I thought the Bengals were one of the best teams in the NFL going into the playoffs last season and were a good sleeper candidate to make a Super Bowl run (though their season long inability to win on the road was concerning). They finished the regular season 3rd in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential at 7.81%, behind only Denver and New Orleans, thanks to a league best defense that only allowed opponents to move the chains at a 65.68% rate and an above average offense that moved the chains at a 73.49% rate, 12th in the NFL.
They won 11 games and, unlike most other teams that won a large amount of games, they weren’t overly reliant on winning the turnover battle to do it, as they were only +1 in turnover margin. Turnover margins are really unpredictable and inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0.
Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04. Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. The fact that the Bengals were having success without being completely reliant on winning the turnover battle seemed to be a good thing for them going into the post-season.
However, turnovers, the great equalizer, got the best of them in the post-season as the Chargers forced 4 turnovers and didn’t commit one of their own en route to a 27-10 victory in Cincinnati, where the Bengals hadn’t lost all season. You can say this is proof that the Bengals were a flawed team going into the playoffs because of their inability to consistently win the turnover battle, but, again, this is something that is very unpredictable. In fact, the Chargers, who forced 4 turnovers in that game, had forced just 17 in the entire regular season.
A lot of the blame was put on quarterback Andy Dalton and rightfully so. After all, Dalton committed 3 of those 4 turnovers (2 interceptions and a lost fumble). He completed 29 of 51 for 334 yards, a touchdown, and those 2 picks. Dalton is now 70 of 123 for 718 yards, 1 touchdown, and 6 interceptions in 3 career playoff games, as Dalton’s first 3 years in the NFL have all ended the same way, with a loss in the first round of the playoffs.
What’s not rightfully so is judging Dalton’s entire career on those 3 games and ignoring the 48 regular season games he’s played. It’s way too small of a sample size to go on and I don’t really buy the notion that some guys randomly become worse quarterbacks in the playoffs. If he does, we definitely don’t have enough evidence yet to definitively prove that. Besides, Dalton and the Bengals were only favored and at home in one of those three games.
Dalton has completed 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.97 YPA, 80 touchdowns, and 49 interceptions in 3 regular seasons in the league, making all 48 starts. One of his issues is his inconsistency. He had 5 games in which he graded out well above average on Pro Football Focus last season and 7 games in which he graded out well below average, finishing the season as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked quarterback. Dalton completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 8.16 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in the Bengals’ 11 wins last season, a QB rating of 101.8. Meanwhile, in 5 losses, he completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 5.96 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, a QB rating of 67.7. And then, of course, there was his terrible game in the post-season.
It might not seem like Dalton is the type of quarterback that can catch fire and go on a run to a Super Bowl victory with a strong supporting cast right now, but that’s just because he hasn’t done it yet. I think he’s capable of getting hot for a stretch and leading this team to a Super Bowl victory. It didn’t look like Eli Manning or Joe Flacco could do that before they did it, but they still did. Dalton’s regular season track record is comparable to those two and, again, unless you believe that he randomly becomes a worse quarterback in the playoffs, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t win a Super Bowl.
Eli Manning hadn’t won a playoff game through 3 seasons in the league, but he went all the way to win the Super Bowl in his 4th year in the league. In fact, Manning has never won a playoff game in a season he didn’t win the Super Bowl. In his first 3 years in the league, Manning completed 54.1% of his passes for an average of 6.31 YPA, 54 touchdowns, and 44 interceptions. It was a slightly different passing league back then and you can argue he didn’t have as good of weapons as Dalton has, but they’re clearly inferior numbers. Even his 4th season in the league didn’t appear to be the start of anything great, as he completed 56.1% of his passes for an average of 6.31 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions before a strong post-season, which ended in a Super Bowl victory.
