Bengals have taken positive steps

Several e-mailers over the past week were upset I didn't include the Bengals in my recent column about the 10 teams that had the best offseasons.

First of all, I was amazed. Passionate Bengals fans after two years of football hell? That's surprising and it offers hope. The Bengals' fan base has been tortured and teased so many times through the years that it's great to see that type of emotion.

What those fans didn't know was that I was planning to include the Bengals among my surprise teams. The return of quarterback Carson Palmer and an easy schedule offer hope. Quarterbacks and schedules mean everything in this league, and the Bengals should benefit from both in 2009.

Still, it's hard for me to give glowing reviews to the Bengals' offseason. Sure, they had a strong draft, but I couldn't find a volume of things that would allow me to give the Bengals a top-10 grade for the offseason.

They signed WR Laveranues Coles, but lost dependable T.J. Houshmandzadeh. They added talented left tackle Andre Smith, but cut former first-rounder Levi Jones. J.T. O'Sullivan was signed as a backup quarterback, but he replaces the departed Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The only true additions to the Bengals' roster were defensive tackle Tank Johnson, who signed a one-year, $670,000 contract; safety Roy Williams, who signed a one-year, $900,000 deal; and fullback Brian Leonard, who came from St. Louis in a trade. He's making $460,000. That's barely $2 million of additions.

For the Bengals, the 2009 season offers hope, but they didn't do enough to merit top-10 consideration for their offseason.

Let's dive into the mailbag:

From the inbox

Q: Don't you think it's about time for the Browns to hand the keys to one of the quarterbacks, instead of having a friendly competition? I don't think this team can ever turn a corner without committing to one QB.

Mark in Cleveland

A: I don't see anything wrong with healthy competition because I honestly don't know who is the best QB. I watched Derek Anderson develop into a Pro Bowl quarterback two years ago. I know he can play. I liked some of the things I saw from Brady Quinn and believe he can be a good starter. Anderson has a strong arm. Quinn is a hard worker and can run an accurate system.

Q: Is there any news that the Bears will soon be drafting/trading for an heir apparent to Brian Urlacher? The whispers of Urlacher's decline are not so quiet anymore, and it seems he's not the player he once was.

Dan in Chicago

A: Great question, but the answer is no. How do you replace a Brian Urlacher? It's the same thing with Ray Lewis in Baltimore. You let both play out their days until they can't play anymore because the next middle linebacker isn't going to be as good as Urlacher or Lewis. Great players sometimes get a second wind. Look at Lewis last year. He played like he was in his 20s. Remember how critics didn't think Urlacher was the right choice because he was a big college safety being converted to linebacker? Don't underestimate him.

Q: Do you think there's a chance the Bills' D will be a top-five unit this year? The secondary is solid and the linebacking corps has potential

Mark in Hanford, Calif.

A: I don't think the Bills are big enough on the defensive line to be a top-10 defense, but I still think they can be a good defense. The problem with a Dick Jauron defense is that sometimes it doesn't have good statistical numbers. It tends to play a bend-but-don't-break style that gives up yards but plays tough in the red zone. First-round choice Aaron Maybin also has to have a solid first season to help the pass rush. I'm optimistic about the Bills, but one thing that will affect their stats on defense is their tough schedule. They play the sixth-toughest schedule in the league.

Q: I was wondering if you think Limas Sweed is ready to step up and be the No. 3 receiver for the Steelers this year, or is he just going to fade away?

John in Prosperity, Pa.

A: Reports from the minicamp are very encouraging about Sweed. It's still too early to determine if he's ready to make a big jump, but he will be closely monitored in training camp to see if he can be a real factor in Year 2. He has a chance.

Q: As a Bucs fan, I'm concerned that the Jim Bates-style of defense is going to implode our once highly touted Tampa 2 defense. Do you think the Bucs will still be able to contain offenses?

Alex in Philadelphia

A: At some point, the Bucs had to accept that Monte Kiffin was going to move on. Change was going to happen at some point, and the Tampa 2 defense has been evolving leaguewide the past couple of seasons. I'm not sold the Bucs made the right personnel moves, but I do believe in Bates. It's pretty clear the Bucs are in transition both on offense and defense. Be patient.

Q: Why can't the Titans trade Vince Young to Houston, where he will have the best receiver in the league to throw to, a good young running back and a great young defense?

Pretty Boy in Houston

A: There is no way Bud Adams is going to trade Young to Houston. There's too much history there given Adams' move from Houston to Nashville. Plus, you're never going to see Adams send a Texas player back to the Lone Star State out of fear that he could come back and haunt the Titans. Young unfortunately blew it last year, when he lost the confidence of his teammates and the organization. He's going to have to win back the players in the locker room to regain his starting status.

Q: Do you think the Redskins' plan to utilize Brian Orakpo as an OLB (even periodically) is wise?


A: I wonder about the move of Orakpo to outside linebacker. I remember some of the difficulties Derrick Thomas had as an outside linebacker in a 4-3. He either had to rush wider or go quicker to the inside to beat the spacing of a 4-3. The plan is for Orakpo to be the strongside linebacker on first and second downs. He will move to defensive end on passing downs. The Redskins figure he will play linebacker on 60 percent of the snaps, and rush the quarterback on half of those plays.

Q: John, I don't understand why people act as if losing Plaxico Burress was devastating to the Giants' roster. Burress was inconsistent last year, and I think the team added enough weapons to at least make the playoffs. Thoughts?

Matt in New Jersey

A: The problem will come in blitzing situations. Burress was Eli Manning's go-to guy when he was pressured. Manning now has to find that option. It is going to take some time. I still think the Giants missed a great chance by not offering more for Braylon Edwards.

Q: How is Alex Smith coming along and does he have a shot to be the 49ers' starter this year? Do you think the 49ers have a shot to make the playoffs this year?

Mike in Mexico City

A: Smith is throwing, but he hasn't made a move yet to win the job. Shaun Hill heads into training camp with the edge. Still, Smith does have a shot because he's still young and has plenty of talent. The Seahawks clearly had a better offseason than the 49ers, and the Cardinals are a better team right now as long as Kurt Warner stays healthy. The return of Matt Hasselbeck should allow the Seahawks' offense to improve by five to six points a game. It would take a great season from Michael Crabtree to cause such a jump in the 49ers' offense. I'd say going in that the 49ers are third in the NFC West and not ready to be a winning team -- yet.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.