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Bengals Forecast: Johnson and Johnson ideal for young Palmer

By Chris Bahr - SportingNews

WHAT'S NEW

The offense has a much different look than it did heading into 2003. There no longer is a malcontent at running back, but there also isn't an experienced QB behind center. Though Corey Dillon should have a fine season with the Patriots, his departure was a case of addition by subtraction for the Bengals. That's how much of a distraction he had become. Jon Kitna was a real surprise for Cincinnati and fantasy owners last season, but the team is eyeing the future and turning to the unproven Carson Palmer.

Also new this season are lofty expectations. Marvin Lewis did the impossible as a first-year head coach by bringing a sense of respectability to one of the league's most laughable franchises last season. The Bungles became the Bengals.* :lol: note to Barbarian :lol: *

Cincinnati got off to a 1-4 start but was 7-5 at one point before finishing 8-8. The offense made big strides last season, and the 28th-ranked defense must do the same this year.

Another change that you are sure to notice: The Bengals play on a Monday night this season. A shipment of ice skates just arrived in hell.

Bengals depth chart | Bengals 2003 stats

Projected draft round

Player Round

Carson Palmer, QB 13-14

Jon Kitna, QB 15-16

Rudi Johnson, RB 2

Chris Perry, RB 14

Chad Johnson, WR 3

Peter Warrick, WR 8

Reggie Kelly, TE DND

Shayne Graham, K DND

Defense/special teams DND

Draft position based on a standard 12-team combined scoring and yardage league. DND Do not draft.

5-STAR PLAYERS

Rudi Johnson, RB. This guy was a bigger sleeper last season than Rip Wan Winkle. Johnson nearly accumulated 1,000 rushing yards despite starting only five games. With Dillon out of the picture, Johnson is the clear-cut No. 1 back, though rookie Chris Perry will get some touches. Because Palmer might come along slowly, Johnson figures to get plenty of carries, though defenses will be ready. His improving receiving skills boost his value.

Chad Johnson, WR. After a breakout season that included 90 receptions, 1,355 yards and 10 TDs, only one question remains: Can Johnson put up similar numbers with Palmer at QB? Johnson isn't short on talent or charisma, but a rookie running the offense could deflate his value, at least initially. And he won't sneak up on anyone anymore. Still, he remains an elite receiver who shouldn't slip past the third round.

4-STAR PLAYERS

None.

Key additions: S Kim Herring, WR Patrick Johnson, C Larry Moore, CB Deltha O'Neal, LB Nate Webster, G Bobbie Williams.

Key losses: RB Brandon Bennett, CB Jeff Burris, RB Corey Dillon, DT Oliver Gibson, G Mike Goff, CB Artrell Hawkins, LB Riall Johnson, G Matt O'Dwyer, G Scott Rehberg, S Mark Roman, DT Glen Steele.

3-STAR PLAYERS

Peter Warrick, WR. Warrick set career highs in receptions, yards and TDs last season, and he even rushed 18 times for 157 yards (also career bests). His emergence prevented defenses from concentrating solely on Chad Johnson, and Warrick benefited from Johnson's presence on the opposite side. Like Johnson, Warrick must depend on a rookie QB to deliver the ball, but as long as Palmer plays up to his potential, Warrick should be starter-worthy in most weeks.

SLEEPER: Carson Palmer, QB. He is far from proven, but he has several things working in his favor. First, his offensive line should keep the pass rush away. Second, he has a strong running game he can depend upon to move the sticks. Third, he has a very talented receiving corps. Expect some growing pains early, but Palmer should develop into a nice fantasy backup in time. With his strong arm, the deep game will be in full effect.

