Thanks to great fundamentals, a surprising running game and an impressive secondary, the Bengals were one of the NFL's pleasant surprises last season. Managing to win 10 games and the AFC North crown with quarterback Carson Palmer throwing for just over 3,000 yards was even more startling.
Coming off of elbow surgery, Palmer had his skeptics heading into the season, and the playcalling did little to help him out. Only four times in the regular season did Palmer attempt 35 passes or more in a game, which helps explain why he had just five outings with multiple passing touchdowns and one 300-yard passing day. Even with Chad Ochocinco catching nine touchdowns, the Bengals weren't exactly an aerial juggernaut last season.
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Perhaps they didn't have to be. The big key to the Bengals' success was the steady play of Cedric Benson. The veteran rusher was one of just six running backs with over 300 carries in 2009, and he made his touches count as he scored or had 100 total yards in all but three of the 14 games he played in. Few in Fantasy were as reliable, and even fewer delivered bigger numbers after being picked with a mid-round selection. An ugly incident this offseason in Texas might result in a suspension, but he'll still be taken much higher than where you found him a year ago.
But the Bengals have taken strides this offseason to become more of a passing team, much like others in the NFL are doing. Not only have they added rookie wideouts Jordan Shipley and Dezmon Briscoe and tight end Jermaine Gresham via the draft, but they've also signed free agents Terrell Owens, Antonio Bryant and Matt Jones.
The end result should mean more passing attempts and better numbers for Palmer, and a much more balanced offense for the Bengals. Their biggest haul is Owens, who signed in late July just before the start of training camp, and he should add a dynamic to the Cincinnati offense not seen since T.J. Houshmandzadeh lurked on their side of the line of scrimmage.
With the Bengals' intriguing moves this offseason to improve the offense and a defense coming back just as strong with pass rusher Antwan Odom close to 100 percent healthy, they might just surprise the league again.
Sleeper ... Terrell Owens, WR
We originally had Antonio Bryant in this space, but now that Owens has joined the Bengals and has seemingly bumped Bryant out of the starting lineup, he's the guy worth sneaking onto your roster. In spite of playing in an anemic offense last season with terrible quarterbacks, Owens put up 55 catches for 829 yards and five touchdowns with the Bills. Now he's got Carson Palmer throwing him passes in an offense that has plenty of talented weapons. There's optimism that Owens will not just match his totals from last year, but exceed them. Considering that some owners won't touch Owens with an 81-foot pole, there's a shot he slips in drafts. We like him as a -- dare we say it? -- safe mid-round pick and a potential No. 3 Fantasy receiver.
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Bounce-back candidate ... Carson Palmer, QB
OK, fine, Palmer "bounced back" last year when he played 16 games. This year we say he lights it up with big stats like the ones prior to his elbow injury. Sure, the Bengals might feel comfortable handing off to CedBen 20 times a game and calling it a day, but by the moves they've made this offseason you can see they want to improve their passing. The addition of Owens, the drafting of athletic tight end Jermaine Gresham with a first-round pick and slot machine Jordan Shipley with a third-round pick -- it all adds up to improving their options and letting Palmer put the ball up more in 2010. He even said as much in mid-June, claiming the offense has undergone the most changes this offseason in his time with the club. Better yet, Palmer will have the luxury of handing off to Benson (or dumping passes off to him) and working behind a solid offensive line. And best of all for Fantasy, Palmer can be had very late compared to the other quarterbacks with 4,000-yard, 25-touchdown potential.
Bust ... Jermaine Gresham, TE
Lots of people are excited about Gresham's arrival into the NFL, and in time he should be a quality tight end for the Bengals and Fantasy owners alike. But he's joining a team that hasn't utilized the tight end much over time and won't be close to being a focal point of the offense. We also did research on how rookie tight ends do in Fantasy, and the results aren't good for Gresham. If you're in a keeper league or dynasty league and want to grab him in 2010 so you have him down the line, that's cool. We think that's a smart move. But expectations should be low for him this season since there are so many weapons for Palmer to target and Gresham is just a rookie, after all.
This isn't a friendly schedule for Cedric Benson or the Bengals defense, which could mean lots of shootouts for Cincy. That said, Benson creamed the Ravens twice last season and scored on the Steelers in the one game he finished, so he's not exactly a guy who screams "bench me!" when faced with a difficult matchup. The Bengals defense is a different story: In games against high-powered offenses like the Vikings, Chargers, Texans and Packers they gave up at least 24 points per game, and this year they get the Colts, Chargers, Patriots and Saints -- not to mention the improved Jets once and Ravens twice (but one game is in Week 17).
Training camp topics
Benson's run-in at a bar in Texas in late May saw him ultimately get arrested and face some serious assault charges. Because he's a repeat offender of the league's personal conduct policy, he might receive a suspension without a conviction of this crime. It's definitely worth watching to see if and when Benson gets slapped with a suspension, though head coach Marvin Lewis doesn't believe one is coming.
We've gone on and on about the Bengals' passing game, but one major piece needs to be in place in order for this faction of the Bengals to take off: Chad Ochocinco. He spent the offseason ballroom dancing on national television and hosting reality shows, not working with his teammates. Save for mandatory minicamps, it's safe to say that Ochocinco's focus hasn't been on football. Sometimes when players do that it hurts their production (Jason Taylor, a former fancy dancer, is one such example). If Ochocinco's game is exposed early on it will crush this team. But that's a big "if" -- penciling in Ochocinco for over 1,000 yards for the eighth time in nine seasons is safe.
We should also keep an eye on who earns the backup running back job behind Cedric Benson. Last year, rookie rusher Bernard Scott filled in admirably for Benson for two weeks, but he's been focusing on kick returns and has a sore ankle this offseason. Larry Johnson has bolted for Washington. Brian Leonard is a capable third-down back but about as enticing for Fantasy as Skyline Chili-flavored ice cream. If Scott can't get healthy, owners might be out of luck trying to handcuff Benson's backup.
Bernard Scott (ankle; probable for the start of training camp) ... Antonio Bryant (knee; questionable for the start of training camp) ... Antwan Odom (Achilles'; probable for the start of training camp) ... Rey Maualuga (leg; probable for the start of training camp).
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