Andy Dalton gets a lot of heat for his career playoff performance. It does make some sense. Dalton has lost in the first round in every season of his 4 year career, tying YA Tittle’s record worst 0-4 career playoff record. Dalton hasn’t played well in those 4 games either, completing 55.7% of his passes for an average of 5.53 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 6 interceptions. While he definitely has struggled in playoff games, I think he gets judged too much on that.
Even going into last year’s playoff loss, many pundits were wondering if Dalton could ever possibly win a playoff game. Of course he can, he’s there every year. I don’t think it’s fair to judge him just on 4 playoff games and ignore the 64 regular season games. Those aren’t meaningless. You have to get to the playoffs to win in the playoffs. Once you’re there, there’s a decent amount of flukiness, randomness, and bad luck that is involved in single elimination playoff games. I’m not saying that Dalton was just unlucky in those playoff games. He did play badly. But I think it was more bad luck that those bad games came on a huge stage than it is a fundamental flaw in Dalton. Even YA Tittle was a Hall of Famer, despite never winning a playoff game.
I’m also not saying that Dalton should be free of all criticism either and he’s certainly not on the Hall of Fame track like Tittle. His regular season play has been decent, but he’s also had a lot of help getting him to the playoffs, on both sides of the ball. He’s the definition of an average quarterback. In his career, he’s completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 6.99 YPA, 99 touchdowns, and 66 interceptions, while grading out 27th, 25th, 16th, and 21st on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively.
This puts the Bengals in a tough position because he’s been good enough to lead this team to the playoffs and put them out of position to find an upgrade in the draft, but he’s not good enough to win a Super Bowl without a ton of help. He’s also not exactly a young quarterback any more, going into his age 28 season. Described as a pro ready, but limited quarterback coming out of Texas Christian in 2011, Dalton has exceeded a lot of expectations, but probably isn’t going to get much better. He’s shown a disappointingly small amount of progress on the field since his rookie year.
The Bengals’ approach to the Dalton problem was to accept that he’s the best they’re going to get and give him a 6-year, 96 million dollar extension last off-season and continue the current course. It’s not a terrible idea, especially since very little of the deal is actually guaranteed, so if Dalton ever completely bombs a season and/or they ever get a chance to bring in a long-term upgrade, the Bengals can get out of the rest of the deal fairly painlessly. That being said, you do have to wonder if the Bengals are kicking themselves for not drafting Teddy Bridgewater 24th overall in last year’s draft, after he inexplicably fell to the bottom of the first round.
In terms of record, there wasn’t a ton of difference between the 2013 Bengals and the 2014 Bengals, as they went 11-5 in 2013 and 10-5-1 in 2014. However, win/loss totals are a small data set and, as a result, often don’t tell the whole story of a season. In 2013, the Bengals finished 3rd in rate of moving the chains differential and in 2014 they finished 16th. What happened? Well, on the offensive side of the ball (where they went from 12th in rate of moving the chains to 18th), injuries were a big part of the problem, as they had the 5th most offensive injuries in terms of adjusted games lost. Those injuries, for the most part, were in the receiving corps, which made life very difficult for Dalton.
Tyler Eifert, their first round pick in 2013 and someone who was a potential breakout player in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, missed the entire season (except 8 snaps) with elbow problems. As a result, Jermaine Gresham had to play 900 snaps at tight end, 7th most in the NFL, and he once again graded out below average. The Bengals also didn’t have another tight end play more than 157 snaps and rarely used two-tight end sets. Fullback Ryan Hewitt helped mitigate some of that and did a solid job on 472 snaps, but that was still a major problem for a team that wants to run the ball a lot.
The Bengals are banking on this being Eifert’s breakout year. They have let the veteran Gresham go and don’t seem too interested in bringing him back, as he remains a free agent. That’s for the best as Gresham has really struggled in recent years. The Bengals used a 3rd round pick on Tyler Kroft, but the rookie won’t provide much more than depth and blocking. This is Eifert’s show at tight end now. He has plenty of talent, but is pretty unproven. He played 681 snaps and graded out above average as the #2 tight end as a rookie and then missed all of last season.
