Conventional wisdom says that the third year is where we see what quarterbacks are made of. Rookie jitters are out of the way, as are the pressures of a potential sophomore slump. Andy Dalton finds himself in a position where he'll assert himself as the next great NFL quarterback, or the next very good one.
Statistically, he's ahead of classmate Cam Newton, but Dalton has yet to garner the same credit among his peers. The NFL's "Top 100 players" list is coming to a close, with no mention of the Bengals' quarterback. The perception is that his tools are there, and he's an effective offensive leader — but with A.J. Green, Dalton is often overlooked. With more help added through the draft, the time is now to silence those questions.
Here are three things the Bengals need to do in order to have success in 2013.
1. Another receiver needs to step up
Green is everything the Bengals hoped for, and more — but the same can't be said for their second receiver spot. Training camp will feature a multi-player battle to start across from Green, and there aren't a lot of good options. Mohamed Sanu had flashes, as did Andrew Hawkins, but it's difficult to see either as a reliable second.
Instead, the Bengals look to take a Patriots approach to team building, using multiple two-tight end sets to mitigate their lack of receivers. Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert could pair to be one of the league's most dangerous 1-2 punches at the position, but both will need to prove they can stretch the field.
Herein lies the problem for the offense. They lack a reliable burner who can stretch the field. Green is amazing, but as the Atlanta Falcons showed with Julio Jones, it's necessary to have that deep threat every down to support the primary receiver. If they can find that player, and the tight ends play to their potential, Cincinnati could have the most potent offense in the AFC North.
2. Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins need some help
A talented defensive line cures a multitude of ills. That axiom was apparent during the 2012 season, as Johnson and Atkins combines for 24 of the Bengals' 51 sacks. However, if the pass rush hopes to have equal success in 2013, someone else is going to need to shoulder some of the burden.
Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry had acceptable years, but neither were consistent pass-rushing threats — instead willing to allow Atkins, the team's All-Pro defensive tackle, and the criminally overlooked Johnson to do the work.
Six sacks are adequate for rotational ends, but as more teams learn to scheme for Cincinnati's big threats, the need for someone else to improve rises. This is about staying on top, and to do that they'll need Dunlap in particular to become a regular force.
Free agent acquisition James Harrison could be the answer, but he'll need to show that his recent decline isn't age catching up with him.
3. Dre Kirkpatrick is vital
A lot will be asked of the second-year cornerback, who was injured for much of his rookie season. He has outstanding size for the position, and could become a force — provided he can improve his technique.
Many of Kirkpatrick's struggles will be covered by Leon Hall, who makes the secondary better by osmosis — but no division in football relies on the deep ball more than the AFC North. Each opponent has players who can get vertical quickly, and big-armed quarterbacks with an ability to deliver the ball.
His development is the key to allowing the defense to become truly well-rounded. Unless third-round rookie Shawn Williams is able to contribute early, they didn't improve through the draft with an elite safety, as it was expected they would.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens find themselves battling issues of age and cap space. The door is open right now for Cincinnati to take the next step and claim the division. They have the overwhelming defensive talent to make that leap, and their prudent moves in the draft ensured they wound up with best talent — rather than reaching for needs.
This was a 10-win team a year ago, and they could easily match that total. The focus moves to the postseason, and here they can take strides forward with a better matchup.