that loss, the Bengals clearly took a step in the right direction last year.

Rookies usually take some time to transition into the NFL game, but Dalton was poised as a rookie, throwing 20 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. Green was even better, catching 65 balls for 1,057 yards and showing us he is as good as advertised.

The quarterback and receiver get the attention, but the true strength of the Bengals in 2011 was the defense, ranked ninth in the NFL. Cincy has put together one of the best defensive lines in football and actually improved on defense after losing one of their best defensive backs in Johnathan Joseph the year prior.

Best Free Agent Pickup

The running back market was light in the 2012 free agency period but the Bengals still had a solid signing in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He's a short-yardage specialist who racked up 24 touchdowns in the last two years. He's young (26) and only has 510 carries in four career seasons, which means he has plenty of tread left on his tires.

The Bengals allowed Cedric Benson to walk so Green-Ellis has a clear role with the Bengals.

Here are all the Bengals free agent signings.

2012 NFL Draft

I loved the Bengals draft. They picked up a number of good players and, even better, a few of them can start right away.

Related: Bengals NFL Draft Grade

Dre Kirkpatrick, a cornerback out of Alabama, was their 1st round pick and he'll help with the loss of Joseph in free agency two seasons ago. Kevin Zeitler is the next great offensive lineman out of Wisconsin and he was selected in the 1st round by the Bengals after they traded down. Devon Still in the 2nd round is one of the best values in the draft. Mohamed Sanu is not only a good player, but also incredibly charismatic, as SB Nation learned earlier this year. Orson Charles, tight end out of Georgia, could be a steal in the 4th round. George Iloka, a safety picked in the 5th round, has landed on a few best-value lists as well.

There's a strong argument that the Bengals had the best draft of anyone in the NFL. This comes on the heels of last year's draft, which included both Green and Dalton. The Bengals are building their team to last.

Rival Threat

From SB Nation's Cincy Jungle:

While some teams are replacing key departures or unexpected offseason injuries, the Cincinnati Bengals freight train keeps accelerating at alarming speeds (alarming to other teams, that is). Nearly the entire defense, save for a handful of role players, returned from last year's seventh ranked squad, with upgrades at cornerback and defensive tackle - and assuming that former first-round selections Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey rebound from their disappointing young NFL careers, then defensive end as well.

Continuing to rebuild offensively with BenJarvus Green-Ellis at running back, a host of competing wide receivers to replace the often undependable Jerome Simpson, the Bengals continued adding impressive value with upgrades on the interior offensive line and tight end. A.J. Green is establishing himself as a lockerroom leader already while the team's second-year quarterback arrived for offseason workouts with noticeable improvement in his upper body strength.

Unlike other teams in the AFC North trying to replace players that left, the Bengals literally added another layer of talent that was on this squad last year, establishing growth while keeping the heart of the team's character unified.

They Make The Playoffs If...

They can beat the Ravens and Steelers.

Last year, three AFC North teams make the playoffs, which won't happen every year, and the Bengals were 0-4 against the Steelers and Ravens. Three of those four games were within one score, so they're not that far off. They're built to last on defense, so they fit in well in their division. The Bengals will need to improve by at least one or two games in their own division if they want to compete for the AFC North title.

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