2-STAR PLAYERS

Jon Kitna, QB. Thank you very much for resurrecting the offense and making us look like geniuses by signing you. Now take a seat on the bench. Essentially, that is what the Bengals told Kitna this past offseason. He threw for 3,591 yards and 26 TD passes in 2003, but he begins the season as nothing more than a very capable backup. The same is true in fantasy leagues, though Kitna is worth drafting late just in case Palmer struggles.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Chris Perry, RB. Johnson is the power back, while Perry is quick enough to get outside, as well as run inside. But Perry's rookie status and role as a third-down back will hurt his draft value. Skeptics who consider Johnson a one-year wonder will bump up Perry in their rankings, but Johnson figures to get the bulk of the carries and be just as effective as last season. Draft Perry as insurance if you take Johnson, but do it late.

Kelley Washington, WR. The tools (size, hands, speed) are there, but Washington still has some improvements to make as a route runner. And given all of the other options on Cincinnati's offense, it might be tough to get Palmer to look his way often. Washington makes a decent fantasy reserve, but he won't be much help most weeks.

Matt Schobel, TE. Schobel is No. 2 on the depth chart, but he is the Bengals' tight end with the most fantasy potential. That said, his two TD receptions last season (and in 2002) aren't enough to merit a draft pick.

Shayne Graham, K. Graham was 22-for-25 on field-goal attempts last season and finished with 106 points. The biggest concern is that he attempted more than two field goals in a game just once last season. This offense should move the ball again, but it could struggle in the red zone with a rookie QB. That means more chances for Graham, but last year very well could have been a career year.

1-STAR PLAYERS

Reggie Kelly, TE. While he gets rave reviews for his blocking, Kelly has yet to develop into a receiving threat. He caught 31 passes in 2000 with Atlanta, but his totals have dropped each year since. He had 13 catches for 81 yards and one score last season -- not exactly numbers that excite you on draft day.

0-STAR PLAYERS

Patrick Johnson, WR. What this team really needs is more players named Johnson at the skill positions. This Johnson is buried too far down the depth chart to be counted on for any consistent production heading into the season. His main role will be as a returner on special teams.

Defense/special teams. There is plenty of room for improvement, and you have to expect some with Lewis as head coach. But the team didn't force enough sacks (30) or enough turnovers (24) last season, and it still lacks playmakers on defense. Stopping the run remains a major concern. Warrick and Patrick Johnson will be very good on special teams, but not enough for this unit to be worth the gamble.

TO KNOW LIST

Ultimate Salary Cap Football Tip: Rudi Johnson remains a bargain because of his salary. But be prepared to stick with him through a rough stretch early, as the Bengals face the run-tough defenses of the Dolphins, Ravens and Steelers in the first four weeks. Johnson's value eventually will creep up after a couple of strong performances.

Coaching: Lewis did a remarkable job of turning around the franchise in his first year, and more progress should be on the way. Lewis was the architect of the Ravens' defense, so there is reason to believe the Bengals' sorry unit can improve. The difference between the Ravens and Bengals is clear: Cincinnati lacks the playmakers Baltimore had (and still has). Coordinator Leslie Frazier has to get more out of guys such as Justin Smith, and the team must improve against the run.

Offensively, the team wants to come out flying, but much of that will depend on Palmer's progress. Coordinator Bob Bratkowski has the luxury of a strong running game and won't hesitate to use it, but he also wants to unleash Palmer's arm and make the deep ball a more effective weapon than it was under Kitna.

Offensive line: This is a top-notch unit that was vital to the success of both the passing and running games last season. Mike Goff, a starter last season at right guard, is gone thanks to free agency, and has been replaced by ex-Eagle Bobbie Williams. The rest of the line is intact and should be a strength again this season.

Schedule analysis. In addition to the AFC North schedule, the Bengals take on the always-tough NFC East with games at Philadelphia and Washington. They also face road games against the Jets, Titans and Patriots, in addition to welcoming the Dolphins, Broncos and Bills to Paul Brown Stadium. There really isn't a soft stretch in the schedule, and they play only one home game from Weeks 4-8 (with a bye mixed in). Fantasy Strength of Schedule: Toughest overall.

Associate Editor Chris Bahr is a fantasy football expert for Sporting News.

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