Eifert wasn’t the only key member of their receiving corps that missed the entire season with injury as Marvin Jones sat out the entire season with a foot problem. Like Eifert, he too seemed like a young receiver on the cusp of a breakout year. The 2012 5th round pick was highly efficient in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked wide receiver on just 555 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. He caught 51 of 77 targets (66.2%) for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns on 377 routes run (1.89 yards per route run), playing as the 3rd receiver for the most of the year behind AJ Green and Mohamed Sanu. He would have been an every down starter in 2014 if not for the injury and he’ll start the season in that role again in 2015 so he could have that breakout year this year, but a lost season does kill some momentum and put a damper on his breakout potential.
AJ Green is their best wide receiver and, while he didn’t miss the whole season like Eifert and Jones, he too missed time with injury. While he technically only missed 3 regular season games, he missed the majority of two other games with injury and he was severely missed in the playoff loss to Indianapolis. In that loss, the only players to catch a pass were running backs Giovani Bernard (8/46) and Rex Burkhead (3/34), fullback Ryan Hewitt (3/37), reserve tight end Kevin Brock (1/7), and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (3/31).
When on the field, Green was once again a force. He was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked wide receiver on 666 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. He caught 69 of 109 targets (63.3%) for 1041 yards and 6 touchdowns on 352 routes run (a league leading average of 2.96 yards per route run). This is nothing new for him as Green graded out 8th among wide receivers in 2012 and 17th in 2013. In 4 seasons on the league, the 2011 4th overall pick has caught 329 passes for 4874 yards and 35 touchdowns in 60 games. Having him healthy for a full season, along with Eifert and Jones, would do wonders for a receiving corps that was running on fumes by playoff time last season.
With all the injuries, Mohamed Sanu (the only wideout to catch a pass in the playoff loss) was their leader in snaps played at wide receiver with 1014, making him one of 7 wide receivers to play more than 1000 snaps last season. Simply put, that’s not good, as Sanu was very overstretched as a #1 receiver. His slash line doesn’t look terrible (56/780/5) and he had some big games, but he was very inefficient, catching just 57.7% of his targets and averaging just 1.50 yards per route. He also had a league leading 14 drops. As a result, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 88th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. This is nothing new for him as he graded out 93rd out of 111 eligible in 2013, in the first season of significant action in his career. The 2012 3rd round pick fits much better as a 3rd receiver behind AJ Green and Marvin Jones on a run heavy team.
As I’ve alluded to, the Bengals were a run heavy team last season, with 492 carries, 5th most in the NFL, as compared to 503 pass attempts, 25th in the NFL. That was the biggest change in their offense as they went from Jay Gruden (now head coach of the Redskins) to Hue Jackson at offensive coordinator last season. Hue Jackson is known for his power run heavy offenses and he really wanted to rely on that and reduce the amount of the offensive burden that fell on Andy Dalton and the passing offense.
It seemed like that would lead to a big year from Giovani Bernard, a 2013 2nd round pick who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in 2013 on 226 touches. However, Bernard proved to be a bad fit for the power running offense. The 5-9 208 pounder is a great passing down back who has caught 99 passes in 29 career games and he provides a nice change of pace as a runner, but he’s only averaged 4.07 yards per carry in his career. Even in 2013, his strong rookie year, he only averaged 4.09 yards per carry and graded out 28th among running backs in run grade, only excelling in pass protection and as a receiver.
The running back who had a big year carrying the ball was Jeremy Hill, a 2014 2nd round pick who averaged 5.06 yards per carry as a rookie, rushing for 1124 yards and 9 touchdowns on 222 carries. The Bengals quickly figured out that Hill was the better lead back and gave him an average of 19.1 carries per game over the final 9 games of the season, as opposed to 7.1 carries per game over the first 7 games of the season. Bernard, meanwhile, saw 15.6 carries per game over the first 7 games of the season, but just 9.8 over the final 9 games of the season (he did miss 3 games with injury).
As a result, Hill rushed for 929 yards and 6 touchdowns on 172 carries (5.40 yards per carry) over the final 9 games of the season, which extrapolates to 1652 yards and 11 touchdowns on 306 carries over a 16 game season. Hill is unlikely to maintain that average over a full season, but he could easily get 250-300 carries this season and turn them into 1200+ yards. He’s not a great passing down back, but he and Bernard complement each other very well because Hill is a powerful between the tackles runner on early downs and Bernard is a good speed complement with great passing down abilities. It’s a strong backfield.
