Andy Dalton was something of an annual pariah in his first 4 years in the league. Despite leading a team that was 4-12 when they drafted him to 4 straight playoff appearances, Dalton lost all 4 of those games, causing many to label him a choker and a player who is incapable of winning in the playoffs. Dalton has played poorly in those 4 games completing 55.7% of his passes for an average of 5.53 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 6 interceptions, but the Bengals, but I think it’s unfair to judge his entire career in just 4 games, especially since they were tough games and three of them were on the road.
Largely an average quarterback through his first 4 seasons, Dalton was on his way to the best season of his career in 2015, completing 66.1% of his passes for 8.42 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions through 12 games, before missing the final 4 regular season games of the season and the Bengals’ playoff game with a broken thumb. He still finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked quarterback, easily his career best, but the Bengals lost a close one in the playoffs with backup quarterback AJ McCarron, their 5th straight season which has ended in the first round of the playoffs.
With Dalton playing as well as he was last season, they likely would have won that game with him. Even though he’s never won in the playoffs, he easily could have at least once. He’s just one of two quarterbacks all-time to be 0-4 all-time in the playoffs, but YA Tittle is the other one and he ended up in the Hall of Fame. Peyton Manning started 0-3. Evaluating a quarterback just off of post-season record is lazy. McCarron played surprisingly decent in relief of Dalton last season, completing 66.4% of his passes for an average of 7.18 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, but having Dalton back healthy will be big for the Bengals; before last season, he never had missed a game in his career. He might not be quite as good as he was in his best season to date in 2015, but he should still be a solid starter at the very least. They moved the chains at a 76.19% rate in the games Dalton started and finished and just 70.25% in their other games.
The problem is the Bengals aren’t nearly as good around the quarterback this season, thanks to several off-season losses on both sides of the ball. They had arguably their most talented team in years in 2015, but weren’t able to keep all of that talent in free agency. Wide receiver might have been the area they were hit hardest, as they lost #2 receiver Marvin Jones and #3 receiver Mohamed Sanu to free agency. Sanu was a mediocre player at best, but Jones will be missed, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked wide receiver in 2015.
The Bengals also didn’t do a ton to replace them either, signing cheap veteran free agent wide receiver Brandon LaFell in free agency and drafting Pittsburgh’s Tyler Boyd in the 2nd round. They’ll compete for the starting job, replacing Jones. The most likely scenario to open the year is Brandon LaFell as the #2 receiver and Boyd working as the 3rd receiver, playing primarily on the slot, but LaFell isn’t very good so those roles could easily switch at some point during the season. LaFell has made 56 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but has graded out below average in 4 of those 6 seasons, including a 2015 season in which he ranked 118th out of 121 eligible wide receivers. Going into his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to improve going forward.
Making matters worse, the Bengals could be without starting tight end Tyler Eifert for up to the first month of the season. Eifert broke his foot at the end of May and was given a 3-4 month timeline, which puts his status for the week 1 opener very much in doubt. Complicating the matter is the fact that he’s been very injury prone through 3 years in his career, missing 19 games since the Bengals drafted him in the first round in 2013. In his absence, 2015 3rd round pick Tyler Kroft would be the starter, after struggling on 347 snaps as a rookie last season. Ryan Hewitt, a capable fullback versatile enough to play tight end, could also see snaps at the position. Both are steep dropoffs from Eifert.
After a nondescript first 2 seasons of his career, in which he played just 16 games combined, Eifert showed that first round talent in 2015, catching 52 passes for 615 yards and 13 touchdowns in 13 games and finishing 3rd overall among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. He’s both a good pass catcher and a strong run blocker at 6-6 250. Injuries are the only thing stopping him from another strong year, but they very well could end up derailing his season. That would be a big hit for a Cincinnati team that already lost a lot this off-season and that barely had any injuries in 2015, outside of Dalton and Eifert. They finished with the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2015 and, if history is any indication, they should be closer to the middle of the pack in 2016.
Outside of Dalton, AJ Green is the one guy who they can’t afford to lose to injury. He’s missed just 4 games in 5 seasons in the league, but you never know and he’s an even bigger part of the offense with Jones and Sanu gone. Green was actually only 16th in the NFL in targets with 132 last year, turning them into 86 catches for 1297 yards and 10 touchdowns and finished 4th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He could see upwards of 150 in 2016, though his numbers might not get significantly better if he sees more double and triple teams. Still, he’s been a top-17 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons and has averaged 88 catches for 1274 yards and 10 touchdowns per season over that time period. He’s an obvious asset in a much weakened receiving corps.
