The playoffs seemed endless for Bengals fans. Recent appearances in post-season football have been short lived for the franchise but this year their interest lasted until the final Sunday. Having been unofficially announced weeks before, Zac Taylor, the Bengals new Head Coach, had to wait until his former employer, the LA Rams, had finished their season with a disappointing 13-3 loss to the Patriots. At 35, Taylor is a significant gear shift from his predecessor Marvin Lewis.
He is a young, offensive mind, so oft coveted in this year’s clamber for coaching candidates. Taylor used his introduction to speak of the culture he wishes to instill. One of high standards with the aim to be the ‘fastest and freshest team on Sundays’. It will be music to the ears of a fanbase that became tired of Lewis’ insistence on reliable veterans who knew the system inside out. Now, Taylor and his coaching staff must put those words into action. Let’s take a look at some steps he could take…
Don’t be afraid of change
Taylor spoke highly of his new quarterback Andy Dalton, as you would expect. However, it would be short-sighted to dismiss being open to trade offers for him. Dalton has two years remaining on his deal but the Bengals purposefully structured it so they had an out. Trading Dalton would have little effect on the salary cap. His team-friendly $16 million salary may also persuade a team who feel they are in need of an experienced, reliable QB to trade a draft pick.
Dalton has thrived when the surrounding talent has been high quality and healthy. Early in his career the Bengals protected him with the likes of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. While giving him weapons such as AJ Green, Marvin Jones and Mo Sanu. That being said Dalton consistently failed when the stakes were highest. Recent years with a ramshackle O-line and injury hit skill positions have highlighted Dalton’s struggles to elevate those around him.
Should the Jaguars or Redskins feel two years of Dalton would be an upgrade over the current draft crop there may be potential for the Bengals to recoup a 2nd/3rd round pick. At the same time freeing up cap space. Taylor can then begin his rebuild either with a cheap bridge QB option until the much vaunted 2020 QB class or with a 2019 rookie. Using the extra cap space on linebacker or offensive line.
Another player who may have played his final game in Cincy is veteran linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The Bengals have stood by Burfict, despite his numerous on-field indiscretions. However, his performances this season have shown a considerable drop off. Burfict has regularly missed playing time through suspension, 10 games since 2016. While ending the season lashing out at an on-field trainer. Again the Bengals negotiated a contract in their favour meaning moving on from Burfict would account for less than $2 million dead cap.
Rebuild the offensive line
The 2015 NFL Draft was a critical point for the Bengals offensive line. They needed to draft long term replacements for Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. They banked on the athletic traits of Cedric Ogbuehi and the length of Oregon tackle Jake Fisher. Neither has panned out, to the degree where they couldn’t even carve out an interior role to replace Kevin Zeitler.
What has it left the Bengals with? Cordy Glenn was acquired in a trade last offseason and when fit can be an adequate left tackle. Clint Boling remains a solid left guard while rookie center Billy Price will benefit from a full off-season healthy. The right side however remains a concern. Alex Redmond and Trey Hopkins flashed ability at guard but an upgrade over Bobby Hart is a major need.
Pro Football Focus highlighted the promise of Christian Westerman late in 2019. A fifth round pick in 2016, he was considered somewhat of a steal. His PFF grade of 78.8 over 3 games and 96 snaps was the best score along the line. Perhaps under a new regime Westerman will be given the opportunity he deserves to try and hold down a full time spot.
The Bengals have two clear options to fill their final need which is right tackle. With no-one currently on the roster fitting the bill, Taylor must address the need in free agency or the draft. Taylor’s former employer the LA Rams spent big in free agency to give themselves a Superbowl shot so it will be interesting to see if he can encourage the Brown family to loosen the purse strings. It would be an unfamiliar step for them to take but a Trent Brown or Daryl Williams may persuade them otherwise.
The other option for the Bengals is to address the position in the draft. At pick no.11 they should have a few premier options on the board. Jawaan Taylor from Florida and Cody Ford at Oklahoma would likely be able to step straight in on the outside. Alabama’s Jonah Williams is probably the most talented lineman yet there are concerns over his length. Even in the second round the Bengals could probably find a starter like Kansas State tackle Dalton Risner.
Increase the team’s athleticism and speed
When Zac Taylor mentioned being a ‘fast team’ it will have a refreshing change for Bengals fans. Taylor will likely come in with a strong idea of how to speed the offense up and implement his own scheme. One place to start would be to utilise the speed of John Ross. Ross set the NFL combine record for the 40 yard dash clocking in at 4.22. So far in his Bengals career he hasn’t lived up to that.
As QB coach in the Rams offense Taylor will have played a large part in coming up with the highly successful system that led to their Superbowl appearance. Part of that was using a three receiver set with Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks. If Taylor brings some of that over to Cincy then Ross could be deployed similarly to Cooks, a true deep threat matchup nightmare.
Going back to the 2018 offseason the Bengals talked about the effect newly hired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin would have. Part of that was using rookie sack-sensation Carl Lawson as an off the ball linebacker. This highlights the problem, misidentifying the strengths of a player who clearly plays best as a pass rush specialist. Lawson’s season was injury hit but journeyman Michael Johnson still accounted for over 400 snaps. Taylor and whoever he hires as DC must trust the young pass rushers who have shown potential. Sam Hubbard, Jordan Willis and Lawson could be a dynamic pass rush rotation and improve on the fifth lowest team sack total of 34 in 2018.
The final and perhaps most pressing need Taylor must address is lack of dynamism in the second level of the defense. Preston Brown and Burfict are throwbacks to a previous era and the new staff must find a way to adapt to the modern way. Part of this is a free flow defense with linebackers who can cover. Malik Jefferson is raw but athletic and Nick Vigil can just about hold down one of the spots. This in mind, the LB spot needs addressing urgently. Devin White is an early mock draft favourite but there is plenty of depth throughout the draft. If the Bengals can add a starter here then the core of the defense is young and talented.
Projecting forward for 2019
The task is never small for new coaches especially not when coming in to a job held by the same man for 15 years. It feels like change is afoot in Cincinnati with Mike Brown stepping back and Duke Tobin assuming a more prominent role in personnel decisions. If Tobin and Taylor can refresh and rebuild this team there are the foundations of a strong and young roster who could challenge again for the AFC North.