Part of the Bengals’ strong running game was their strong offensive line, which ranked 7th on Pro Football Focus’ in run blocking grade. The Bengals did have an injury on the offensive line as right tackle Andre Smith missed 7 games with injuries, including a torn triceps that ended his season week 12 and will likely have him sidelined until training camp. Smith was struggled before going down with the injury as well, grading out below average for the first time since 2010, his 2nd year in the league. Smith will need to have a bounce back year this year because he’s going into a contract year. Purely a right tackle, Smith graded out 28th among offensive tackles in 2011, 4th in 2012, and 19th in 2013 before last year’s poor season.
The Bengals certainly put the heat on Smith during the draft by adding offensive tackles in the first two rounds of the draft, Cedric Ogbuehi in the first and Jake Fisher in the second. Smith is unlikely to lose his starting job to either one of them this season (especially since Ogbuehi is expected to miss the start of the season with a torn ACL he suffered in Texas A&M’s bowl game), unless he gets hurt again, but it’s not a good sign for his future in the team in 2016 and beyond. It really doesn’t seem like they want to keep him after he hits free agency next off-season.
Smith isn’t the only starting offensive tackle going into a contract year, as Andrew Whitworth is as well. Whitworth, who is going into his age 34 season, also has reason to worry about his future with the team. The Bengals have reportedly already told him that they’re not bringing him back next off-season. It’s a shame because, despite his age, Whitworth is still playing at a very high level, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked offensive tackle last season. He could see his abilities fall off a cliff in the next couple of seasons because of his age and getting Fisher, a borderline 1st round talent, in the late 2nd round was a great value, but I didn’t see the need to take Ogbuehi 21st overall, especially when he’s rehabbing a torn ACL.
If I had to guess, the Bengals won’t bring back either Whitworth or Smith next off-season and Ogbuehi and Fisher will be the starters in 2016, even though they’ll both be unproven. It’s a weird move to give up on both Smith and Whitworth’s long-term future with the team this early, especially since the Bengals could have just drafted an offensive tackle early in next year’s draft if they needed to. The Bengals had more pressing needs at other positions (namely defensive tackle) and are built to contend now. Using your first two picks on players who you don’t expect to play as rookies doesn’t make a ton of sense.
As I mentioned, Whitworth played outstanding last season, but that’s nothing new for him. Whitworth has made 94 of 96 starts since 2009 and has graded 12th, 1st, 9th, 9th, 15th, and 2nd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2009-2014 respectively. The only season he graded out worse than 12th at his position was 2013, when he made just 9 starts at offensive tackle, as he missed 2 games with injury, and also made 5 starts at guard, where he graded out 7th, despite the limited action there. No one graded out better than him on fewer snaps at either positon and his composite grade would have been 1st among offensive tackles and 3rd among guards. It’s a highly impressive mix of versatility and dominance by a player who is quietly one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL. His age is definitely a concern, but he could easily have another dominant year this year. He’s reportedly not happy the Bengals used their first two draft picks on offensive tackles. The Bengals better hope that Whitworth doesn’t holdout in pursuit of a pay raise for 2015 (as he recently hinted at on Twitter).
Still, while there were definitely better uses of their first round pick, the Bengals do have a strong offensive line overall, assuming Smith is healthy and bounces back and Whitworth doesn’t hold out and doesn’t see his abilities fall off of a cliff. Things are also very good at guard. On the left side, Clint Boling was re-signed to a 5-year, 26 million dollar deal, a great value considering Orlando Franklin and Mike Iupati, comparably talented guards, got 36.5 and 40 million respectively over 5 years. Boling, a 2011 4th round pick, barely played as a rookie (175 snaps), but he’s been a starter over the past 3 seasons, making 44 of 48 starts (2 of which were at right tackle) and grading out above average in all 3 seasons. He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked guard in 2012, 18th ranked in 2013, and 19th ranked in 2014.
On the other side is Kevin Zeitler, a 2012 1st round pick. Zeitler was a starter from day 1 and has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th, 27th, and 9th ranked guard in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. If there’s one issue with Zeitler, it’s that he’s missed some time with injury, missing 8 games over the past 2 seasons with a variety of minor lower body injuries. Still, it was a no brainer decision by the Bengals to pick up his 5th year option for 2016, which is guaranteed for injury only. The Bengals should look to extend him long-term at some point soon.
