It feels like Marvin Lewis misjudged the 2016 season. Having been within touching distance of the divisional round in 2015, it is fair to say that the Cincinnati Bengals were confident going into 2016. However, the Bengals impressive run of 5 consecutive playoff appearances came to an abrupt end with a less than impressive 6-9-1 record. The issues appeared clear and multiple. Lewis had allowed his roster to become stale and with injuries to key draft picks, the team lacked zip on both sides of the ball. A mini roster overhaul was needed.
Out went old-timers like Domata Peko and Rey Maualuga, key dressing room figures whose performance no longer matched their value off the field. Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler were given their chance to test the market and found more money waiting elsewhere. What the Bengals are left with is a roster full of questions but clearly bursting with talent. To add to the intrigue, the Bengals avoided the glaring needs in the trenches and selected polarising offensive playmakers with their first two draft choices. How the Bengals fare in 2017 is difficult to predict but it is clear that the Bengals hierarchy knew big changes were necessary.
The Bengals believe Andy Dalton is their franchise quarterback and dissenting voices within the fan base have quietened, if not completely disappeared. Despite this, the Bengals know that Dalton is at his best with a strong supporting cast. Second-year offensive co-ordinator Ken Zampese will be keen to reinvigorate the running game and allow Dalton to relax without having to carry the offense on his back. Currently, the backfield is a three headed monster. Jeremy Hill continued to regress last year posting less than 1000 yards rushing for the second season in a row but will hope to be atop the depth chart, providing the power on early downs. He will be pushed throughout by controversial draft choice Joe Mixon. Mixon, who committed a violent assault on a female student early in his Oklahoma career, split opinion during the draft. Some teams even admitted Mixon had been pulled from their draft board. Despite his off-field problems Mixon could prove to be the true every-down back NFL teams look for, with speed, patience and vision, he may be the surprise candidate for ‘rookie of the year’. Livewire Gio Bernard, returning from ACL surgery, adds pure speed and pass catching ability, ideal for 3rd downs and trick plays.
On the outside the Bengals decided to take the quickest player ever to run at the NFL Scouting Combine. Washington’s John Ross, had an electrifying season in 2016 proving to be more than a simple deep threat. If he can stay healthy he will cause headaches for opposing secondaries who will have to deal with perennial pro-bowler AJ Green on the opposite side. Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd are accomplished route runners who can exploit the underneath with attention being drawn to the outside. If tight end Tyler Eifert can overcome his injuries then Dalton has an array of weapons to mount a charge in the AFC North.
The biggest question mark on the offensive side of the ball remains the offensive line. Losing Whitworth and Zeitler could prove costly, even retaining one of the duo would have appeased fans who have suddenly seen the line disintegrate. 3rd year tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher have struggled mightily but will likely be given the chance to start. Returning tackle Andre Smith will offer an alternative if the struggles become too much but will slip into guard otherwise. Suddenly, center Russell Bodine seems like a lesser concern but he too has been far from convincing, too often bull rushed back into Dalton’s lap. Veteran Clint Boling will need to lead from the front and step up as a dressing room presence in the absence of ‘Big Whit’.
The most worrying aspect of the Bengals poor performance last year was the apparent drop off of their defense. The pass rush was almost non-existent. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins remain two of the better defensive line players in the NFL but there was a lack of ideas in the defensive line rotation. Michael Johnson looked no more than a run stuffing end, while Margus Hunt (shipped to the Colts) and Will Clarke made little impact. Hence the reason why Cincy targeted two explosive pass-rushers in the middle rounds of the draft. 3rd rounder Jordan Willis will likely see time in the base nickel formation while Auburn’s Carl Lawson provides an x-factor from multiple spots. Inside, Andrew Billings will hope to make the leap and grab the nose tackle spot having been frustrated by injuries last year. Watch out for tackle DeShawn Williams who, if he can have another solid preseason, may make the roster to pressure Billings.
The linebacking corps was another major issue. Even with solid coverage in the secondary, too often teams could unpick the Bengals with intermediate passes that exposed the athletic shortcomings of veterans like Karlos Dansby and Rey Maualuga. Marvin Lewis looks likely to give Nick Vigil his opportunity at strongside backer, a determined tackler with coverage ability he offers an answer to covering opposing tight ends. At middle linebacker incoming Kevin Minter possesses the physicality of Maualuga but in a younger, quicker mould. Retaining the weakside spot will be Vontaze Burfict, who needs to step up as the engine to this defense. If he can maintain his discipline he could blossom under the added responsibility.
Having four former first rounders on the secondary makes this position a definite strength but last year’s cornerbacks were too often asked to do the impossible. With zero pass rush, they were asked to maintain coverage for too long resulting in big passing plays. Dre Kirkpatrick becomes the genuine number one and although not the finished article his game has developed strongly. Veteran Adam Jones will be no.2 but with a one game suspension to start the year, last season’s 1st round pick and potential playmaker William Jackson will have a chance to displace him. Josh Shaw and 2014 first rounder Darqueze Dennard will battle it out for the important role of nickelback. At safety the Bengals appear set with experienced centre-fielder George Iloka and the aggressive, hard-hitting strong safety Shawn Williams.
Players to Watch
Joe Mixon– Many may find it hard to swallow but Mixon’s talent is undeniable. Without his off-field issues he could even have been the first RB off the board in the draft. Don’t expect him to play back up for too long.
Geno Atkins– Atkins has been ploughing a lone furrow recently but with an injection of speed at pass rushing spots expect the star tackle to start finding gaps in o-lines again.
William Jackson III- Jackson missed his rookie year through injury, with a full preseason behind him expect to see the playmaking corner at his best. A good start in place of Adam Jones could see the Bengals stick with him on the outside.
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