Oh, the drama. The Bengals have been a chic pick the last two years since going 11-5 in '05, but they haven't broken .500 in either of those seasons. Ironically, given head coach Marvin Lewis's background, the defense has been the main culprit. In '06, Cincy allowed the third-most yards in the league, and in '07 they gave up the sixth-most. Last year, the team generated the fewest sacks in football and consequently gave up pass yards by the bushel (230.4 per game, to be precise).
But "good offense, bad defense" doesn't begin to capture the mess in Cincinnati. Linebacker Odell Thurman and receiver Chris Henry became poster boys for a permissive environment and character-challenged players. Both are gone from the Bengals now, but the residue of bad behavior lingers. Things got ugly in the offseason when Chad Johnson complained of his contract situation and hinted he wouldn't attend training camp, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh is also miffed about his deal. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks was charged this spring after allegedly punching a woman in the face. The team drafted defensive end Frostee Rucker in '06 despite assault allegations, and Rucker subsequently lost one game's pay in '07 for being charged with false imprisonment and vandalism. And this April, the team drafted defensive tackle Jason Shirley in the fifth round, a player who was off some teams' boards because he has a trial pending on two counts of driving under the influence and one count of hit-and-run. Charming.
The Bengals have a number of personnel question marks heading into training camp, which begins July 28 in Georgetown, Ky. They have a gaping third-receiver hole to fill, lingering questions about their starting tailback, a new tight end to integrate into the offense and are missing their starting free safety, starting weak-side linebacker (and leading tackler) and starting left defensive end from last season. And yet the bigger question, and the one that will probably linger for as long as Lewis is the head coach, revolves around character.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: Unlike in a lot of offenses, the third-receiver gig in Cincinnati can be fantasy-relevant. Chris Henry and his bad behavior are banished from the Queen City, which throws the position into open competition. Antonio Chatman might be the veteran frontrunner, but he had all of 19 catches all last season (compared to Henry's 21 in eight games). Glenn Holt, Marcus Maxwell and rookies Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson also figure to be in the mix.
The backup running back job might also be in play behind Rudi Johnson. Kenny Watson scored seven touchdowns in relief of Johnson in '07, but the Bengals consider him a third-down man (he had 52 catches last year), and would love Chris Perry to unseat him in the backup role. DeDe Dorsey and undrafted Kansas State rookie James Johnson could get looks.
On defense, after Odell Thurman's release, the Bengals made a decision to move Dhani Jones to middle linebacker, making him an IDP (Individual Defensive Player) sleeper, but don't rule out the possibility of Ahmad Brooks moving to the middle if Rashad Jeanty can handle the strong side. And while Marvin White is expected to take over free safety for Madieu Williams, Chinedum Ndukwe and former Super Bowl hero Dexter Jackson will battle for strong safety.
Fitting in: The Bengals haven't had a pass-catching tight end in the Carson Palmer era, so it'll be interesting to see how the team uses Ben Utecht, who signed as a free agent from the Colts this March. Utecht has great hands but isn't much of a blocker (putting him in the Dallas Clark mold), which means incumbent Reggie Kelly, a sturdier blocker, should see significant time, too. Cincy's offensive staff has indicated that Utecht could be a big part of the solution to the team's third-receiver quandary.
When the Bengals took defensive end Justin Smith with the fourth pick of the 2001 draft, they thought they were getting a star. What they got was a good player who reliably racked between six and eight sacks every year (except '07, when he logged only two). Smith is gone to San Francisco, and Cincinnati signed Antwan Odom from Tennessee to replace him. Odom broke out with the Titans last year, registering eight sacks (in three previous seasons, he had a combined 4.5 sacks). However, many around the league are skeptical about Odom being ready to be a lead defensive end and an every-down player. If he can't handle that burden, this entire Cincy defense might struggle again.
The No. 9 overall pick in April's draft was linebacker Keith Rivers, a high-character player who could eventually help change the Bengals' culture. For now, the team simply hopes he can replace Landon Johnson, the team's leading tackler in 2006 and 2007, as the weak-side linebacker in Mike Zimmer's revamped 4-3 defense. Johnson left for Carolina this offseason.
On the mend: For all the drama surrounding his contract, the only news item of actual substance regarding Chad Johnson turned out to be the surgery he had on his right ankle in mid-June. As usual, Johnson was flapping his gums, telling the media what an unbelievably quick healer he is and how he definitely was going to be 100 percent by camp. Turns out he was right. He looks OK in camp, but keep an eye on that ankle.
Starting tailback Rudi Johnson pulled a hamstring in Week 3 of '07 and was never himself thereafter. The good news is that the hammy wasn't torn, so a full recovery is expected. The bad news is that offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said he plans on using a committee at running back, with Johnson as the starter but Kenny Watson and others getting significant looks. Of course, a few of Johnson's backups are also recovering from injuries. Chris Perry still isn't all the way back from major ankle surgery in '06, and DeDe Dorsey suffered a hamstring injury in minicamp and isn't expected to be 100 percent by training camp.
On the line: This O-line reduced its sacks allowed from 36 in '06 to just 17 last season, and its tackles, Levi Jones (left) and Stacy Andrews (right), are considered excellent in pass protection. However, neither guy is an above-average run blocker, even the massive (6-foot-7, 340 pounds) Andrews, who's nevertheless expected to get the starting nod over fading veteran Willie Anderson this fall. Anderson, who already has been declared a reserve by Marvin Lewis, has been one of the premier run blockers of the last decade, but he's on the decline.
Similarly, starting center Eric Ghiaciuc and guard Andrew Whitworth aren't great at getting a run push either, leaving guard Bobbie Williams as the only road-grader in this group. So while you can expect Carson Palmer to stay upright, thinking Rudi Johnson (or his understudies) will make a full recovery to glory might be asking a lot.
The bottom line
Is it possible all these moving pieces come together and make the Bengals a playoff team again? It is. But it's more likely that this squad, 7-9 a year ago, falls apart, gets its coach fired, and winds up picking in the top 10 again next April. For fantasy purposes, watch and listen for training camp news about who'll pick up Chris Henry's targets. If one of the several understudy receivers emerges (Chatman?), he could be a decent fantasy sleeper; otherwise, Utecht could find himself creeping into fantasy-starter territory at tight end.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.