The only real hole the Bengals have on the offensive line is at center, a position they didn’t address in the draft at all. They clearly like Russell Bodine, a 2014 4th round pick who made all 16 starts for the Bengals as a rookie. However, his rookie year left a lot to be desired, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked center out of 41 eligible, especially struggling in pass protection. It’s possible he improves in his 2nd year in the league, but he also wasn’t a highly rated prospect by the league coming out of college, as evidenced by the fact that he fell to the 4th round, so there definitely aren’t any guarantees. It’s still a strong offensive line though on an offense that should be a lot better this season in Hue Jackson’s 2nd season as offensive coordinator, with better health, and with a full season of Jeremy Hill as the lead back.
The defense was also noticeably worse in 2014 than it was in 2013 for the Bengals. In 2013, they actually finished the season 1st in rate of moving the chains differential, but that fell to 14th in 2014. However, unlike on offense, injuries weren’t the issue. In fact, the Bengals had above average injury luck last season, in terms of adjusted games lost. They did have some injuries and the ones they did have were impactful (more on that later), but the biggest issue was just a complete lack of depth and players playing big roles that should not have been playing those roles. In 2014, there were just 5 Bengals who played more than 100 snaps that graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. In 2013, that number was 13.
One of those players who played a significant role in 2014 that should not have was starting defensive tackle Domata Peko, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked defensive tackle out of 81 eligible last season. Of course, Peko also struggled in 2013 as the weak link on that strong Cincinnati defense, grading out 66th out of 69 eligible, but that’s even more reason why the Bengals should have used the 21st overall pick on a defensive tackle like Malcolm Brown, who fell to New England at 32. Peko is now going into his age 31 season so he’s not going to get better and the only defensive tackle the Bengals drafted was Marcus Hardison, a 4th rounder who won’t be an upgrade over Peko as a rookie. Reserves Brandon Thompson and Devon Still also struggled mightily in limited action last season.
Peko will once again slot in next to Geno Atkins. Atkins didn’t miss any time with injuries, playing all 16 games, but he tore his ACL in 2013 and he really wasn’t the same player upon his return, grading out 20th among defensive tackles in 2014. That’s pretty good, but the Bengals need Atkins to become the dominant player he was before the injury. A 2010 4th round pick, Atkins graded out 7th among defensive tackles as a rotational player as a rookie and then graded out #1 in both 2011 and 2012 as a starter. There was a time when he looked like arguably the most dominant defensive player in the game other than JJ Watt. In 2013, before the injury, he looked on his way to a similarly dominant year, grading out 4th at his position through week 8 before tearing his ACL week 9. He’ll be about 22 months removed from the injury by week 1 and, only going into his age 27 season, there’s a good chance he regains his prior form, or at least has a better year than 2013. That’ll be a big boost for this defense.
Atkins wasn’t to blame for their poor defensive line play last season though. Atkins (and Carlos Dunlap) graded out above average, but there were also completely overmatched players playing significant roles, which led to just 20 sacks by the Bengals, worst in the NFL. I already mentioned Domata Peko at defensive tackle (and to a lesser extent Thompson and Still), but at defensive end it was Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers who struggled mightily. The Bengals have drafted Margus Hunt (2nd round in 2013) and Will Clarke (3rd round in 2014) in recent years, but neither of them could get on the field last season, which is telling. Hunt has struggled through 352 snaps in 2 seasons and is already going into his age 28 season, while Clarke played just 64 nondescript snaps as a rookie. The Bengals really missed Michael Johnson, who signed with the Buccaneers last off-season on a 5-year, 43 million dollar deal.
The good news is that Johnson is now back. Johnson struggled mightily in his one season in Tampa Bay, prompting the Buccaneers to cut him even though he still had guaranteed money on his contract for 2015 and eat the 16 million they guaranteed him. Johnson struggled mightily, grading out 53rd out of 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, but he’s generally been a good player in his career and his poor play last season could be as a result of an ankle injury he suffered early in the season. He’s a candidate for a bounce back year in 2015 and the Buccaneers likely gave him up on too early. Their loss should be Cincinnati’s gain and he’ll likely be extra motivated by getting cut.
The 4-year, 24 million dollar deal the Bengals signed Johnson to is a much better value than the 5-year, 43 million dollar deal he signed last off-season in Tampa Bay and they could easily be getting a steal. Prior to last season’s down year, Johnson was one of the better edge rushers in the NFL, hence why he got the big contract. A highly athletic 2009 3rd round pick who struggled to put it all together in the first 3 years of his career, grading out below average in every season from 2009-2011, Johnson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012 and then proved it again on the franchise tag in 2013, grading out 4th at his position. There’s solid bounce back potential here.
