In 2019, the Cincinnati Bengals had a rather.. forgettable season. Despite fielding a roster with some surprisingly decent talent, the team wasn’t able to put it all together and ended the year with a league worst 2-14 record, losing 11 straight to start off.
There was a new sheriff in town, too.
Following a promotion from assistant wide receivers coach to quarterbacks coach after just one year with the Los Angeles Rams, Zac Taylor would become the Bengals’ first new head coach since 2002(!) with defensive-guru Marvin Lewis.
A litany of injuries, mixed with some bad O-line play, sprinkled with a little player regression, spoiled Taylor’s coming out party and led to yet another disappointing record. A record that would tie for the franchise worst and be the fourth consecutive season that the team has missed the post-season.
However, there’s still plenty reason to be optimistic about this upcoming 2020 season for the Cincinnati Bengals. A roster makeover, in addition to another year of experience under coach Taylor and staff should provide results that are much improved from what 2019 brought us.
A YOUNG OFFENSE BRINGING NEW HOPE…
Inexperience inevitability brings forth growing pains. Still in all, there is much to be look forward to with the youth movement on this team. Especially on the offensive side of the ball. Of course we start with the man of the hour, the next captain of the ship, the new kid on the block…rookie QB Joe Burrow, the #1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft out of LSU.
Burrow won college football’s most prestigious award, the Heisman Trophy Award, and seemingly every other award there was to win for a collegiate quarterback. He was undoubtedly the best player in college football this past season. In fact, he had arguably the greatest statistical season in FBS history.
Thus, the rookie will have some high expectations and a bunch of weight on his shoulders from attempting to be the franchise’s savior that brings them back from the bottom of the barrel to post-season glory, after a four-year hiatus. Coach Taylor was nothing short of confident in his young quarterback’s ability to lead the team and be the franchise guy.
“He’s got full grasp of our offense. He really breathes life into this offense, into this team”, said coach Taylor regarding his rookie leader. Coach also mentioned how Burrow is filling into that leadership role well and how he didn’t want him to split reps and not get the necessary practice time. “He really breathes life into this offense, into this team…I think the team believes in this guy right now, but again he’s earned that in the way that he’s gone about his work, the way he operates in the meetings, the way he communicates with his teammates on both sides of the ball”, says Taylor.
To further exhibit the team’s confidence in Burrow, as well as the rookie QB’s exceptional leadership, he was named one of seven team captains, which yet again demonstrates the level of respect this young man has already received within that locker room.
The Bengals are looking for Joe Burrow to bring that magic he made at LSU over to Cincinnati. He’s been given the keys to the car right out of the gate, and he’s a very mature, poised young man who certainly “looks the part”. The weapons around him on offense should alleviate some pressure but he will, as does any rookie, have his fair share of hiccups. Either way, it’s not far-fetched to see the rook put up some respectable numbers, and lead the team to a few more victories than in 2019.
As for the backup quarterbacks, the lack of preseason games and an overall shortened off-season definitely hurt the reserves. They missed out on live-action, and the bigger stage to be able to display their talents and make their fair share of contributions to the team. Thus, the team only rolled with one backup QB, Ryan Finley. 4th-year quarterback Brandon Allen, however, was brought back onto the team’s practice squad. Allen also has past experience working with Zac Taylor in Los Angeles.
At wide receiver, the team decided (smartly) to bring back the veteran and 7x Pro Bowler A.J. Green, via the franchise tag. Although it’s only a one-year tender, this is a great move both because A.J. Green is a franchise legend who still has a little bit left in the tank (healthy of course), but because he’ll provide a big target with veteran savvy, who’s played at a very high level, for rookie Joe Burrow. That would be great for his early development. Back in July, the team re-upped on WR Tyler Boyd, locking him in with a 4-year, $43 million extension. Coming off of back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Boyd will be another good target who’s played at a high level and can help ease the young quarterback’s transition. Boyd filled in quite nicely as the top receiver while Green has been out. He should remind Joe Burrow of his college teammate and favorite target, Justin Jefferson, who led LSU in receptions and has similar skill-sets. 4th-year wide receiver John Ross III comes in to a crucial season, hoping to have his first full year without injury. The former #9 overall pick in 2017, Ross had scored 7 touchdowns in ’18, and started off ’19 hot until his season was curtailed by injury. As arguably the fastest player in the entire league, his elite speed will compliment the bigger possession receivers when on the field. Auden Tate is a massive 6’5″ WR he certainly flashed at times last year. He will provide an an enormous catch radius for Burrow, and has the size to cause matchup problems for practically any defensive back. To add to the repertoire Cincinnati drafted the highly-touted receiver Tee Higgins, out of Clemson. Higgins produced 2,103 receiving yards and 25 receiving touchdowns in his final two years in college. Although he was once projected a 1st-round pick, the Bengals were able to nab him at the top of the 2nd. The former Clemson star will be yet another big-body that will work well on Burrow’s signature back-shoulder throws as well as working the intermediate areas of the field and redzone. With a couple wideouts getting nicked up earlier in camp, the team decided to roster 7 wide receivers, with Erickson and Mike Thomas (the other one) rounding out the position group.
