Cincinnati Bengals 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bengals were 12-4 in 2015, but fell to 6-9-1 in 2016, one of the biggest declines in the NFL. What happened? Well, part of it was just bad luck in close games, as they went 1-5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or fewer. Their +10 point differential suggests they should have been about an 8-9 win team, as does their +1.03 first down rate differential (12th in the NFL). The biggest reason for their decline though is simply that they weren’t the same team. The Bengals lost several useful players in free agency last off-season and, after having the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2015, they were without key offensive players like tight end Tyler Eifert, wide receiver AJ Green, and running back Giovani Bernard for large chunks of the season.

With wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu leaving in free agency last off-season, Andy Dalton was left throwing to the likes of Brandon LaFell, a veteran free agent acquisition, Tyler Boyd, a 2nd round rookie, and CJ Osumah, a reserve tight end, down the stretch last season. As a result, his numbers dropped substantially from 2015 to 2016. He went from completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 8.42 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions to completing 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions.

All things considered, Dalton had a solid season, finishing 16th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’s finished in the top-16 in 3 of his last 4 seasons, but needs more talent around him if he’s going to get back to the playoffs. Dalton gets a lot of flack for being 0-4 all-time in the post-season, but it’s unfair to judge his career on 4 playoff games, especially since the Bengals were underdogs in 3 of those games. Dalton was the only real injury the Bengals had in 2015 and, even though backup AJ McCarron was solid in his absence, the Bengals still fell from 10-2 to 12-4 and a first round playoff loss without him. Had Dalton been healthy, they would likely would have had a first round bye and they would have had a better chance to win in the playoffs.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Bengals clearly made upgrading Dalton’s weapons a big priority this off-season. They used their first 2 draft picks on offensive weapons, including using the 9th overall pick on Washington wide receiver John Ross, who will compete with Tyler Boyd and Brandon LaFell for snaps behind AJ Green on the depth chart. With Green missing the final 6 and a half games of the season with a hamstring injury, Brandon LaFell actually led all Cincinnati wide receivers in snaps played with 1008.

LaFell was coming off of a miserable 2015 season with the Patriots, in which he was Pro Football Focus 118th ranked wide receiver out of 121 eligible on 659 snaps, catching just 37 of 74 targets (50%) for 515 yards and 0 touchdowns in 11 games, despite catching passes from Tom Brady. He bounced back in his first season in Cincinnati though, posting a 64/862/6 slash line and finishing above average on Pro Football Focus for just the 3rd time in 7 seasons in the league (42nd among wide receivers). Going into his age 31 season, last season is probably his ceiling at this point in his career. He could be the #4 receiver by season’s end, depending on the development of their young receivers.

Given that they used the 9th overall pick on him, the Bengals clearly envision John Ross as a long-term complement to AJ Green, with Boyd working as a #3 receiver on the slot. Boyd posted a 54/603/1 slash line on 738 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2016 and finished about average on Pro Football Focus. Ross, meanwhile, was a surprise pick at 9, considering some didn’t even expect him to be a first rounder. He’s arguably the biggest boom or bust prospect that was taken in the top-10. He has record breaking speed, but a history of knee problems and needs to get stronger and become a more refined route runner. Given how deep the Bengals are at wide receiver, Ross could easily open the season as the #4 receiver. Cincinnati has had 4 first round picks since 2012 that did not start as rookies.

AJ Green returns as the #1 receiver, which is obviously huge for this team. Green was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver before going down last season and was on pace for a 117/1714/7 slash line through 9 games before the hamstring tear. With more options in the passing game, he’s unlikely to receive the 11 targets per game he was receiving on average before the injury; that would have led the league in 2016 over a full season. However, prior to the injury, he was a top-17 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in each of his last 4 seasons, averaging 88 catches for 1274 yards and 10 touchdowns per season over that time period. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, with just 4 games missed due to injury in his first 5 seasons in the league prior to last season, Green has obvious bounce back potential in 2017.

If Tyler Eifert can stay healthy too, this is a very deep receiving corps. A first round pick in 2013, Eifert has finished 4th and 3rd among tight ends over the past 2 seasons respectively. Whether or not he can stay healthy is a big if though, as he’s missed 27 games in 4 seasons in the league, including 8 last season, and now is coming off of off-season back surgery. Eifert has 81 catches for 1009 yards and 18 touchdowns in his last 23 games, which extrapolates to a 56/702/13 slash line over 16 games, but he has never played more than 14 games in a season in 4 years in the league.

Given Eifert’s injury history and the fact that he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal, I thought the Bengals would use an early pick on a tight end in the draft, but they didn’t address the position until the 7th round. As a result, CJ Uzomah and Tyler Kroft remain as the top reserves at the position. They both finished below average last season on 411 and 375 snaps respectively, in the first significant action of their careers. Kroft was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and presumably has the higher upside, but Uzomah played ahead of him last season when both were healthy. He’s the early favorite for the #2 tight end job and could easily see a few starts given Eifert’s injury history. This receiving corps has a very high upside and should be better than last season’s regardless.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

After taking John Ross at #9, the Bengals traded down in the 2nd round and selected running back Joe Mixon at 48. Mixon was arguably the most controversial player in the draft because he was suspended for his entire freshman season after assaulting a woman in a confrontation in 2014 when he was 18. In terms of pure talent, he was a first round caliber running back with a huge upside and he doesn’t even turn 21 until July, but the assault took him off most teams’ boards.

