OFFSEASON REVIEW: CINCINNATI BENGALS
By Paul Hirons
As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.
In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Cincinnati Bengals:
The selection of Joe Burrow with the number-one pick in the 2020 NFL Draft breathed new life into a jaded and disgruntled fanbase, and the former LSU Heisman Trophy winner looked the part as soon as he walked into the building, commanding instant respect from veteran teammates and coaches alike.
And it wasn’t just Burrow’s arrival that got Bengals fans thinking the impossible was possible.
With an injury-free AJ Green, a promising second-round wide receiver in Tee Higgins, a revamped linebacker corps, Joe Mixon, a raft of expensive free-agent signings (unheard of in Cincinnati) and defensive cornerstones Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap back, the hope was that the Bengals could at be competitive in a strong AFC North.
However, things didn’t quite turn out that way, with optimism and excitement soon turning into weary “here we go again” sighs.
Geno Atkins injured a shoulder in training camp and was never the same, Dunlap extricated himself from Paul Brown Stadium in a blaze of embarrassing publicity, and AJ Green was a shadow of his former self. Big-name free-agent signing cornerback Trae Waynes never saw the field because of injury, and DJ Reader, Jonah Williams and Joe Mixon also succumbed to season-ending injuries.
And then there was the offensive line.
Joe Burrow was as advertised, showing the poise, accuracy and dynamism that made him a college record-breaker. But misgivings about the offensive line came horrifyingly to bear, with the unit rated 26th in pass blocking (per ESPN) and the rookie QB taking wince-inducing 72 hits before his terrible, season-ending (and at the time potentially career-ending) knee injury against Washington.
Add to this an insipid pass rush and a porous run defense, and you can see why the Bengals finished 4-11-1.
And yet, the Bengals lost five games by only one score or less (three of which were to play-off-bound teams) and beat Tennessee and Pittsburgh at home. Despite another painful season – literally and figuratively – there were, strangely, some signs that despite the horrendous injuries and obvious shortcomings the Bengals had real potential.
Despite another poor showing, Head Coach Zac Taylor, Offensive Coordinator Brian Callahan and – most surprisingly – Defensive Coordinator Lou Anarumo all retained their jobs, despite their seats becoming hotter and hotter as the season progressed.
There was, however, some bloodletting.
Unpopular offensive live coach Jim ‘Top Bantz’ Turner (you might remember the headlines from his time in Miami) was culled, with the team bringing back his predecessor, the popular Frank Pollack. The front office dangled a ‘Run Game Co-ordinator’ add-on carrot to help smooth his passage back from the Jets.
Elsewhere, defensive line coach Nick Eason was also given the boot, replaced by Marion Hobby.
State Of The Roster
The Bengals go into the 2021 season with plenty of questions about their roster.
The signs are that Burrow will be back on the field by week one, but first-round bust John Ross and franchise legend AJ Green are almost certain to leave now their contracts have expired.
Elsewhere, the Bengals have 26 free agents to sort out. Two, in particular, are at the forefront in Bengals fans’ minds – defensive end Carl Lawson, and cornerback William Jackson III. These two players were standouts on an otherwise pedestrian defense lacking sizzle and speed, to the point where PPF rates them both in the top 15 free agents available this off-season.
There are rumours the front office will drop the franchise tag on one of them, but fans want them both back on extended deals if it all possible.
Salary Cap & Cut Candidates
It’s widely acknowledged that eight-time Pro Bowler Geno Atkins could be a sacrifice when it comes to trimming the squad and saving money. The 32-year-old club legend’s production has decreased over the past few years, and thanks to a barely concealed injury last season he was a shadow of his former self.
Cutting him could save $9.55million against the cap.
Although the Bengals will likely have over $30million to spend this off-season, letting Atkins go would be an emotional but necessary move.
Other potential cap casualties include popular tight end CJ Uzomah and running back Gio Bernard, but the one that fans are really hoping for is right tackle Bobby Hart. Although he improved last year, there’s a sense that for the Bengals to rebuild the line, Hart – who is Bengals fans’ love to hate figure – has to go. If he does, the club will save $6.8million against the cap.
With a nice chunk of cap space, it’s hoped that the Bengals will address arguably their most pressing need – the offensive line. At the top of the wanted list is Ohio native Joe Thuney, whose arrival from the Patriots would surely improve the interior considerably.
Where the Bengals have traditionally been active in free agency is in the second and third waves, picking up bargains to fill holes.
Aside from Thuney, who will likely cost around $13million, the team will need receiver depth, potentially a new starting cornerback opposite the returning Trae Waynes, a slot corner, and some pass-rush help.
If they can keep Lawson, that will help massively, but if Atkins goes a replacement three-technique is a must. Suggested names have included the Broncos’ Shelby Harris.
Most pundits and mock drafters have the Bengals taking Penei Sewell or Ja’Marr Chase at pick five in the upcoming draft, which would address pressing needs and stay true to the best player available approach.
In terms of overall needs, the Bengals have a core of young, exciting players in the offensive skill positions (Burrow, Higgins, Boyd and Mixon), but the offensive line must be upgraded – on the rare occasions the unit did give Burrow more than a couple of seconds to throw, he showed exactly why he was the number one pick in the draft.
Ideally, the Bengals will have a new, experienced starting-calibre left guard and right tackle by the time September rolls around.
On the defense, the Bengals need pass rush help urgently – regardless of whether Lawson stays or goes – and some depth in the secondary.
If they can wheel and deal – something that the Bengals’ front office isn’t known for – and address these needs, and Taylor and his young coaching staff continue to develop, then there’s a sense that this team could be going places.
The founder of ‘Bengals UK’, Paul is one of the pre-eminent voices of everything tiger striped on this side of the atlantic ocean. Follow them on twitter @WhoDey_UK, where they bring the UK Bengal community together with meet-ups, online tailgates, watch parties, podcasts and much more!