Meanwhile, Geathers, who graded out dead last among eligible defensive ends in 2014, was cut this off-season, while Gilberry will slot into the 3rd defensive end spot with Johnson coming in. Gilberry struggled last year in a starting role, grading out 46th out of 59 eligible defensive ends. He’s had some success in the past, but he’s only graded out above average in 2 of 7 seasons in his career since going undrafted in 2008 and he’s largely been a reserve journeyman, going from Kansas City, to Tampa Bay, and now Cincinnati. Already going into his age 31 season, he’s a better fit as a 3rd defensive end, but the Bengals are probably hoping that either Clarke or Hunt can push him for that role.
Carlos Dunlap will line up across from Johnson once again. Dunlap, a 2010 2nd round pick, has been a consistently solid player throughout his career, grading out above average in all 5 seasons of his career. As a rookie in 2010, he graded out 21st on 287 snaps as a rotational player and then he graded out 4th, 9th, 8th, and 15th in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. With Johnson returning and Atkins another year removed from the injury, this should be an improved defensive line this season. I wish they would have upgraded Peko either through free agency or the draft and their depth is still suspect, but it’s now a solid group.
The one major injury the Bengals had on defense was a significant one, as it was to linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Prior to 2014, Burfict was on a good career trajectory, making 14 starts and grading out above average as an undrafted rookie in 2012 and then grading out 4th among eligible 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013. However, Burfict was limited to 223 snaps in 5 games last season thanks to knee problems, which greatly hampered him when on the field and caused him to grade out below average. Burfict had microfracture surgery in January, which is a very serious procedure, and now it’s unclear if he’ll be ready for the start of the season. It’s going to be tough to count on more from him in 2015.
Beyond Burfict, the rest of the Bengals’ linebacking corps is also very much in flux. Vincent Rey actually led Bengal linebackers in snaps played last season with 952 snaps last season. He flashed on 324 snaps in 2013 in his first significant career action, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker. However, Rey struggled mightily at middle linebacker in 2014, grading out 49th out of 60 eligible on 304 snaps. He redeemed himself at outside linebacker, grading out above average, 22nd among 4-3 outside linebackers, but he still graded out below average on the season. He’s only graded out above average in 1 of 5 seasons in his career, so, while he’s flashed, the 2010 undrafted free agent is probably best as a versatile reserve. He may have to start if Burfict misses time with injury though.
Emmanuel Lamur was 2nd on the team in snaps played last season, playing 905 snaps and making 13 starts at outside linebacker. He really struggled through, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst 4-3 outside linebacker. The 2012 undrafted free agent flashed as a reserve on 104 snaps as a rookie, but then missed all of 2013 with injury before last year’s disastrous season. He’s unlikely to be much better this season. The Bengals used a 3rd round pick on Paul Dawson and he could push Lamur for snaps outside as a rookie.
Inside at middle linebacker, a pair of veterans, Rey Maualuga and AJ Hawk will compete. Maualuga started his career at outside linebacker and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th and 11th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2009 and 2010 respectively, after the Bengals took him in the 2nd round in 2009. However, the Bengals moved him to middle linebacker for 2011 and it’s been a steady decline. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked middle linebacker out of 51 eligible in 2011 and worst ranked in 2012.
He was re-signed to a 2-year deal after that disastrous 2012 season, but he started seeing progressively fewer passing down snaps, playing 610 snaps in 2013 and 452 snaps in 2014. He graded out below average in both 2013 and 2014 once again and he missed 7 games with injuries combined in those 2 seasons. He’s decent against the run, but horrible in coverage. He’d be best off as a two-down 4-3 outside linebacker, but the Bengals seem intent on keeping him inside, after re-signing him to a 3-year deal worth an inexplicable 15 million. Ideally, he doesn’t play a lot of passing downs, but the Bengals might not have that option.
