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2007 Season Previews
Cincinnati Bengals (Last Year: 8-8)
Veteran Additions:
C Alex Stepanovich, DT Michael Myers, MLB Edgerton Hartwell, S Blue Adams.
Draft Picks:
QB Jeff Rowe, RB Kenny Irons, G Dan Santucci, DT Matt Toeaina, CB Leon Hall, S Marvin White, S Chinedum Ndukwe.
Major Subtractions:
QB Anthony Wright (NYG), WR Kelley Washington (NE), TE Tony Stewart, G Eric Steinbach (CLE), C Rich Braham, DT Sam Adams (DEN), DT Shaun Smith (CLE), OLB A.J. Nicholson, OLB Marcus Wilkins (ATL), MLB Brian Simmons (NO), CB Tory James (NE), CB Rashad Bauman, S Kevin Kaesviharn (NO), S Anthony Mitchell.

Offense This Year: Bengals fans who visited this Web site early last summer may remember that I originally picked their team to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLI. I quickly decreased Cincinnati's win total and playoff expectations when I heard the following quote from Carson Palmer: "I'm confident running with [my knee] and planting and cutting. But as far as getting hit, having to run full-speed and stop in a small area, I'm not mentally ready for that. And I don't think my knee's ready for that. There's no point in me testing it and seeing exactly what I can and can't do."

Palmer, who suffered a torn ACL in his first postseason throw as an NFL quarterback, which was a 66-yard bomb to Chris Henry, started the 2006 campaign off rather slowly, throwing for less than 200 yards twice in September, while tossing six touchdowns and four picks. His knee seemed to improve after that; he compiled 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions in October and November, while maintaining just one sub-200-yard performance (at Baltimore). He struggled in December, but it seems as though Palmer will be 100 percent in 2007. They say it takes one year for the knee to fully recover from an ACL, and two years for the mind to be confident that it has regenerated. It'll be two years this January. Perfect time for Palmer to get revenge for the hit Kimo von Oelhoffen put on him.

Palmer will have his usual cast of odd characters that he'll be throwing to. His top target, Chad Johnson, had another outstanding season, catching 87 passes for 1,369 yards and seven scores. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to perform any of his brilliant touchdown dances or propose to any cheerleaders, so he was a bit on the boring side in 2006. T.J. Houshmandzadeh actually caught a greater number of passes (90) and visited the end zone more frequently (9 TDs) than Johnson. Chris Henry, meanwhile, remained the ultimate wild card. No one knew where he would be on any given week. Jail? Practice? Rehab? There must have been office pools in Cincinnati created for the sole purpose of predicting Henry's whereabouts.

The Bengals averaged 23.3 points per game, but it wasn't just Palmer and his receivers doing all the work. Rudi Johnson rumbled for 1,309 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, although he maintained a 3.8 yards-per-carry clip, down from 4.3 in 2005. Johnson's only 27, so I expect him to rebound with another solid season. Meanwhile, the offensive line did an acceptable job, limiting defenses to 36 sacks in 2006. Cincinnati will miss Eric Steinbach, but Andrew Whitworth, a solid prospect whom the team selected in the second round of the 2006 Draft, will be taking his place.

Defense This Year: Another reason why the Bengals weren't able to meet my Super Bowl expectations was the major complications their linebacking corps endured. Odell Thurman, who was quickly becoming the premier middle linebacker in the AFC, was suspended for an entire year for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. His locker was consequently cleaned out by the Bengals, although Thurman could be reinstated by the league in a hearing on July 11. Meanwhile, outside linebacker David Pollack is no longer with the team for a completely different reason. In September, Pollack suffered a broken vertebrae and had to go through surgery. He now has to endure an extremely long rehabilitation process just to have a chance to play in the NFL again.

There's no chance Pollack plays in 2007, but Cincinnati could definitely use Thurman. The defense surrendered 20.7 points per game, and was mediocre against both the run and the pass. As a rookie, Thurman recorded five interceptions and a team-high 98 tackles, so you can see why the Bengals need him. If he makes it back, he'll be playing in between Landon Johnson, who led the stop unit with 112 tackles in 2006, and Rashad Jeanty, who made an impact as a rookie the final two months of the season.

Although the linebacking corps will certainly improve if Thurman is allowed to come back, the most talented group on Cincinnati's defense is unquestionably the secondary. As a rookie, cornerback Jonathan Joseph started the final seven games of the regular season, taking the spot of veteran Deltha O'Neal, who was injured. The 30-year-old O'Neal is currently slated to start across from Joseph, but first-round rookie Leon Hall is waiting in the wings, just as Joseph was in 2006. The dime back, Keiwan Ratliff, is one of the top reserve corners in the NFL. At free safety, Madieu Williams continues to be one of the most underrated defensive backs in the league. The weak link in the secondary is strong safety Dexter Jackson, though he does bring Super Bowl experience to the table. The unit as a whole picked off 19 passes in 2006 and is just one year removed from collecting a whopping 31.