Things won’t necessarily work out like this for Dalton, but I think the notions that you need a so called “elite” quarterback to win a Super Bowl and that you some quarterbacks randomly become worse in the playoffs are both false. Andy Dalton isn’t a top-10 quarterback, but he’s in the 15 or so range and the Bengals have a very strong supporting cast. The calls for Dalton to be benched or replaced this off-season were absurd and he’ll have every opportunity to prove himself as the quarterback of the future for this team in his contract year this year. The Bengals are on my short list of teams that could win the Super Bowl. The fact that they are 32-1 to win the Super Bowl right now seems like a cheap bet that much more likely than 32-1 will end up paying dividends.
One thing that could derail the Bengals in the quest for that Super Bowl is that they lost both their offensive and defensive coordinators, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, to head coaching jobs this off-season. Gruden is less likely to be missed. He was a good coordinator, but he’ll be replaced by former running backs coach Hue Jackson, who has some experience as a both an offensive coordinator and a head coach in the NFL.
One major change that he’ll make is that the Bengals are going to become more run heavy. Under Gruden, they were a pass heavy offense that used a lot of quick, short throws to act as a running game. Jackson is going to make them a run heavy offense and use the run to set up the deep pass. Andy Dalton has 47 touchdowns to 29 interceptions on passes 10+ yards downfield in his career, so this is something he can handle. The Bengals attempted 587 passes last season to 481 runs and Dalton has attempted at least 516 passes in every season he’s been in the league. There could be closer to a 50/50 split this season, especially if the defense continues to play as well as it has over the past couple of seasons.
This is great news for Giovani Bernard, a 2013 2nd round rookie who was very impressive as a rookie. Bernard only had 170 carries as a rookie, rushing for 695 yards and 5 touchdowns, an average of 4.09 yards per carry, but he also caught 56 passes for 514 yards and another 3 touchdowns. One of the more explosive players in space in the NFL, Bernard graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked running back overall and their 3rd ranked running back in pass catching grade.
Bernard might not have quite as many catches this season, but there will be more opportunity for him to carry the ball in his 2nd year in the league. He’s the lead back and could have 300+ touches. Darren McFadden, a running back with a similar style skill set, but less career success, was great under Hue Jackson, rushing for 1771 yards on 336 carries, an average of 5.27 YPA, catching 66 passes for 661 yards and scoring 15 times total in 20 games from 2010-2011 under offensive coordinator and eventual head coach Hue Jackson.
Bernard profiled similar to Ray Rice coming out of college and Rice had a similar rookie year, rushing for 454 yards on 107 carries and catching 33 passes for 273 yards. Rice didn’t break out until his 2nd year in the league, when he rushed for 1339 yards and 7 touchdowns on 254 carries and caught 78 passes for 702 yards and another touchdown, after he had a full year in an NFL training system to add weight. Bernard could have a similar year in his 2nd year in the league.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis actually led the team in carries last season, but now he’s not even a lock for the roster. He rushed for just 756 yards and 7 touchdowns on 220 carries last season, an average of 3.44 YPC, and he was Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked running back out of 55 eligible. He’s now averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry in each of his last 3 seasons in the league. His career average is 3.88 yards per carry on 1008 carries and he has just 52 catches in 6 seasons in the league. He has one carry for longer than 33 yards in his career. He rarely fumbles and he can pick up yards that are blocked, but that’s about it.
His biggest asset to the team last season was his abilities as a goal line back at 5-11 220, making him, in that sense, a good complement to the 5-10 200 pound Bernard, but the Bengals drafted Jeremy Hill in the 2nd round to be that big back. Going into his age 29 season, BJGE simply isn’t worth his non-guaranteed 2.5 million dollar salary. Hill is a talented 6-1 235 pounder and will serve as an upgraded complement to Bernard, because he’s more than just a goal line back, though he won’t have the same amount of carries as BJGE had last season. This is Bernard’s backfield now.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
One other change that Hue Jackson is going to make to the offense is that he’s going to make Marvin Jones an every down player and stop messing around with lesser talents like Mohamed Sanu. Jones had a breakout game week 8 against the Jets, catching all 8 of his targets for 122 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 13 pass routes run. However, even that didn’t turn him into an every down player as he played fewer than 60% of the team’s offensive snaps in 5 of the Bengals’ 8 final regular season games.
