Remember, this process isn’t an attempt to predict where teams will finish, but to project the position from which they’re starting.
The Cincinnati Bengals could have a very big season, but if they do they’ll be digging out of a deep hole.
Last year’s 4-11-1 record (capped amazingly by three straight wins) was fueled by a serious problem with franchise quarterback Carson Palmer’s elbow, which required the Bengals to rely upon Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The running game was a revolving door, until the franchise known for second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth chances gave Cedric Benson a chance to make good on the potential that made him the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft.
Though Palmer is healthy again, he might not be for long — if the reshuffled offensive line doesn’t pan out. Tackles Levi Jones and Stacy Andrews are gone, with Andrew Whitworth sliding out on the left side, and Andre Smith eventually taking over the right, if/when he ever gets in football shape.
Tight end could be an issue, too, thanks to season-ending injuries to Reggie Kelly and Ben Utecht.
The defense is intriguing. Last year, the Bengals quietly finished at No. 12 in yards allowed. This year, it might be even better, especially with the addition of perennial Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams.
But the most compelling change, in our view, arises from the departure of receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and the replacement of him with Laveranues Coles, who might be better than his predecessor.
And perhaps most importantly, receiver Chad Ochocinco is rejuvenated. Though it might not last, his positive attitude could spread to teammates, and he could have a big year after a major disappointment in 2008.
Still, it won’t be easy to climb to the top of a division that features both AFC finalists from a year ago, in a conference that remains extremely top heavy.
Key player: Palmer. To retain the title of franchise quarterback, Palmer needs to take this franchise to the playoffs — and win a playoff game. It would be a great way to celebrate his 30th birthday on December 27.
Rookie to watch: Smith. The Bengals won the month-long standoff with Smith regarding his contract, but if it keeps him from contributing right away, have they really won anything?
Best veteran acquisition: Coles. He has been a quality No. 1 wideout despite so-so quarterbacking talent. Across from Ochocinco, one or both of them will face single coverage — and will have a big year.
Key game: Week Three, Pittsburgh. To get to the playoffs, the Bengals need to master their division. Knocking off the Steelers in late September would be a great start.