If 6-9-1 isn’t the most dissatisfying record you can achieve, I don’t know what is. Not bad enough that you get a very high draft pick- not good enough to even get near the playoffs. And the worst thing of all? That disgusting ‘1’ in the tie column.
Andy Dalton on the Bengals were unable to capitalise on their outstanding 2015 campaign, that ended at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the most Bengals way possible; Jeremy Hill with an untimely fumble, Vontaze Burfict makes an attempt on Antonio Brown’s life, Adam Jones decides to touch an official.
Beset by injuries to key rookies in 2016, the Bengals have put faith in what they have not seen by letting some key pieces walk away in the offseason.
Losing first round pick William Jackson at corner and fourth round choice Andrew Billings at defensive tackle before a snap had even been played hurt a defense that needed bolstering after bidding farewell to a familiar piece in Reggie Nelson.
With Hue Jackson leaving to coach the divisional rivals Cleveland Browns, the team looked lost without perennial mainstays. With head coach Marvin Lewis looking to provide continuity in the team’s usual playoff berth, the Bengals were unsuccessful.
Wide receiver A.J. Green struggling with injuries down the stretch, the team’s running game was unable to fill the void, Hill and Giovanni Bernard averaging 3.7 and 3.8 yards per carry respectively.
Andy Dalton, whilst not emulating his 2015 form that garnered serious MVP discussion, did not appear to be a problem on a roster that lost its last five guys by a combined points margin of just 16.
The key losses for the Bengals are on the offensive line. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth had anchored the weak side of the line since 2006, and had been named to a first team All-Pro squad as recently as 2015. Guard Kevin Zeitler had dominated since arriving in the league as a first round pick back in 2012, and was considered worthy of a five year $60 million contract by the Browns.
On the defensive side of the ball Domata Peko and Margus Hunt leave Ohio, but their loss will most likely only be felt in a rotational sense, rather than the starters of Whitworth and Zeitler. Rey Maualuga was cut from the inside linebacker position after underwhelming the front office in 2016.
Linebacker Kevin Minter was perhaps the only notable free agent signing for the Bengals, a move that perhaps precipitated the departure of Maualuga.
In the draft, the Bengals fell head over heels in love with Washington wide receiver John Ross. Breaking the combine record for the 40 yard dash with a 4.22s time fell nicely into place with an impressive tape to back up the Huskie’s performance in Indianapolis. Troubled running back Joe Mixon was selected out of Oklahoma in the second round, continuing the trend of the Bengals taking chances on talented players with blotted histories.
The Bengals’ passing attack could prove to be lethal in 2017. If Dalton can be given enough time in the pocket, passes will rain from the skies to Green, Ross, tight end Tyler Eifert, and second year wideout Tyler Boyd. With Green and Ross providing two markedly different kinds of deep threats, teams will have to find out how to defend against height on one perimeter, and speed on the other. If they can work it out, Eifert and Boyd will do damage over the middle.
At running back, the Bengals have a trio of intriguing players. Hill has never appeared to have recovered from the playoff fumble of 2015, and Bernard has the dynamism to suggest he can be a success, even if he doesn’t have the snap-count. Mixon’s college tape is impressive, and fans will be eager to see how involved the rookie is from the start. I think the running backs just about edge into the strengths column from the weaknesses column.
The secondary also poses to be a strength, as the recently extended Dre Kirkpatrick will start alongside (most likely) William Jackson and Adam Jones. Shawn Williams and George Iloka line up at the safety positions, both with a history of making key plays late in games.
Will linebacker Vontaze Burfict is fierce whenever he gets on the field, but his value goes beyond intimidation. Stuffing holes in the running game and a good level of awareness dropping back into coverage means offensive coordinators have much to fear this mercurial human-sledgehammer for.
Geno Atkins‘ presence on the defensive line is never something an opposing running back wants to look at, given his penchant for popping up in the backfield. Carlos Dunlap got eight sacks off the edge last year, and will be fired up to make that number even higher in 2017.
The offensive line will be a question mark going into the season, given the decisions to let Whitworth and Zeitler walk away. Moving the ball could prove initially difficult, as the Bengals’ offensive playbook adapts to the lack of a line that dominated in the way the previous unit did.
In all honesty, beyond the offensive line, I don’t think the Bengals have any glaring weakness. Winning close games will be the biggest deciding factor in where this team is sitting come January.
Best Case Scenario
Marvin Lewis is infamous for his lack of playoff success. 0-7 in the playoffs, just winning a playoff game has to be considered the best case scenario for the Cincinnati Bengals. 11-5, first place in the AFC North.
Worst Case Scenario
If Dalton can’t be kept upright, and the assortment of running backs can’t get enough of a push up front, I’m not sure this defense can win too many games of its own accord. 6-10, third place in the AFC North.
I think that even if the offensive line is lacklustre, Joe Mixon bodes to be the kind of back that can create his own yards. If Dalton can get even a minimal amount of time back there, I’d back this team to return to the postseason in at least a wildcard spot. 10-6, second place in the AFC North.