1) This is a question you probably get every week, but I still have to ask: is Andy Dalton the long-term answer at quarterback?
Personally, I think so...but I still have my concerns. National media, local media and Bengals fans alike are split on Dalton. Here is what I tell the large contingent of Bengals fans who are constantly clamoring for a new QB - A.J. McCarron is the "flavor of the month" right now. Who are you going to replace him with? Who out there is better? Dalton is never going to be an Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady type quarterback. He is never going to singlehandedly carry a team/franchise. But, he is good enough to win with. He is never going to be bad enough to land you in a position to get a top college quarterback, and playoff/Super Bowl winning quarterbacks don't just hit the open market. For as much criticism as Dalton receives - some justified, some not - many forget that as a rookie (and without mini-camp - lockout season), he took over a 4-12 team that lost its' two best receivers (Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens), lost its' best cornerback (Jonathan Joseph), had their franchise quarterback (Carson Palmer) threatening retirement if he wasn't traded, and the fans and city were revolting against the franchise because the owner just re-signed Marvin Lewis. Many national media members picked the 2011 Bengals team to go 0-16.
Dalton took them to the playoffs at 9-7 and has made the playoffs every year he has been in the league. Am I satisfied with his 0-4 playoff record? Of course not, but we have to keep some perspective as well. Only one other quarterback in NFL history has made the playoffs his first four years in the league, Joe Flacco, and Flacco had a much better defense than Dalton has ever had. I think there are a lot of teams in the NFL that would take Dalton and his four straight playoff appearances over their quarterback situation and many Bengals fans forget how hard it can be to land a winning quarterback. I would say Dalton ranks around 12th in the NFL as far as quarterbacks go and according to 2015 salaries, he is the 19th highest paid quarterback, so he is affordable as well. For a guy that has never thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, holds the franchise single season record for yards (4,293) and touchdowns (33), has a regular season record of 40-23-1 and a career completion percentage of nearly 62%, I would say he is a solid long term answer at the quarterback position.
2) Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard seemed like a pretty good combination last year. Is either of them going to really take over, or will this continue to be a shared backfield?
It will be a shared backfield, but not an equal split. Hue Jackson, the Bengals offensive coordinator, has refused to designate either as the true "starter," but he did say Hill will probably be on the field first on Sundays. Whether he will admit it or not, Hill will be the starter and that is the right decision. Bernard will be a big part of this offense, but he will be used more as a receiver and on plays that get him in space against linebackers and safeties - think of Darren Sproles in his days with the Saints. That is where Bernard is most dangerous. If I were to guess, I think the carries will be split somewhere in the 70/30 or 60/40 range in favor of Hill. I would expect 15-20 carries per game for Hill and somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 touches per game for Bernard (runs/receptions). With Hill's size and power and Bernard's speed and shiftiness, they are a perfect complement to each other.
3) How good is A.J. Green?
He is really good. While not the best receiver in the game, I would say he is top five and is the most fluid/natural receiver in the game. In his four years in the league, Green has gone over 1,000 yards every year, has gone over 95 receptions twice (97 and 98), and with 98 receptions in 2015, Green would break Larry Fitzgerald's NFL record for the most receptions in a player's first five seasons. Because of the other weapons the Bengals have this year, along with their commitment to the run game, I don't see Green breaking that record, but he will be close. The only knock on Green is his tendency to disappear in big games and against top competition.
4) How do the fans feel about Marvin Lewis? He seems to get the job done in the regular season every year, but the playoffs remain an issue.
The last four years Bengals fans have spent their time arguing: 1) whether Dalton is the answer, and 2) should Marvin Lewis be fired; and not necessarily in that order. Most fans have been clamoring for Lewis to be fired ever since his 4-12 2010 campaign - some even before that. One thing to keep in mind, this is one of the most (if not the most) loyal franchises in the NFL when it comes to coaches - they do not like firing coaches and have kept many inadequate coaches way longer than they should have (see Dave Shula and Bruce Coslet).
I am torn on Lewis. He has taken this franchise from a laughing stock in the NFL to a model franchise. He has changed the way the front office runs, expanded the scouting department, improved the facilities and made this a franchise players want to play for. Since Lewis joined the franchise in 2003, the Bengals have been one of the best drafting organizations in the league. Lewis has also convinced the front office to stay away from the "character risk" players they used to take chances on in the past, and as a result, he has helped build a locker room of not only talented players, but good community members as well. And, from a football standpoint, he has made the Bengals one of the most competitive teams over the last six years - five playoff appearances. That being said, he has tied Jim Mora for the most playoff appearances without a win (0-6), and unlike Mora, he is 0-6 with the same team...not a record you want. At some point, you have to win in the playoffs. If he wins in the playoffs this season, the organization may allow him to say as long as he would like. If he loses though, I think there is a chance the organization moves on - slight chance, but a chance.
5) What are the early returns on Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher? The latter was linked to the Bucs a couple of times, but they passed him up in favor of Donovan Smith.
The Bengals have a very deep roster with no glaring holes which allowed them to draft the "best available" players in the 2015 draft - hence the somewhat odd decision of drafting a tackle in the first and second round. Many found it especially odd because they have one of the best left tackles in the game (Andrew Whitworth) and a very solid right tackle (Andre Smith). However, both are in a contract year and neither is guaranteed to re-sign - Whitworth because of age (33) and Smith because of injuries. As a result, the drafting of two tackles was a good forward looking decision by the franchise - something many don't associate with the Bengals.
Ogbuehi has yet to practice as he recovers from ACL surgery and he will start the year on the PUP list. In fact, given the Bengals current situation at tackle, I wouldn't be surprised if they have him sit out all year so he is healthy when they need him next year. As for Fisher, the coaches love him and his versatility. Barring an injury, he won't start, but he will likely be the backup left tackle, right tackle, left guard, right guard and be the "tackle eligible" when they go with the heavy goal line package. They have big plans for both of these guys and expect these two to be their starting tackles for many years to come.
6) How has the defense coped with the loss of Mike Zimmer last year, and how is that carrying over to this season?
Mike Zimmer was a great defensive coordinator and his loss was significant, however, Paul Guenther worked under Zimmer for years, was familiar with the players and brought a very similar scheme. While the defense took a step backwards last year, it was more the result of injuries rather than the loss of Zimmer. Vontaze Burfict, their top playmaker and one of the best linebackers in the game, was essentially out the entire year with concussions and then a knee injury. Geno Atkins, their most disruptive lineman and one of the best tackles in the league, was recovering from an ACL tear in mid-2013 and was not the player he was before the injury. As a result, the defense was average. Atkins looks to be back to his Pro Bowl form and the Bengals say Burfict should be 100% (or close) by the start of the season - we will see about that. Under Zimmer, this was a top 10 defense and assuming both Atkins and Burfict are healthy, this defense should be back in the top 10 again.