When it comes to the running backs, Joe Burrow has to be absolutely thrilled that the team signed star RB Joe Mixon to a 4-year deal worth $48 million. The new contract locks him in with the team for the next five years, as it was an extension. Mixon, an Oklahoma University product, is also coming off of back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. There’s no doubt the way in which a running back of this caliber can be a luxury for a #1 or high draft pick quarterback. Those young signal callers are the ones who usually are thrown, or forced, into bad positions in terms of being set up for success. They’re typically drafted to rosters with a low level of talent, bad offensive lines, maybe some bad coaching, among other issues. Having Joe Mixon in the backfield will make the rookie QB’s transition to the pros that much easier. Behind Mixon the team brings back the veteran of eight years, Giovani Bernard. Although his play has declined in over the past few years, he is still a viable backup that brings that scat-back/receiving element to the offense (although Mixon is quite well in that department too). One of the biggest attributes of Bernard is his pass-blacking ability. For a back that is more of the smaller stature, he is very good in pass protection, and that’s a skill-set that more times than not, warrants a few more snaps in the rotation. The final two backups at running back are Trayveon Williams and Samaje Perine, the later whom has a slight bit of in-game experience. Cincinnati liked rookie Jacques Patrick (6’2” 234 lbs) enough to bring back to the practice squad.
The Bengals bring back some talent at the tight end position with 6-year man, C.J. Uzomah, and 2nd-year man, Drew Sample. Uzomah had a letdown of a 2019 season after finishing 2018 with a decent 43-439-3 stat line. The 6-6, 260 lb. product out of Auburn presents just another gigantic weapon for this offense to utilize and he has pretty good athleticism for a man of his size. Sample, a 2019 2nd-round pick, had his season abruptly ended after nine games by an ankle injury. He didn’t produce much prior to the injury but the team obviously saw him as a 2nd-rounder for a reason, and he is a very well-rounded TE.
Offensive line is undoubtedly the biggest question mark on the team. Injuries and subpar play within the position group has crippled the offense over the last couple of years. For starters, the tackle spots have been a constant problem, most notably because of Bobby Hart and Cordy Glenn. Glenn was released by the team earlier in the offseason. Hart has been nothing short of inconsistent, all the while committing a few too many penalties. Nevertheless, the team is sticking with him to be the starting right tackle for the 2020 season. The Bengals O-line should be getting a boost from the return of 2019 #11 overall pick, left tackle Jonah Williams. A former 2x All-American from Alabama, Williams missed his entire rookie season due to a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Although 2020 will essentially be his rookie season, he is a much more talented player than either of the starting tackles from 2019 so an improvement at that position should be all but inevitable. Bengals are anxiously anticipating the return of Billy Price, the 21st overall pick in the 2018 draft. who’s dealt with problems staying healthy since he’s entered the league. Price came into camp this summer in good shape with added weight, but not sloppy weight you know…“good weight”. He allegedly looks up to about 325-330 pounds, when last year, he was listed at 308. To help bolster the line, the Bengals signed Xavier Su’a-Filo, a 7-year veteran on a 3-year, $9 million deal back in March. He is currently slated as the starting right guard. Michael Jordan, in his second year out of THE Ohio State University, is slotted to be the starting left guard. He had his fair share of struggles throughout his rookie season but he has shown enough thus far to give the team enough confidence to start him. Center Trey Hopkins has played well along the O-line thus far and is cemented as the starter there. He eventually took the spot that Price was projected to occupy. Still in all, the this offensive line should be an improvement from last season’s product which should bode well for Joe Burrow.
There was one head-scratcher in regards to addressing the offensive line this offseason. For a team with such O-line inefficiencies, that could use as much help as possible, it was quite the peculiar move for the Bengals to wait until round 6 of this year’s draft to finally select an offensive lineman. On the bright side, if there can be one, is that the prospect they eventually selected has the makings to be a decent pro. Potentially. Cincinnati picked Hakeem Adeniji (Kansas) in the 6th round at pick #180. Adeniji is raw but he is an athletic and explosive blocker who started all four years in college. He is the 2nd string LG behind Jordan at the moment.
RE-TOOLED DEFENSE READY TO MAKE A STATEMENT…
Defense was primarily the focus of free agency, as well as the draft. And it very well should’ve been, considering the team’s 29th ranked Total Defense in 2019. The “big fish” the Bengals were able to reel in this offseason was none other than stud defensive tackle D.J. Reader, previously of the Houston Texans. He was signed to a 4-year, $53 million deal that would make him the richest nose tackle in the NFL, until the Packers’ Kenny Clark would exceed that with his deal of 4 years, $70 million. This is on top of the team returning 7x Pro Bowler and 2x First-Team All Pro, Geno Atkins. Carlos Dunlap has also been a very steady presence along the defensive line and Carl Lawson has provided solid results to keep him in a steady rotation along the defensive line. This combination, at least on paper, gives the Bengals one of the most formidable defensive fronts in the NFL. This is also key in a division consisting of some really good running games. To add reinforcements, Cincinnati made a trade for DT/DE Christian Covington, a former 6-round pick from Rice University, who’s played in 66 games over his 4 year career and will give the team additional depth along the already stout defensive front.