Jones finished the season with 51 catches for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns on 377 routes run, an impressive 1.89 yards per route run. Meanwhile, Mohamed Sanu caught 47 passes for 455 yards and 2 touchdowns on 463 routes run, an average of 0.98 yards per route run. Jones also caught 8 passes for 130 yards on 11 targets (72.7%) and 51 routes run (2.55 yards per route run). He played 77.8% of the Bengals snaps played in that game, a preview of the types of things he can do in the future as an every down wide receiver.
Gruden probably liked Sanu because he was there when the Bengals drafted him higher (3rd round vs. 5th round for Jones in 2012), but Jones is clearly the better player and Jackson won’t be afraid to make him an every down starter opposite AJ Green and relegate Sanu to a much smaller role as a slot receiver in a run heavy offense. There’s also talk that the Bengals could be using Sanu in a sort of hybrid h-back/fullback role, like Hue Jackson did with Marcel Reece in Oakland. The 6-1 211 pound Sanu is a willing blocker who has some experience carrying the football (115 collegiate carries and 9 as a pro).
Jones might not be quite as efficient this season in a larger role because he’ll see more attention from the defense and be more tired out, but he’ll have plenty of one-on-one opportunities opposite AJ Green. He could easily have a 3rd year breakout year and push for 1000+ yards. Jones was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked wide receiver last season on 555 total snaps and their 9th ranked in terms of pass pure catching grade. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher. Come season’s end, Green and Jones could be talked about as one of the better wide receiver duos in the NFL.
Jones actually graded out slightly better than Green did last season, as Green graded out 17th and 14th in pure pass catching grade. Green is probably the better overall player and he has the better track record, but it just shows what kind of player Jones can become. Green has been Pro Football Focus’ 22nd, 8th, and 14th ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade in his first 3 seasons in the league respectively. Green has averaged 2.25 yards per route run in his career. He’s only caught 59.0% of his career targets and had 26 drops, 19 penalties, and 22 interceptions when thrown to throughout his career, so he has some issues that don’t show up on a traditional stat sheet, but he’s still one of the better wide receivers in the game. The Bengals already picked up his 5th year option for 2015, which was a no brainer. Expect a lucrative extension soon.
One reason a run heavier offense might make sense to the Bengals is it would allow them to run their two former first round pick tight ends on the field at the same time more often, something they already did a fair amount of last season. Jermaine Gresham was drafted in the first round in 2010 and they added Tyler Eifert in the first round in 2013. Gresham has largely been a bust. His receiving numbers aren’t terrible, as he’s caught 218 passes for 2262 yards and 19 touchdowns in 59 games in 4 seasons, but he’s a terrible run blocker who has committed 19 penalties in the last 2 seasons combined, easily most in the NFL among tight ends over that stretch. His 1.37 yards per route run in his career is pretty mediocre as well. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end last season and he was their worst ranked tight end in 2012. He’s graded out below average in 3 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league.
Now going into his contract year, it seems pretty unlikely that the Bengals will bring him back for 2015 and beyond, with Eifert waiting in the wings as a potential long-term every down starting tight end. Eifert wasn’t flashy as a rookie, catching 39 passes for 445 yards and 2 touchdowns on 303 routes run, an average 1.47 yards per route run, struggling as a run blocker, and overall grading out slightly below average on 681 snaps. He could be better and have a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league in 2014.
The Bengals’ offensive line is their best offensive unit, even after losing Anthony Collins to free agency this off-season. Collins signed a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal with 15 million guaranteed with the Buccaneers. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in limited action in every season since 2009. In 2013, he was given his biggest chance yet, with Andrew Whitworth moving to left guard in place of the injured Clint Boling and Anthony Collins taking over at left tackle. Collins played a career high 592 snaps and didn’t allow a sack or quarterback hit all season, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked offensive tackle despite the limited action.