Not only did Green play the whole season last year, but they also had 4 starters on the offensive line play all 16 games at that same spot. The only one who didn’t was right tackle Andre Smith, who they didn’t miss when he was hurt because he was one of the worst right tackles in football. A free agent this off-season, Smith will be replaced by 2015 1st round pick Cedric Ogbuehi, who basically had a medical redshirt year in his first year in Cincinnati, after tearing his ACL during his season year at Texas A&M. He played just 73 snaps, but he’s now reportedly healthy and ready to start. He could struggle with growing pains early on, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Smith.
In addition to right tackle, center was a position of weakness upfront for the Bengals in 2015. Russell Bodine has made 32 starts at center in 2 seasons in the league, since the Bengals drafted him in the 4th round in 2014, but he’s largely played like a 4th round pick, grading out 33rd among 41 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus as a rookie and then 30th among 39 eligible in an equally disappointing 2nd year in the league in 2015. He could face competition for his job from Jake Fisher, a 2nd round pick from the same draft as Ogbuehi. A collegiate offensive tackle, he didn’t fill an obvious need, but many regarded him as a 1st round caliber talent and the Bengals found him too good to pass on.
He doesn’t have any experience at center, but he’s a talented player who doesn’t have an obvious role on the offensive line, so he’s been working out at all 5 spots this off-season and, barring injuries, center is his best shot at playing time. The athletic 6-6 306 pounder also played primarily tight end and fullback as a rookie, though he played just 135 snaps total. He’s likely to start the season as a versatile 6th offensive lineman and will likely continue to line up at tight end and fullback from time to time, but, if Bodine continues to struggle, don’t be surprised if Fisher gets a shot at center. He’d also likely be the first one off the bench if injuries were to strike on the offensive line this season.
The rest of the offensive line was very strong last season, with left tackle Andrew Whitworth, left guard Clint Boling, and right guard Kevin Zeitler all having strong 16-game seasons in 2015. Whitworth was the best of the bunch, finishing the season 4th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, the 7th straight season in which he’s been ranked among the top-15 at the position; he’s made all but 2 starts over that time period. He could easily have another strong season in 2016, but he’s going into his age 35 season, so his age is becoming a concern. He’s also going into the final year of his contract so this could easily be his final season in Cincinnati or even in the league. If so, he’ll have spent 11 years in the league, all with the Bengals. His age, combined with Smith’s pending free agency, was the reason the Bengals doubled up on offensive tackles in the first two rounds in 2015 with Ogbuehi and Fisher. Expect Ogbuehi to play left tackle long-term, likely as soon as next season, with Fisher starting on the right side.
Boling and Zeitler, meanwhile, have been one of the best guard duos in the NFL over the past 4 seasons. A 2011 4th round pick, Boling took over as a starter at left guard in his 2nd year in the league in 2012 and has ranked 22nd, 18th, 19th, and 21st in the 4 seasons since then. Zeitler, meanwhile, was a 1st round pick in 2012 and a day 1 starter. He’s finished 12th, 27th, 9th, and 11th among guards in 4 years in the league. Going into his age 26 season and the final year of his rookie deal, the Bengals will likely try to sign him to an extension and may use the franchise tag to keep him off the open market if it comes to that. For now, he’s still part of an overall strong offensive line, though it’s not one without issues.
Running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard also played all 16 games. Bernard, a 2013 2nd round pick, was locked up on a 3-year, 15.5 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal. That’s a pretty reasonable price, considering Bernard has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, including 24th in 2015. He’s turned 492 carries into 2105 yards and 12 touchdowns (4.28 YPC) and also added 148 catches for 1335 yards and 5 touchdowns as the Bengals’ primary passing down running back.
Jeremy Hill entered the following season, after the Bengals drafted him in the 2nd round in 2014. Both he and Bernard have had 200+ touches in each of the past 2 seasons, so the Bengals have big roles for both running backs and their skill sets complement each other very well. Hill is a big, bruising between the tackles runner at 6-1 235 who has just 42 catches in 32 career games, while the 5-9 205 pound Bernard is great in space, outside the tackles, and is an excellent pass catcher out of the backfield.
Hill had a strong rookie year, rushing for 1124 yards and 9 touchdowns on 222 carries (5.06 YPC). However, on almost exactly the same amount of carries the following season, he had over 300 yards fewer, rushing for 794 yards and 11 touchdowns, an average of 3.56 YPC on 223 carries. As a result, he graded out below average on Pro Football Focus. He’s still a promising young running back, only going into his 3rd year in the league, and a bounce back season in certainly possible, but a rough 2nd year in the league does put a damper on his future outlook. Still, it’s a solid running back duo.