Long-time Bengal Dre Kirkpatrick is long gone, as is Darqueze Dennard. Cinci elected to instead sign the speedy veteran corner Trae Waynes, along with a pretty solid corner in Mackensie Alexander (both former Minnesota Vikings), as the replacements in their newly renovated defense. As fate would have it, Waynes, who had just signed a $42 million contract over three years in July, would go down with a pectoral injury that would land him on Injured Reserve. His injury is especially significant since he is the “speed-demon” in the defensive backfield and was being depended on as a more reliable match-up for the speedy receivers within the AFC North division. Waynes, who’s taken snaps in at least 14 games each year since he’s entered the league in 2015, will obviously be a major key to this defense once he comes back from injury.
There was one more significant upgrade to Cinci’s DB room…Safety Von Bell. The former New Orleans Saint was signed to a 3-year, $18 million deal this offseason and he brings a stable, veteran presence to the defense. Bell had a pretty good 2019 year, recording 89 tackles, 5 PDs, 1 INT, 2 forced fumbles and 5 fumble recoveries. He also added in a defensive touchdown for good measures. Bell will compliment the young ascending safety Jessie Bates III well. Bates is a promising defender who had an outstanding rookie season in 2018, but tailed off somewhat in 2019. The Wake Forest product made 111 tackles, with 7 PDs and 3 INTs in his rookie season. This past season looked sort of like a different player as Bates wasn’t as strong in coverage or coming up in the box, although that could’ve also been a result of him playing on an overall bad defense.
The DB room will have still feature a really good corner in William Jackson III. After a really strong ’17 and ’18 season, Jackson III had a rather inconsistent ’19 season in both run support as well as pass coverage. Nonetheless, he remains one of the better cornerbacks in the league and will be an important piece in this re-vamped defense of 2019.
Cincinnati decided to add to their linebacking core by signing veteran Josh Bynes, who played very well for the #4 ranked Baltimore Ravens defense in 2019. If you ask any true Ravens fan, Bynes was an integral part in the turnaround of the Ravens’ season. He is a Super Bowl champion who will bring veteran leadership and physicality to a defensive front-7 that should definitely be upgraded from that of the 2019 season. The team will also look to 2nd-year player Germaine Pratt to start along side Bynes as the weak-side linebacker. Pratt is a linebacker with speed that struggled in coverage, but still has the makings of a good NFL middle linebacker if he can sharpen up his mental aspect to the game and better adjust to the pro-game.
The Bengals chose an aggressive path in addressing the defense in the 2020 draft as well. The first move they decided to make was selecting middle linebacker Logan Wilson, of Wyoming, in the 3rd round. Wilson was a highly decorated prospect who tallied over 400 tackles and 10 interceptions throughout his college tenure. The team hopes to finally hit the jackpot on a young, true, middle linebacker to lead the defense after years of misses at the position. Cinci also drafted Akeem Davis-Gaither, a very athletic off-ball LB who has a hybrid type of skill-set (pass coverage as well as edge abilities), at the top of the 4th round.
These linebacker acquisitions are also important because they give the team more speed within the middle areas of the field, as well as matching up against faster RBs (in addition to the ever-so elusive Lamar Jackson). This will be critical in a division with very fast and talented backs and receivers.
There were two more defensive picks in the 2020 draft; edge defender Khalid Kareem (round 5) and linebacker Markus Bailey (round 7). Kareem is another raw prospect serving as depth behind Dunlap, Lawson, and Sam Hubbard. Bailey is a talented player that fell late in the draft due to injuries but should be a solid contributor on special teams, at the least.
THE “SPECIAL” GUYS…
In another smart move, the team also brought back return-specialist Brandon Wilson, on a 1-year deal just north of $2 million. Wilson, a former sixth-round pick in 2017, led the league in kickoff return average (31.3 ypg) last season.
Alex Erickson is currently slotted as the team’s top punt returner.
MURDERER’S ROW TO END THE SEASON…
The Cincinnati Bengals enter the 2020 season with Football Power Index’s 20th ranked “strength of schedule”. Although not that bad on the surface, the final four weeks of the season will be quite the challenge to see what this ’20 team is ultimately made of. Between weeks 14-17, the Bengals will face the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers (primetime game), Houston Texans, and Baltimore Ravens consecutively. On the bright side, three out of those four games will be at home. This will serve as a great test to see how far Joe Burrow has come in his development throughout his rookie year.
The Cincinnati Bengals will undoubtedly have an improved team on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Rookie QB Joe Burrow comes into the season with a lot of pressure as he has been given to the keys to lead this team, a team that has enough talent to make some noise within the AFC North (an the league as a whole). However, with an abbreviated offseason and no pre-season, 2020 will be quite the challenge for a #1 overall pick (at quarterback) who is being depended on to improve the team from it’s 2019 record. With all of this talent at his disposal, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Burrow have a decent season and lead the team to a few more wins than last year. An improvement in each facet of the game (offense, defense, & special teams), is almost a guarantee. The 2020 season, for the Cincinnati Bengals, shall certainly introduce a “New Dey”.