Still, he was essentially their 6th offensive lineman last season, only on the field because of injury to Clint Boling, so it’s not going to be that big of a loss. That should tell you how talented this unit is upfront. Boling is a solid starter in his own right, grading out above average in each of the last 2 seasons since the 2011 4th round pick took over as a starter at the start of the 2012 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked guard last season and their 22nd ranked guard in 2012. He also didn’t allow a sack or a quarterback hit last season, playing 788 snaps.
Andrew Whitworth is their most talented offensive lineman and coming off arguably the best season of his career. Playing 587 snaps at left tackle and 350 snaps at guard, he was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked offensive tackle and 7th ranked guard, with no one at either position playing fewer snaps than him and graded out better. His composite grade would have been 2nd at both tackle and guard last season.
While this was the first extended time he had played at guard since 2008, this kind of dominance is nothing new for him. Since taking over at left tackle in 2009, Whitworth didn’t miss a start from 2009-2012 and graded out as a top-12 offensive tackle in every season from 2009-2012, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked offensive tackle in 2010. He was outside of the top-12 last season, but only because he spent time at guard. He was still just as dominant, if not more so, last season, as compared to that 2009-2012 stretch. Even still, Joe Thomas is the only other offensive tackle to grade out in the top-15 in each of the last 5 seasons. Whitworth is going into his age 33 season, which is a concern, but, considering how well he played last season, I’m not too concerned yet.
At right tackle, there was concern going into last season that Andre Smith would coast once he received the 3-year, 18 million dollar deal he got from the Bengals to re-sign in the previous off-season. In fact, that concern is part of the reason why he didn’t get a bigger contract than that. Smith had weight and motivation concerns coming out of college and struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league. The Bengals exercised an option in his contract after his 2nd season in the league to cut it from a 6-year to a 4-year deal. That seemed to wake him up, as he graded out 28th among offensive tackles in 2011 and 4th in 2012. There was concern that he’d go back to coasting once he got paid, but he graded out 20th in 2013, so he definitely quelled some of those concerns. Now with 3 straight solid seasons on his resume, the naturally talented right tackle seems poised for another strong year.
They Bengals are also strong at right guard with Kevin Zeitler, a 2012 1st round pick who is going into his 3rd year in the league. He wasn’t as good in 2013 as he was in 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked guard. He graded out 26th in 2013 and missed 4 games. Now going into his 3rd year in the league, he could easily have a bounce back year. Either way, there’s nothing to suggest that he won’t have another solid year at the very least.
The only position of weakness the Bengals have on the offensive line is at center. The Bengals cut Kyle Cook, a mediocre starting center, this off-season, simply because he wasn’t living up to his salary and he’s yet to be signed on the open market. Mike Pollak is penciled in as the starter right now. The veteran journeyman was impressive in limited action last season, 374 snaps, but there’s no guarantee he can be good again. He’s pretty marginal throughout his career and he didn’t play a snap in 2012. If he struggles, Russell Bodine, a 4th round rookie, he could get some snaps. Trevor Robinson, a 2012 undrafted free agent who has struggled through 535 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, is also in the mix.
The loss of Collins hurts their depth, but the Bengals still have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Andy Dalton was pressured on just 25.2% of his drop backs last season, 2nd fewest in the NFL behind only Peyton Manning. Part of this had to do with the fact that Dalton had the quickest release in the NFL at an average of 2.24 seconds from snap to throw. Still, the Bengals were #1 on Pro Football Focus in team pass blocking grade (and 12th in run blocking grade), which is good because Dalton struggles under pressure, completing 38.5% of his passes under pressure last season, 3rd worst in the NFL. He was at 39.4% in 2012 and 38.6% as a rookie. Their pass protection will be even more important this season as they move to more of a downfield throw offense. They’ll have to block for longer as a result, but they should be up to the task.
As I mentioned earlier, the Bengals also lost their defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer. He’ll be replaced internally with Paul Guenther, who has been with the team as an assistant since 2005, last year serving as the linebackers coach. I like that they promoted internally, but they definitely will miss Mike Zimmer, who is one of the most accomplished defensive coordinators in the NFL and fully deserved his new job as the head coach in Minnesota.
