The Other 31: Bengals have productive offseason in bid to overtake Ravens in AFC North

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James Harrison signed with the Bengals after being released by the Steelers (Al Behrman/The Associated Press)

Cincinnati Bengals

Last season’s record: 10-6

Key players released: CB Jason Allen

Key free agents lost: LB Manny Lawson, QB Bruce Gradkowski, K Josh Brown, DT Pat Sims, RB Brian Leonard, LB Dan Skuta

Key free agents re-signed: DE Michael Johnson, K Mike Nugent, DE Robert Geathers, LB Rey Maualuga, CB Adam Jones, CB Terence Newman, RB Bernard Scott, DE Wallace Gilberry, TE Richard Quinn, T Dennis Roland, T Andre Smith, WR Brandon Tate, RB Cedric Peerman, LS Clark Harris, P Kevin Huber

Key free agents added: QB Josh Johnson, QB John Skelton, G/C Mike Pollak, TE Alex Smith, LB James Harrison, LB Aaron Maybin

Draft:

Rd. 1 (No. 21 overall)… Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame

2 (37)… Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina

2 (53)… Margus Hunt, DE, SMU

3 (84)… Shawn Williams, S, Georgia

4 (118)… Sean Porter, LB, Texas A&M

5 (156)… Tanner Hawkinson, T, Kansas

6 (190)… Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska

6 (197)… Cobi Hamilton, WR, Arkansas

7 (240)… Reid Fragel, T, Ohio State

7 (251)… T.J. Johnson, C, South Carolina

Analysis: With the Ravens dealing with a series of post-Super-Bowl roster defections and the Steelers coming off a disappointing season, it’s not at all outlandish to think the Bengals will be the team to beat in the AFC North.

They were right on the Ravens’ heels last season, finishing second in the division — via the tie-breaker process — with a 10-6 record and reaching the playoffs. The Bengals, unlike the Ravens, have managed to avoid an offseason overhaul and keep their team mainly intact. There have been some modest losses. But the Bengals did well to re-sign most of their free agents and made some upgrades as well.

The most intriguing free-agent addition was the signing of linebacker James Harrison after he was released by Pittsburgh. The former NFL defensive player of the year turned 35 this month and is coming off a 2012 season in which he had six sacks, his lowest total in a season since 2006. But the Bengals, who ranked sixth in the league in total defense last season, don’t need him to be a standout, only a contributor.

The offense was ranked 22nd overall in the league last season but appears to have improved, perhaps significantly. The Bengals’ use of their first-round draft choice on Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert could pay meaningful dividends. Cincinnati opted to make North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard, not Alabama’s Eddie Lacy, the first running back taken in the draft in the second round with the 37th overall selection. That surprised some, given that Lacy widely was regarded as the top tailback available and there had been speculation he could be the Bengals’ pick in the opening round. Lacy wasn’t chosen until later in the second round by the Packers. That leaves the Bengals vulnerable to some criticism if Bernard doesn’t produce and Lacy thrives in Green Bay.

Still, it was a deep and promising draft class for the Bengals, who had four of the top 84 selections.

A good team seemingly has gotten better.

Why Redskins fans should care: The teams aren’t scheduled to play one another this season and are in different conferences. But to any teams with aspirations of being among the league’s elite, it should matter which other clubs could be there alongside them. Both the Redskins and Bengals aspire to get to that level soon.

Conversation starter: Have the Bengals overtaken the Ravens in the AFC North?

Background: Schedule | Depth chart | Draft results | Home page

Previous Other 31 reviews:  Cardinals | Falcons | Ravens | Bills | Panthers | Bears

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