AJ Hawk was signed for 3.25 million over 2 years this off-season so he’s likely just insurance behind Maualuga and maybe Burfict. Hawk made 139 starts for the Packers after they drafted him 5th overall in 2006, but he’s only graded out above average once on Pro Football Focus in the site’s 8-year history. He had his salary cut and his contract renegotiated several times and eventually ran out of chances this off-season, going into his age 31 season. He came off the bench 3 times last season, the first time he played in a game in which he wasn’t a starter in his career, and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked middle linebacker out of 60 eligible. The Packers saved 3.5 million in cash and cap space by letting him go this off-season and he rightfully didn’t draw a lot of interest on the open market. It’s an overall weak linebacking corps with a lot of question. The group looks a lot better if Burfict is healthy, but that’s far from a guarantee.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t expect the Bengals to get much use out of 1st round pick Cedric Ogbuehi as a rookie. This is nothing new for the Bengals, as they used first round picks on cornerbacks in 2012 (Dre Kirkpatrick) and 2014 (Darqueze Dennard) and had them play 43 and 61 snaps as rookies respectively. Kirkpatrick is finally going to be getting a chance at a starting cornerback in his 4th year in the league this year, with the veteran Terence Newman, who graded out slightly below average last season, gone as a free agent to Minnesota this off-season. Despite being in his 4th year in the league, Kirkpatrick is really inexperienced, grading out below average on 309 snaps in 2013 and then on 248 snaps in 2014. Thus far he’s looked like a bust, but he’s finally getting a chance at serious action this season.
Dennard is unlikely to get serious action this season though, unless someone gets hurt or struggles and needs to get benched, as he’s currently penciled in as the 4th cornerback. Veterans Adam Jones and Leon Hall remain, going into their age 32 and age 31 seasons respectively. Dennard likely won’t get a significant role until next season, after Jones and Hall hit free agency this off-season. Hall made 15 starts for the Bengals in 2014, but graded out below average last season for the first time in his 8-year career. That shouldn’t be a surprise considering he tore his Achilles twice and had a 3 year stretch from 2011-2013 where he played 28 games. Now going into his age 31 season, Hall’s best days are likely behind him. Why the Bengals didn’t cut him to save 7.8 million on the cap, put Dennard into a starting role, and use that money to find a better defensive tackle is beyond me.
Jones played better than Hall last season, working primarily as a 3rd corner and slot corner, where he’ll continue to play this season. Off-the-field problems limited Jones, once the 6th overall pick in 2005, to 22 games from 2007-2011, but he’s gotten his act together and played in all 48 games over the past 3 seasons, making 21 starts and grading out above average in all 3 seasons. He’s getting up there in age, but could have another solid season as the 3rd cornerback. He might be their best cornerback. He was one of the 5 Bengal defenders to grade out above average on Pro Football Focus last season.
Joining Jones in that group of 5, along with Dunlap and Atkins, are the Bengals’ two starting safeties, George Iloka and Reggie Nelson. Iloka was a 2012 5th round pick and has been a breakout player for the Bengals over the past 2 seasons. After not playing a defensive snap as a rookie in 2012, Iloka graded out 20th among safeties in 2013 and then 12th among safeties in 2014. It’s the kind of progress you love to see out of a young player, especially one who is only going into his age 25 season. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 38.7% of their passes throwing at him last season, with no touchdowns to 3 interceptions. He’s a prime extension candidate as we get later into the off-season.
Nelson, meanwhile, is going into his age 32 season, but he’s still playing at a high level, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st safety last season. An inconsistent player early in his career in Jacksonville, the former 1st round pick has graded out above average in all 5 seasons he’s been in Cincinnati, maxing out at 7th in 2012. While they have issues at cornerback with a mix of aging players and inexperienced youngsters, they’re very solid at safety.
Overall, it’s a solid defense that could be improved over last year’s squad (unless they have more injuries), but they have a lot of holes and weaknesses still (defensive tackle, linebacker, and cornerback come to mind) and it’s a far cry from the top level squad they were in 2013. One fact of good news, their defense did get a lot better as last season went on, which could be attributed to young, first year defensive coordinator Paul Guenther improving on the job and becoming more comfortable in that new role. Over the final 8 games of the season, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 68.94% rate, as opposed to 74.38% over the first 8 games of the season. Guenther probably won’t ever be as good as Mike Zimmer (now head coach of the Vikings) was for their defense, but that’s good to see.
The Bengals finished the 2013 season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked team in rate of moving the chains differential, but saw that fall to 16th in 2014. That didn’t show up in the win/loss record, as they went from 11-5 to 10-5-1, but they were vastly different teams. This season, they should be right about in between. They’ll be healthier on offense and have Jeremy Hill as the lead back all season and their defense should be better too. Going into the 2nd year with their coordinators, after having two 1st time coordinators last season, should also help. However, they still have holes. I think they’re behind Baltimore in the AFC North, just like Pittsburgh. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Bengals after I’ve done all team’s previews.
Prediction: 9-7 2nd in AFC North