The Bengals will also miss Michael Johnson defensively, as the defensive end signed with the Buccaneers this off-season. Johnson is an incredibly athletic edge rusher who went in the 3rd round out of Georgia Tech in 2009 because a lot of his tape didn’t match his athleticism. He eventually put everything together in 2012 in the contract year of his rookie deal, as he recorded 13 sacks and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 4-3 defensive end. The Bengals franchise tagged him instead of giving him a long-term deal because they wanted him to prove it again in 2013.
At first glance, he doesn’t appear to have proven it, recording just 5 sacks, but he also added 16 quarterback hits and 40 quarterback hurries, to go with 7 batted passes. He had a 10.6% pass rush rate on 575 pass rush snaps in 2013 and in 2012 he had 13 sacks, 8 hits, and 34 hurries on 533 pass rush snaps, a rate of 10.3%, which was actually lower than 2013. Add in the fact that he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run and you have a guy who was much better than his raw sack totals. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 defensive end. That’s obviously going to be hard to replace.
The man who they are going to try to replace him with is 2013 2nd round pick Margus Hunt. If his rookie year was any indication, that’s not going to go well. Hunt would have been Pro Football Focus’ 11th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end if he had been eligible last season, despite only playing 164 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out lower. He was an old rookie, so he’s already going into his age 27 season, but he was also incredibly raw coming out of SMU. The Estonian former junior world record holder in discus has only been playing football for 5 seasons. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league and he has a ton of natural talent, but there are obviously no guarantees. He’s the definition of boom or bust.
He probably won’t come close to playing the 922 snaps that Johnson played last season either way though. He’ll start, but the Bengals have some other players who will play snaps. Wallace Gilberry played 520 snaps in a rotational role last season and graded out below average. He’s been a mediocre reserve thus far in his career and I don’t see that really changing. Will Clarke, meanwhile, is a 3rd round rookie who could see some snaps as a rookie.
Robert Geathers is a veteran option going into his age 31 season coming off of a season ending injury who shouldn’t even be on the roster, especially not at his scheduled 2.5 million dollar salary. He’s graded out well below average in every season dating back in 2008. He was a bottom-5 4-3 defensive end in 2009, 2010, and 2012 and a bottom-10 defensive end in 2011. He only played 22 snaps last season because of injury. He might not make the final roster because of his salary, but, if he does, I could see them giving him a role again for some reason.
Carlos Dunlap will remain an every down defensive end on the other side. Dunlap has graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010 and he’s played an increasing number of snaps in every season, going from 287 snaps to 423 snaps to 601 snaps to 949 snaps last season. His best season was 2011, when he graded out 4th at his position despite only playing 423 snaps. No one graded out higher and played fewer snaps. He was 8th in 2012 and 9th in 2013 and should have another strong season this year, provided he doesn’t miss Mike Zimmer too much.
One “addition” for the Bengals could be defensive tackle Geno Atkins. I say “could” because Atkins might not be 100% in his first season back from a torn ACL that ended his season in the Bengals’ 9th game of the season. When at his best, Atkins is one of the best defensive players in the game and probably the best defensive tackle in the game. As a 4th round rookie in 2010, Atkins graded out 11th on Pro Football Focus 356 snaps and he ranked 2nd in 2011 and 1st in 2012, after taking over an every down player. Atkins was by far the top defensive tackle in 2012 and only JJ Watt had a better grade at any position, helping cement Atkins as one of the top few players in the NFL regardless of position.
He looked like he was on his way to another dominant season in 2013 before the injury and he still graded out 11th, despite playing just 458 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher than him. He still has age on his side, going into only his age 26 season, but an ACL tear sometimes takes a year to come back from fully and it doesn’t help that he lost his defensive coordinator. Still, having him on the field for the whole season, barring any re-injury, should help this defensive line.