The Bengals' interception totals are impressive when you consider that their front four doesn't put much pressure on opposing quarterbacks. In 2005, Justin Smith led the squad with six sacks. Last year, Robert Geathers notched 10.5. Problem is, the rest of the team collected only 24.5. Cincinnati made no changes to their pass rush. I was shocked when the team spent a second-round selection on another backup running back (Kenny Irons) instead of a defensive end who can get to the quarterback or a defensive tackle who can stop the run; the Bengals recently released 500-pound run-stuffer Sam Adams.

Schedule and Intangibles: Last year, I said the Bengals needed a better return specialist. They didn't listen and consequently failed to generate a touchdown on special teams. At least they didn't give up a score. ... Shayne Graham nailed 8-of-12 field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards, including 2-of-4 from 50-plus. Not bad. ... Cincinnati is just 42-46 at home since 1996. While that may be a product of the "Bungle" days, the team was only 4-4 in the Jungle last year. ... Someone needs to say it, so I might as well. The Bengals choke. Their final game against Pittsburgh marked the second time in Marvin Lewis' tenure that they lost a contest they needed to win to get into the playoffs. Cincinnati lost to Cleveland in 2003, 22-14, to drop to 8-8 instead of 9-7. It's remarkable that both choke jobs were at home. ... Three of the Bengals' first four contests are against Baltimore, Seattle and New England. However, they finish with a cakewalk: Arizona, Tennessee, Pittsburgh (tough), St. Louis, San Francisco (could be tough), Cleveland and Miami. Someone in the league office did them a favor.

Additional Reading: Endless Banter coming soon.

Positional Rankings (0-4 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

Divisional Rival History:
Baltimore Ravens: When you go 13-3, chances are you sweep your division. That was not the case here, as the Ravens and Bengals split their two meetings, each winning at home. Cincinnati has claimed four of the past five meetings overall.
Cleveland Browns: Not even close. The Bengals won last year's matchups, 34-17 and 30-0. Carson Palmer is 5-1 against the Browns.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The road team has mysteriously claimed the past five meetings. Go figure.

Fantasy Football:
Carson Palmer: Off a torn knee, Carson Palmer threw for 4,035 yards and 28 touchdowns. Yeah, I think that's pretty good. Second to Peyton Manning on the fantasy quarterback list.
Projected Stats: 4,150 passing yards. 30 passing TDs. 30 rushing yards. 0 rushing TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 391.

Rudi Johnson: Rudi Johnson has rushed for more than 1,300 yards the past three years. Problem is, he doesn't do much in the passing game. If your league counts receptions, take him a bit later than you would in a traditional league.
Projected Stats: 1,400 rushing yards. 100 receiving yards. 12 total TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 212.

Reggie Kelly: The tight end doesn't do much in Cincinnati's offense. Stay away.
Projected Stats: 225 receiving yards. 1 TD.
Projected Fantasy Points: 28.

Chad Johnson: Touchdowns. Celebrations. Marriage proposals. Chad Johnson does it all. Or at least he used to before the No Fun League stepped in. Still, Johnson has averaged about 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns the past four seasons. No reason that won't continue.
Projected Stats: 1,300 receiving yards. 9 TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 184.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh: Fifth pick, sixth round, T.J. Houshmazoad. Lock it up! Houshmandzadeh actually had an incredible season last year, catching 90 passes for 1,081 yards and nine touchdowns. Here's the kicker: He missed the first two games of the season. With everyone focused on Chad Johnson, Houshmandzadeh actually has more value in terms of where you'll be able to obtain him in the draft.
Projected Stats: 1,200 receiving yards. 9 TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 174.

Chris Henry: If arrests and rehab sessions count, take him in the first round of your draft.
Projected Stats: 750 receiving yards. 7 TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 117.

Shayne Graham: Shayne Graham is reliable beyond 40, and he kicks tons of extra points.
Projected Stats: 26-31 FG (1-2 50+). 42 XP.
Projected Fantasy Points: 129.

Cincinnati Defense: Pay attention to the Odell Thurman situation. If he comes back, the Bengals could have a top-10 fantasy defense because they tend to force a lot of interceptions and other turnovers. Thurman will certainly help matters.
Projected Fantasy Ranking: Top 12 Defense.

Analysis: Look at it this way: The Bengals went 8-8 last year despite having Carson Palmer at less than 100 percent and a linebacking corps missing its best player. If Odell Thurman returns and Palmer is completely healthy, the sky's the limit for Cincinnati.

Projection: 10-6 (Tied 2nd in the AFC North)

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