Not only did the Bengals have good health on offense, finishing with the fewest offensive adjusted games lost in the league, they also had good health on defense, finishing with the 6th fewest offensive adjusted games lost in the league. That kind of luck is unlikely to continue. One key player who was healthy all season in 2015 is defensive tackle Geno Atkins. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league, finishing 3rd among defensive tackles in 2015. Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked defensive tackle in 2011 and 2012, Atkins tore his ACL midway through the 2013 season and was not quite the same when he returned in 2014, falling to 20th at his position. His career seems to be back on track now though and, still only going into his age 28 season, should be dominant again in 2016. He’d obviously be a big loss if he were to get hurt again.
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap would also be a big loss if he went down, but he hasn’t missed a game in 3 seasons. A 2010 2nd round pick, Dunlap is one of the most underrated defensive players in the NFL. He’s graded out above average in each of the 6 seasons he’s been in the league, including 5 straight top-15 seasons. He’s coming off of arguably the best season of his career in 2015, finishing 10th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus on 882 snaps. Only going into his age 27 season, Dunlap is one of the best bargains in the NFL, locked up for just 17.6 million over the next 3 seasons.
On the other side is another veteran, 7-year veteran Michael Johnson. A 2009 3rd round pick by the Bengals, Johnson graded out below average in each of the first 3 seasons of his career, but parlayed a strong 2012 season (14th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus) into a franchise tag in 2013 and then parlayed a strong season in 2013 (4th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus) into a 5-year, 43 million dollar contract from the Buccaneers prior to the 2014 season.
However, Johnson was horrible in one season in Tampa, got cut, signed a medium sized contract back with the Bengals last off-season, and then graded out below average for the 2nd straight season. In the process, he’s made 21.975 million in 2 years. Johnson is still only going into his age 29 season and has some bounce back potential, but it’s very concerning that he’s never played well outside of contract years and that he has overall graded out below average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league. He’ll be owed 4 million non-guaranteed in 2017, so this could easily be his final year in Cincinnati if he doesn’t turn it around.
At the very least, Johnson shouldn’t see the 848 regular season snaps he saw in 2015. In order for that to happen, the Bengals need at least one of Will Clarke and Margus Hunt to play a significant role. Clarke, 2014 3rd round pick, has played just 201 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, grading out below average in both seasons, while Hunt, a 2013 2nd round pick, has played just 408 snaps in 3 seasons in the league, grading out below average in all 3 seasons. Hunt was an old rookie and is already going into his age 29 season, so he can probably be written off, but Clarke hasn’t shown much more promise. He’s entering a make or break 3rd year in the league with a starting job likely opening in 2017 if Johnson’s let go.
The Bengals drafted Andrew Billings in the 4th round to be part of their defensive tackle rotation, but he’ll miss the entire season with a knee injury, so a pair of veterans, Domata Peko and Pat Sims, will compete for snaps at the position. Peko is the incumbent and has been for a while, making 139 starts in the last 9 seasons, but his effectiveness is long gone, going into his age 32 season. He’s been one of the worst starting defensive tackles in football over the past 3 seasons. Sims had some good years in the past as well, but has graded out below average in each of the past 2 seasons and was limited to just 180 snaps in 2015. It’s a solid defensive line led by Atkins and Dunlap, but they still have obvious issues and depth problems.
Another player who bounced back from a serious injury on this Cincinnati defense is Vontaze Burfict. Unlike Atkins, who played in all 16 games, Burfict missed the first 6 games of the season, but was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 linebacker in the 11 games (playoffs included) after he returned. That’s huge because Burfict was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013, but was limited to nondescript 223 snaps in 5 games by that knee injury in 2014. It was good to see him bounce back healthy last season.
Still only going into his age 26 season, Burfict should play well again, but the issue is he’s suspended for the first 3 games of the season for a dirty hit in the Bengals’ playoff game. The dirty hit also drew a personal foul penalty that arguably cost them the game. Burfict is a good player, but he’s had a dirty reputation since his collegiate days. The Bengals will probably be noticeably worse in the first few games of the season without Burfict and likely also without Eifert on offense.
In Burfict’s absence, the trio of Karlos Dansby, Rey Maualuga, and Vincent Rey will start at linebacker in the Bengals’ 4-3. Rey has led the Bengals in snaps played at linebacker in each of the past 2 seasons, but has been horrible in both seasons and has graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2010. He’s a liability. Dansby was an every down player in Cleveland last season and played significantly better than Rey, finishing 25th among linebackers in 16 starts. Dansby has graded out above average in 8 of 9 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, including 6 straight seasons in the top-13 among middle linebackers, but he’s going into his age 35 season and father time is undefeated. Another solid season would not be surprising, but neither would his abilities falling off of a cliff.
