- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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CINCINNATI -- Last year at this time, the Bengals were an easy pick as a bounce-back team for 2009.
Carson Palmer was his healthiest in years. The schedule was reasonably easy. Seeds of a good 4-3 defense were planted in 2008 and started to bloom during the 2009 offseason.
From the looks of the Bengals as they finished their offseason workouts Thursday, their roster is much stronger and deeper than last season. Good starters in some spots are backed up by talented young players with potential. On paper, this might be the deepest, most talented Bengals team seen in years.
But the road to get back to 10 wins might be tougher against the fourth-hardest schedule in football. Mike Zimmer's fourth-ranked defense faces an elite quarterback gauntlet that includes Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and two showdowns each against Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco.
To their credit, Lewis and the front office loaded up with better playmakers on offense and some intriguing defensive additions. Had the Bengals stood pat, they might have dropped to third in the division.
The key to the season is staying strong for a tough second-half schedule. After a 7-2 start last year, the passing offense lost its legs and the Bengals became mainly a running team. The Bengals are set up for a possible 6-2 start, but they will need marathon strength to prevent a 3-5 finish against a tough second-half slate.
Here are five things I learned Thursday at the Bengals' final practice before training camp:
1. The receiving corps is better: Last year's passing offense was fragile because Laveranues Coles was on his last legs and the team had no deep speed if Chris Henry wasn't on the field. This year's team has a deep arsenal of weapons. The most interesting additions are tight end Jermaine Gresham, the team's first-round choice, and wide receiver Jordan Shipley, a third-rounder. The Bengals may not have seen a tight end like Gresham in franchise history. He may not be as fast as Vernon Davis of the 49ers, but he gives Palmer a 6-foot-5 target in the middle of the field who snatches balls out of the air with sure hands.
By midseason, I expect Shipley to beat out Andre Caldwell for the slot receiver role in three-receiver sets. He's a faster version of Wes Welker who can twist his body, move his feet and get open. Caldwell did OK as T.J. Houshmandzadeh's replacement in the slot, but he faded in the second half of last season. With Shipley, Caldwell and Quan Cosby, the Bengals have three slot options for depth.
Even though he's been resting a sore knee, Antonio Bryant will fit into the AFC North better than Coles. Bryant is more aggressive coming back for passes, which will help Palmer. Plus, he doesn't mind blocking, which will help in this physical division. The odd man out appears to be Matt Jones, the former Jaguar who looks a step slow, especially running outside routes.
2. Running remains the focus: Even though Palmer might have his deepest group of passing weapons, don't be surprised if the Bengals stay more of a running team. Palmer has the skills to run a Peyton Manning-type passing offense, but Lewis seems to favor the more physical running attack. As long as Cedric Benson is willing to sacrifice his body, he should be able to handle a 40-carry-per-game workload. After being considered a bust in Chicago, Benson has more than lived up to his first-round potential as a Bengal.
Plus, the running game fits the Bengals' offensive line. Andrew Whitworth is an unappreciated leader and blocker at left tackle. Bobbie Williams is more than solid at guard. Kyle Cook stabilized the center position. If Andre Smith can stay healthy at right tackle, the Bengals could have a dominant strongside running attack, but Smith can't seem to shake lingering problems from last year's foot fracture and remains a question mark.
3. Meet Adam Jones: For the first time since he entered the league, I saw Adam Jones on a field, not Pacman Jones. Pacman Jones was a legal and professional disaster, putting up more stats on police blotters than on the football field. What I saw this week was a great athlete willing to work hard and help a talented defense as a third corner. With thick, muscular thighs, Jones had the look of an Olympic sprinter on the field this week. His makeup speed on passes was evident, and on returns, he glided through lanes as if life was fast forwarded.
Jones is showing flashes of a great, young talent willing to work. There was a red zone play in which he positioned himself well and knocked away a pass aimed at a taller target. After the incompletion, Jones slammed the ball into his hands, stopped for a second and flipped it innocently to the back of the end zone. He wanted the interception. This version of Adam Jones might have a chance to succeed.
4. Defense has upside: Three Junes ago at a Bengals minicamp, I admired the defense Zimmer was setting up on what was considered to be a weak Bengals team. Last year, they were fourth in the league on defense, which didn't surprise me. They can be even better this year. I don't know if Antwan Odom can regain his sack-a-game form after getting hurt last season, but I see more playmakers on defense. Keith Rivers, Dhani Jones and injured Rey Maualuga form a talented linebacking corps, but Zimmer keeps building that spot. Michael Johnson, a 6-foot-7 converted defensive end, looked pretty good at strongside linebacker filling in for Maualuga. Johnson could be a pass-rushing factor when they go hybrid with a 3-4 pass rush.
Second-round pick Carlos Dunlap is quick enough to help as a backup end but can also move into a tackle spot and rush. Geno Atkins, a fourth-rounder, is another big body who has good potential. Brandon Ghee, a third-rounder, fits the Bengals' blueprint of acquiring fluid coverage cornerbacks. Safe to say, the Bengals had a nice draft. Veteran Gibril Wilson adds more depth at safety.
5. Palmer on target: Finally, Palmer looks as sharp as ever. His passing numbers decreased during the second half of last season. Outsiders thought the reason was a decline in his skills or a thumb injury. Watching him throw in practice proves the problems were about his surrounding cast more than anything else. Palmer remains an elite quarterback. He has a great work ethic and superb skills. With Palmer, the Bengals always have a chance.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Bengals have impressive talent, but their road to the playoffs figures to be a lot tougher than it was a year ago, John Clayton writes.