I had the opportunity to swap five questions with Josh Kirkendall, editor-in-chief and all-around awesome dude at Cincy Jungle. You can find my answers to his questions here (coming later!)
Dave Choate: The Bengals seem like they're underrated coming into 2013. What are your expectations for the season, given the strength of the roster?
Josh Kirkendall: Huge. With the Bengals coming off back-to-back postseasons, re-signing mostly every starter, as well as a majority of their role/backup players, there's the expectation that the postseason isn't enough anymore.
Winning a playoff game this year is a must -- they haven't won one since 1990. Yet, unlike previous iterations in 2005, 2009, and even 2011, the Bengals are comfortable with those expectations. Mike Zimmer, who I'm sure you remember, preached the pursuit of excellence and I believe that this team is buying into it.
Obviously, making the postseason in the NFL is extremely tough and honestly, you need luck as much as you need talent. Anything can happen at a moment's notice that drop-kicks a 12-win team to a .500 squad. So making the postseason is good for any of us, but they can't stop there. A playoff win is a must this year.
DC: This seems like a crucial year for Andy Dalton. Can he become a top-tier NFL quarterback, or do you think the Bengals will start looking elsewhere in 2014 and beyond?
JK: No, he's here to stay -- whether he has a bad year or not. The team set aside millions from this year's cap to next season to work up extensions for Dalton and A.J. Green.
That's the ultimate question though; what can he prove in year three? How much can grow this year, or is there a fast-approaching plateau? It's a big year for him, and fortunately, he knows that and wants to prove that he can be a hell of a player.
Top-tier? Elite? I'm not sure those descriptions will ever be applied to Dalton, but he's a good quarterback with the ability to put Cincinnati into a position to win. Check out this stat. During his first two years in the NFL, Dalton has thrown 35 red zone touchdowns and zero picks. The best touchdown-interception ratio in the NFL among active players is Aaron Rodgers (36.3-to-1). Not making the comparison, but Dalton is good and he does a lot of good things. We're just not ready to apply those kind of labels entering his third-year.
DC: Tell us what makes Geno Atkins so deadly, and ask him to please leave our quarterback alone.
JK: When you look at Atkins, it doesn't really hit you that he's one of the top defensive tackles in the game. He's short, "walks like a duck" (Mike Brown's words), and if you look at him, he doesn't resemble some John Randle reincarnation.
Yet, players often underestimate Atkins. He's extremely powerful, quick, with a scent for the quarterback. He has literally lifted guards off their feet just by getting under their pads, and thrown them to the side. And I'm a little proud that he does it mostly against the Steelers.
But don't mistake him as a one-man show. He has help. Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap are talented defensive ends pressuring the quarterback and a percentage of Atkins' quarterback sacks are because quarterbacks are forced to step up in the pocket.
DC: Who is flying under the radar, but will be impactful for the 2013 Bengals? Anyone in particular on offense/defense?
JK: With the Bengals being on Hard Knocks this year, I'm not sure there will be any this year. Dre Kirkpatrick, our first-rounder from 2012, is finally healthy and making significant strides at cornerback, but it's not like he's showing up out of nowhere.
Keep an eye on Orson Charles, who is playing the hybrid H-back role as a fullback and tight end. He was exclusively the team's backup tight end last year but when the team drafted Tyler Eifert, they looked to find a new home for Charles. And he's settling in quite nicely. Also, rookie Cobi Hamilton is having a nice camp. He's a big-body receiver that plays outside, but runs good inside routes and isn't afraid of traffic. We're very interested in seeing what safety George Iloka can do. He was a fifth-round pick in '12, currently in an intense three-man battle at strong safety, with rookie Shawn Williams (many Bulldog fans know him), and Taylor Mays.
DC: Scores don't matter in pre-season, sure, but what's your prediction for this one?
JK: I really don't have much on this. As you pointed out, it's the first game of the preseason. We know that, unless the Bengals are colossal failure and need more work on the field, the starters will be gone after a series or two. Based on how organized our roster is right now, we're interested in a handful of bubble players. But we have no idea how the backup and third-team units will work together.
I do want to add one final note. It's clear that the Bengals and Falcons are developing a sort of friendship. Mike Smith and Marvin Lewis are extremely close friends and Lewis loves his Bulldogs -- currently seven University of Georgia players are on this roster. After this week is over, all the best to the Falcons, the fans, and hope to see you guys in the postseason this year. On the other hand, we want the 49ers for a third time in the Super Bowl. Nothing against the Falcons, but some of us have 30-year grudges that we'd like to get rid of.
Thanks to Josh for taking the time to answer my questions!