The bigger issue is next to Geno Atkins at defensive tackle. Domata Peko will probably get the lion’s share of the snaps at the position because, even though he struggled mightily last season and even though he’s going into his age 30 season, the Bengals still gave him a 2-year, 9 million dollar extension this off-season, rather than cutting him and saving 4.125 million in cash and cap space. Peko was Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked defensive tackle last season and he hasn’t graded out above average in a season since 2007. Brandon Thompson, a 2012 3rd round pick, will also be in the mix. He graded out below average on 389 snaps last season after Atkins got hurt. He played 23 snaps as a rookie. Devon Still was also drafted in 2012, going in the 2nd round, but he’s only played 289 snaps in 2 seasons combined, struggling to get on the field even when there has been opportunity.
The opposite defensive tackle could be just a two-down role though because, like last season, one of their defensive ends could move inside to defensive tackle on passing downs. That would allow them to get Carlos Dunlap, Margus Hunt, and Wallace Gilberry on the field at the same time if they wanted to, rather than having the other defensive tackle play every down. It’s a trade-off and there might not be a right answer as the Bengals feel the loss of Johnson. Dunlap and Atkins are great, but the latter is coming off of a serious injury, their depth is questionable, and the loss of Mike Zimmer as defensive coordinator could really hurt.
Another heavily talented defender that the Bengals have is Vontaze Burfict. Burfict is an every down outside linebacker who broke out last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season, in his 2nd year in the league. The Arizona State product was heavily recruited out of high school and profiled as a potential 1st round pick going into his junior season in 2011, but he had a down year, a poor combine, and did not get good recommendations from his coaches, causing him to go undrafted.
However, he’s shown his natural talent in Cincinnati, becoming a starter in week 3 of his rookie season, grading out about average as a rookie and then dominating last season. He’s still a one year wonder, which is especially a concern given his history. We don’t know how he’ll handle his success, even though he hasn’t gotten paid yet. There’s also concern that he lost his defensive coordinator. However, only going into his age 24 season, he could easily have another dominant season as an every down linebacker. He’s played outside as a professional, but his natural position is middle linebacker and there’s some talk he could move back there and play every down there this season.
The reason for that is that middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has been struggling mightily over the past 3 seasons, grading out 37th out of 51 eligible middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2011, dead last in 2012, and 38th out of 55 eligible last season. For some reason, the Bengals gave him a 2-year, 6.5 million dollar deal last off-season, after an awful season, but, even though he’s owed 2.25 million this season, he could still be demoted to two-down work and/or moved to the outside.
The 3rd linebacker job is also up for grabs. James Harrison played it last season, thriving in a two-down role, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker against the run, despite only playing 383 snaps. Harrison is now going into his age 36 season and still available on the open market. The Bengals could bring him back on a one-year minimum deal, but there are no guarantees that he can still be successful at his age. He may just opt to retire anyway.
Assuming Harrison isn’t back, it’s looks like it’s a three-way battle for the 3rd linebacker job. Vincent Rey is probably the best of the bunch. The 2010 undrafted free agent played 113 nondescript snaps in 3 seasons from 2010-2012, but he excelled last season on 348 snaps, playing some backup snaps and playing every snap but 5 at middle linebacker in the 3 games that Rey Maualuga missed. Despite only playing 324 snaps at middle linebacker, Rey graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker last season, with no one playing fewer snaps and graded out higher. He can also play outside linebacker, but that’s not where he had his success last season.
The Bengals gave Rey a 2-year, 4.2 million dollar deal this off-season and they could have him play every down at middle linebacker and have Maualuga play only in sub packages outside. The other options are Jayson DiManche and Emmanuel Lamur. DiManche played 47 nondescript snaps last season as an undrafted free agent rookie, while Lamur flashed on 104 snaps as an undrafted free agent rookie, but missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. Rey is the best option of the 3.
Another “addition” that could help the Bengals is Leon Hall, who only played 276 snaps last season, before tearing his Achilles. He was dominant before getting hurt though as he would have graded out 17th among cornerbacks had he been eligible, despite his limited snap count. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher. He allowed 18 completions on 36 attempts (50.0%) for 153 yards (4.25 YPA), a touchdown, and an interception, deflecting 3 passes and not committing a single penalty. He’s a very good cornerback when healthy, grading out 3rd in 2009 among cornerbacks and 21st in 2010.
