The Bengals went to the playoffs for the second year in a row in 2012, which is their first set of consecutive playoff seasons in 30 years. Still, there's room to grow for 2013, and the growing process begins now.
The Cincinnati Bengals won seven of their last eight games in the 2012 season and locked their second consecutive playoff berth with a win over the Steelers on the road. However, for the second year in a row they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Houston Texans. While the foundation of the team remains strong heading into the 2013 season, some gaps can be filled in free agency and the draft.
Last offseason, the Bengals filled holes in the offensive line in the draft as well as free agency, and they also signed a defensive end and cornerback. The biggest free agency acquisition they made was Terence Newman, who was reunited with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, as he started every game of the season and looked like the Newman of old.
The Bengals used the franchise tag for defensive end Michael Johnson, after he recorded a career-best 11.5 sacks in the final year of his rookie contract. Tagging Johnson means right tackle Andre Smith is free to seek out a hefty deal in free agency. Cincinnati will need to find a replacement.
This offseason the Bengals will likely focus on keeping their own talented players from leaving as they have several free agents of their own to bring back. They also have four selections in the first three rounds of the upcoming draft thanks to their trade of Carson Palmer to the Raiders. The "to-do" list for the Bengals is pretty long, but it's not as long as most other teams.
Biggest need: Linebacker
The three linebackers that started the first game of the season for the Bengals are all three free agents. Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson and Rey Maualuga's contracts have all expired. Of course, we know now that Vontaze Burfict, the sensational undrafted free agent rookie, is the future of the position. He came in to start for Howard in Week 3 after Howard's season-ending injury and finished the season leading the team in tackles. However, he's the only guy whose name is cemented into the roster right now.
The Bengals will likely try to re-sign Thomas Howard for the WILL position and move Burfict to MIKE, letting Maualuga go. That leaves them with a need at SAM where the team needs to upgrade from Lawson. Most mock drafts have them either looking at Georgia's Alec Ogletree or Kansas State's Arthur Brown.
Other needs: Safety, cornerback, running back
The Bengals have neglected the strong safety position for quite some time. They have Reggie Nelson at free safety, but the combination of guys like Taylor Mays, Jeromy Miles and Chris Crocker isn't getting the job done at strong safety. There are several mock drafts that have Texas safety Kenny Vacarro falling to the Bengals, who have the No. 21 overall pick.
Another need is at cornerback. Leon Hall is a shutdown corner, but the other corner is up in the air. Newman is a free agent, as is Adam Jones. Meanwhile, Dre Kirkpatrick, who the Bengals selected in the first round of the 2012 draft, barely made it on the field in 2012 due to a series of injuries. If the Bengals choose not to, or are unable to re-sign Jones and Newman, they could look to sign another free agent corner or use a high draft pick on one.
Finally, running back has been an issue for the Bengals as well. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a decent season in 2012 and he was excellent when it came to short yardage plays, but he isn't what you would call a home run threat. The Bengals have made it clear that they want a back to complement Green-Ellis in the backfield, and they'll likely look to the draft for their answer.
As mentioned above, replacing Andre Smith is on the offseason to-do list for the Bengals as well.
NFL Draft outlook: Bengals have numerous picks
Thanks to their completely one-sided trade of Palmer to the Raiders, the Bengals have a first-round pick, two second-round picks and a third round pick. This will allow them to not only give their team more depth where they're talented, but allow them to fill some large gaps on their depth chart.
Most mock drafts have the Bengals either taking a linebacker or a safety with the No. 21 overall pick, but a few have also predicted they grab a running back or even a wide receiver. Either way, with early and late second-round picks, they're in good position to find some talented players.
Salary cap situation: Enough to make it rain
The Bengals owner Mike Brown is famous for not spending very much money. They rarely go after big-name free agents and they have let some of their most talented players leave as free agents in the past. With free agents like Andre Smith and Michael Johnson -- as well as Jones, Newman and Howard -- that the team needs to re-sign, the Bengals can put that money to good use.
They have about $50.6 million to spend, which puts them in the lead in the league. This should help them fill the holes they have to get over the hump and past the first round of the playoffs.
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