Maualuga is much better suited as a two-down base package linebacker at 6-2 255 and played just 622 snaps in 2015 as a result. He’s been wildly inconsistent in 7 years in the league, but has always been a capable run stopper, despite grading out below average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league. Youngsters Paul Dawson and Nick Vigil are also theoretically in the mix for snaps with Burfict suspended, but Dawson played just 35 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2015 and Vigil is a 3rd round rookie this year.
Who plays where when Burfict returns is unclear, but Burfict will have an every down role and Dansby is the favorite for an every down role inside, with Maualuga playing only playing about half the snaps and coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. Dansby has played primarily at middle linebacker in his career, so Maualuga could move back to outside linebacker, the position he played in the first 2 seasons of his career in 2009 and 2010. That leaves Rey as a reserve. It’s not a bad linebacking corps, but it has issues and Burfict’s suspension is significant, especially for a defense that hardly had any players miss time last season.
In addition to off-season losses in the receiving corps, the Bengals also had off-season losses in the secondary, as veteran cornerback Leon Hall and veteran safety Reggie Nelson are both gone. Hall was Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked cornerback, while Nelson came in 9th among safeties. The Bengals used their first round pick on cornerback William Jackson, as a long-term replacement for Hall, but he tore his pectoral this off-season and will probably miss his entire rookie season. It’s not a huge loss for the Bengals in 2016 because Jackson likely would have started his rookie year as the 4th cornerback in a still deep group of cornerbacks, but it hurts his development.
Jackson is the 3rd cornerback the Bengals have drafted in the first round in the past 5 drafts and the Bengals also re-signed veteran cornerback Adam Jones to a 3-year, 22 million dollar deal. Jones was the best of the bunch in 2015, finishing 15th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, and could easily have another strong season in 2016, even going into his age 33 season. After being limited to 22 games from 2007-2011 by off-the-field problems, Jones has cleaned up his act and played in 62 of 64 possible games in the past 4 seasons, grading out above average in all 4 of them.
Dre Kirkpatrick, a 2012 1st round pick, was the other starter opposite Jones last season, but struggled mightily, finished 103rd out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. Despite being a high draft pick, Kirkpatrick was limited to 600 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league and has never graded out above average, so he’s largely been a bust to this point. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, this could easily be Kirkpatrick’s final year in Cincinnati, given that they just drafted another cornerback in the first round.
The Bengals also used a first round pick on a cornerback in 2014, taking Darqueze Dennard. Dennard has been limited to 252 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but flashed in limited action in 2015 and looks poised for a larger role in his 3rd season in the league with Hall gone and Jackson injured. He could push the struggling Kirkpatrick for his starting job and figures to play opposite Kirkpatrick in sub packages regardless, with Jones shifting over to the slot in 3-cornerback sets.
Meanwhile at safety, the Bengals will be replacing Reggie Nelson internally with Shawn Williams. Given how well Nelson played last season, Williams is an obvious downgrade, but he did grade out above average on 474 snaps in 2015, after the 2013 3rd round pick barely played in his first 2 years in the league. He could easily take another step forward in his 4th year in the league and become a solid starter. The Bengals are banking on it, giving him a 4-year, 20.185 million dollar extension ahead of his rookie year, despite the fact that he has just 4 career starts, but he could just as easily prove to be overstretched in a larger role.
Fortunately, the Bengals did keep fellow free agent safety George Iloka, who returned to Cincinnati on a very reasonable 5-year, 30 million dollar deal. A 2012 5th round pick, Iloka didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but has made 44 out of a possible 48 starts in the past 3 seasons and has been a top-20 safety on Pro Football Focus in all three seasons; he came in 15th in 2015. It’s still a capable secondary, but, overall, it’s a defense that won’t be as good again in 2016 if they don’t stay as healthy as they did in 2015. It doesn’t look like a dominant group on paper.
The Bengals had a chance to make a deep playoff run last season if Andy Dalton had been healthy. Dalton figures to be healthy this season, but the Bengals might have blown their best chance. They lost a lot of talent this off-season on both sides of the ball and figure to have significantly more injuries around the quarterback this season, after barely having any last season. They’ve already lost their 1st and 4th round pick for the season with injury, while Tyler Eifert and Vontaze Burfict are both expected to miss the start of the season with injury and suspension respectively. They also lost offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to the Browns, where he’s now the head coach. He’s a talented offensive mind who helped Dalton have the best season of his career. He’ll be missed for sure. It’ll be a battle for them to make the playoffs.
Prediction: 9-7 2nd in AFC North