The Browns are making changes at head coach and general manager and have not made the postseason since 2002. The Steelers needed a win over Cleveland in Week 17 to avoid finishing below .500 for the first time since ’03, and they are faced with bolstering an underperforming offense and keeping an aging defense running smoothly. The Ravens will lose MLB Ray Lewis from an already declining defense and will face decisions on whether to re-sign FS Ed Reed and CB Cary Williams.
This brings us to the Bengals, who have made the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1981-82 but have lost to the Texans in the wild-card round both seasons. According to one veteran NFL evaluator who spoke with PFW last week, there's little doubt they again can contend for a playoff spot in 2013. The Bengals are “a team to be reckoned with,” he said, with their defensive front a major strength in his opinion.
A key member of that defensive front, DE Michael Johnson (second on the team with 11½ sacks) is slated to be an unrestricted free agent, as are fellow starters ORT Andre Smith, MLB Rey Maualuga, DE Robert Geathers and CB Terence Newman. Also, skilled P Kevin Huber will be a free agent. However, the bulk of the team’s core offensive players are under contract for 2013, and the defense is also in good shape.
Of the starters who can test the market, Smith and Johnson could be the toughest to bring back, as they are young, talented starters at highly valued positions. Losing Johnson would be an especially tough blow, and the DE depth is an issue to watch with Geathers also able to test the market. Newman exceeded expectations in 2012 but will be 35 next September, which could limit his earning potential. Maualuga has been serviceable but can be replaced. Another issue to watch: it will cost big money to retain star DT Geno Atkins beyond 2013, when he is slated to earn a bargain-basement $575,000 in the last year of his rookie contract.
For now, though, the Bengals, who have quickly and impressively retooled their roster in recent seasons. are in a fairly enviable position. The foundation in place is solid. In fact, it may be enough to make them a fashionable division-title pick in some quarters, considering the various issues their division foes face. However, they have reached the point where just getting to the playoffs isn't enough anymore.