His return might not help them much though because he’s dealing with his 2nd torn Achilles in 3 seasons and going into his age 30 season. He tore his Achilles midway through the 2011 season as well and wasn’t quite the same in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked cornerback, and missing some time with related leg problems. He was better in 2013, but then got reinjured and, especially considering his age, now it’s unclear what kind of explosiveness he’ll have upon returning. He might bounce back, but it could take him a little bit.
The Bengals’ other top 2 cornerbacks are also going into their age 30+ seasons, Adam Jones and Terence Newman. The former is going into his age 31 season. He was the 6th overall pick in 2005 by the Titans, but he had his career derailed by an off-the-field incident that got him suspended for the entire 2007 season. He then ended up in Dallas in 2008 and then out of the league in 2009. However, he’s had a revival over the past 4 seasons in Cincinnati, grading out above average in each of the last 4 seasons. He did it first playing a combined 616 snaps from 2011-2012, but he’s been a key contributor over the past 2 seasons, grading out 11th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2012 on 608 snaps and 29th in 2013 on 994 snaps. He’s a naturally talented cornerback, but the concern is that his revival was possibly due to Mike Zimmer’s presence, which is especially a concern when you consider he’s on the wrong side of 30.
Terence Newman is a bigger concern, as he’s going into his age 36 season. Newman has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons with Cincinnati, grading out 19th in 2012 and 33rd in 2013. The issue is he looked close to done when the Bengals signed him, grading out below average in each of his final 2 years in Dallas, including 95th out of 109 eligible in 2011. Being reunited with his former Dallas defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati definitely helped him, but now with Zimmer gone and his age 36 season up next, Newman could really see his abilities fall off this season.
Because of the age of their top-3 cornerbacks, the Bengals used their first round pick on Darqueze Dennard out of Michigan State. He probably won’t play much as a rookie, which is good because cornerback usually take a year or two to get adjusted, but he’s valuable to have waiting in the wings. Also waiting in the wings is 2012 1st round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, who has yet to be able to establish himself in 2 years in his career thus far. He’s played 352 disappointing snaps thus far. He was Pro Football Focus’ 98th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible last season, despite only playing 309 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out lower. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league and push Newman for a significant role, but there are no guarantees he can be an asset for them on the field.
Things are more set at safety, where George Iloka and Reggie Nelson started last season and where they will begin the season as starters again this season. Iloka was in his first year as a starter last year, after not playing a defensive snap as a 5th round rookie in 2012. Iloka graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked safety. We’ll see if he can repeat that in his 2nd year as a starter. Nelson also graded out above average, grading out 18th among safeties. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons since the one-time 1st round pick bust came to Cincinnati from Jacksonville before the 2010 season. His best season was 2012, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety.
Last season, even though they fell short in one game in the playoffs, in which they lost the turnover battle by 4, the Bengals were still one of the better teams in the NFL when you look at their whole body of work. They’ve had some losses this off-season, losing offensive tackle Anthony Collins and defensive end Michael Johnson, both on big deals to the Buccaneers and losing both offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to head coaching jobs. They will get Geno Atkins and Leon Hall back from injuries, but it’s unclear if they’ll be 100%. They also had the fourth fewest adjusted games lost last season so, while they did lose top players to injury, they didn’t have unreasonably bad injury luck.
However, this is still one of the more talented teams in the NFL. Losing their coordinators is the wild card, as it’s tough to know exactly how much that will negatively affect them, but new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has experience and new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is an internal promotion and a Zimmer disciple. They are still on a short list of about 6, 7, 8 teams that I think can win the Super Bowl. Obviously Andy Dalton will have to play better in the post-season than he has in the past for them to do so, but I think he’s capable. They probably won’t end up being my Super Bowl pick, but getting them at 32-1 on a cheap bet might not be a bad idea. I’ll have official predictions after I’m done with every team’s preview.
Prediction: 12-4 1st in AFC North