John Fay's 9 Questions for Bengals in 2017

Offseason decisions may decide playoff chances
Posted at 4:51 PM, Jan 01, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-02 14:17:49-05

CINCINNATI — The tailgating lots were about half full. Same with the stands.

That’s understandable.

Neither the Bengals nor the Baltimore Ravens are going anywhere this season. For the record, the Bengals played pretty well in Sunday's 27-10 win. That was no small thing to coach Marvin Lewis.

“It was important for the guys to compete together and have fun together,” he said. “As we know, when you move forward, nothing stays the same. Hopefully, it’s a great kickoff to 2017.”

It was the first meaningless Bengals game at Paul Brown Stadium in six years (non-exhibition division). Now, instead of looking forward to the postseason, fans have to look back on a 6-9-1 regular season and wonder what might have been.

What that in mind, here are nine questions to ponder as the Bengals officially begin the offseason:

1. Will Whit be back?

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is a free agent. He’s made two things clear: He wants to return and he’ll only return if he’s the left tackle.

Last year’s No. 1 pick, Cedric Ogbuehi, projects as a left tackle. But given his struggles this year, he’s not nearly as good an option as Whitworth. Given that and Whitworth’s leadership, it would seem like a no-brainer to bring him back.

It was on Whitworth’s mind Sunday.

“I soaked it all in,” he said. “It’s not many years — with us going to playoffs — that you end with a win. It was a little different mood. I got a chance to walk and talk to the fans. 

“The reality is in free agency, anything can happen. If it’s not there, I have to go somewhere else.”

It sounded like Lewis would like Whitworth back.

“He’s been tremendous,” Lewis said. “You get to the end of the year all the time and you have guys that are free agents. That’s part of the way the league works. Andrew has been a tremendous player, mentor, stalwart. Whatever position adjective you can give, that’s been Whitworth.

2. What about the rest of the O-line? 

Guard Kevin Zeitler is a free agent as well. Center Russell Bodine has not been effective. Jake Fisher, drafted just after Ogbuehi, showed some promise late in the season. But he’s no sure bet, either. Veteran Eric Winston is a free agent.

There seems to be more questions than answers — and that’s if Whitworth comes back.

3. Will Dre be back?

Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is the second most prominent player on the free-agent list. He has improved greatly since last year. The Bengals picked corners in the first round two of the last three years. But this year’s pick, William Jackson, was hurt all year, and 2014 pick Darqueze Dennard hasn’t played well enough to earn significant playing time.

“I tried to embrace every moment out there today,” Kirkpatrick said. “You don’t know if they could be my last. Hopefully, it won’t. I let my teammates know I love them - even the older guys, everything they taught me.” 

4. Can Eifert stay on the field?

Tight end Tyler Eifert is a key part of the offense, but he has missed 28 games in his four years with the Bengals with a variety of injuries — ankle, elbow, back. It’s hard to count on someone who only plays in a little over half the games.

5. A.J. alternative?

The Bengals brought in free agent Brandon LaFell and drafted Tyler Boyd to complement A.J. Green at wide receiver. They really didn’t have much impact until Green got hurt. They certainly weren’t ever replacements for Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, and LaFell is a free agent.

Will the Bengals go the FA route again or count on Boyd and fellow rookies Cody Core and Alex Erickson to blossom?

Core and Boyd were good Sunday. 

“We have to gain something out of this season,” Lewis said. “That’s part of it. Those are the positives — the fact that these young guys have gotten an opportunity to play in the NFL when it meant something.”

6. Coaching changes?

Marvin Lewis is likely safe. Make that very, very likely safe. But the offense struggled under first-year coordinator Ken Zampese, dropping to 23rd in scoring after finishing seventh last year under Hue Jackson. Some of that can be blamed on injuries, but the play-calling was less than imaginative at times.

7. What to address in the draft?

There are plenty of areas of need: offensive line, wide receiver, defensive line, linebacker.  One thing's for certain: The Bengals can’t have a draft like the did in 2016 and hope to get back to the playoffs. The last two drafts, in fact, haven’t been great — particularly as far as defense goes.

Teams can vastly improve via the draft (see the Dallas Cowboys). The Bengals have to do that.

8. Who’s the kicker?

Randy Bullock has been adequate since taking over for Mike Nugent, but you wonder if a journeyman like Bullock is a long-term solution. It’s unlikely that the Bengals address kicking in the draft, but they’ll certainly look at free agents.

9. Linebacker?

Carlos Dansby is a free agent. Rey Maualuga has disappeared lately. He’s 17th in the teams in tackles, not good for a middle linebacker.

Vontaze Burfict is like Eifert — he’s very good when he plays but he’s hurt a lot. Vincent Rey grades out second behind Burfict. Rookie Nick Vigil has shown flashes. But is he ready to start?

 All those questions will be answered in time. For now, the players, like the fans, are wondering what went wrong.

“It’s disappointing,” cornerback Adam Jones said. “It’s always disappointing when you don’t make the playoffs. Any professional would take as motivation if he didn’t have a good year. It’s all part of game. You have to prepare yourself to compete.”

PHOTOS: Tailgaters out in force for finale