Cincinnati is an obvious landing place for him because they’ve always been comfortable bringing in potentially problematic people if they can play and because they had the need for a new lead back, with Jeremy Hill averaging 3.67 yards per carry on 445 carries over the past 2 seasons. Purely as a football player, Mixon is a nice addition to this team and has Offensive Rookie of the Year potential, but it was definitely a risky pick.

Hill will be Mixon’s primary competition for the lead back role and for carries, but he’ll need to run like he did when he was a rookie to have any shot of beating out Mixon. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Hill burst onto the scene by rushing for 1124 yards and 9 touchdowns on 222 carries (5.06 YPC) as a rookie, but has not been nearly the same back since. He’s also a liability on passing downs, whereas Mixon can play all 3 downs. The Bengals used Giovani Bernard as a change of pace and passing down back to complement Hill, but it’s easier to disguise whether you’re running or passing with an every down back like Mixon.

Bernard should still have a role, although he’s coming back from a torn ACL suffered last November that cost him the final 6 games of the season. He’s questionable for the start of the season, but the Bengals gave running backs 470 touches last season and 455 touches the season before, so there will be a role for Bernard when he returns, even with Mixon coming in. A 2013 2nd round pick, Bernard has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in his career and has rushed for 2442 yards and 14 touchdowns on 583 carries (4.19 YPC), with 187 catches for an additional 1671 yards and 6 touchdowns through the air. He was missed when he was injured last season. Hill, meanwhile, is likely to be the 3rd back when Bernard is healthy and likely will not have much of a role. This is a deep group.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Though the Bengals added some more offensive firepower in the draft, they also lost a pair of starting offensive linemen in free agency, which should really hurt them. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler were not small losses either, finishing last season 2nd and 7th at their respective positions on Pro Football Focus. The Bengals have always been cheap when it comes to signing free agents, including re-signing their own free agents, and that could really hurt them this time around. They enter the season with 18.7 million in unused cap space, 10th most in the NFL.

The Bengals used their first two draft picks in 2015 on offensive linemen, likely with a scenario like this in mind, but they should still have major issues upfront. Cedric Ogbuehi, their first rounder in 2015, will move from right tackle to left tackle to replace Whitworth, but he struggled mightily at right tackle in 2016, in his first starting experience. He finished the season 70th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles in 12 starts and will have an even tougher task on the blindside this season. Ogbuehi still has upside, but could easily struggle again in 2017.

Jake Fisher was their 2nd round pick in 2015. He has just 4 career starts in 2 seasons in the league, but is expected to start at either right tackle or right guard. Veteran Andre Smith is also in the mix at those 2 positions, while 2016 5th round pick Christian Westerman has an outside shot at the right guard job, despite not playing a snap as a rookie last season. Smith was once a solid starter for the Bengals, finishing in the top-28 among offensive tackles in every season from 2011-2013 (45 starts), but he’s struggled mightily over the past 3 seasons, finishing below average in all 3 and playing in just 27 of 48 games due to injury. Smith returns to the Bengals after a season in Minnesota and hopes to find new life at right guard, but, going into his age 30 season, that’s unlikely. This team didn’t come close to adequately replacing Zeitler and Whitworth.

Left guard Clint Boling and center Russell Bodine return. Boling is probably their best offensive lineman now. He finished last season 33rd among guards on Pro Football Focus, but that was his lowest rated season in 5 years as a starter, as he finished 22nd, 18th, 19th, and 21st in 2012-2015 respectively. Boling has made 74 of 80 starts over the last 5 seasons, and is still in the prime of his career, going into his age 28 season, so he should have another solid season in 2017.

Bodine, however, is not as good. The 2014 4th round pick has started every game of his career, but has largely played like a 4th round pick, finishing 33rd out of 41 eligible centers in 2014, 30th out of 39 eligible centers in 2015, and then 26th out of 38 eligible centers in 2016. This offensive line is now one of the worst in football after they lost their two best offensive linemen in free agency. Even with as much skill position talent as they have, that will really hurt their offense.

Grade: C-

Defensive Line

While the Bengals won significantly fewer games in 2016 than 2015, their defense wasn’t really that much worse, as they finished 11th in first down rate allowed, after finishing 8th the season before. Their offense was the unit that declined most, falling from 5th in first down rate to 16th in 2016, without so many of their offensive playmakers from the season before. After using their first two draft picks on offensive players, the Bengals took a pair of defensive ends in the 3rd and 4th rounds to shore up a need on defense, first taking Kansas State’s Jordan Willis and then taking Auburn’s Carl Lawson. Willis and Lawson were Pro Football Focus’ 15th and 14th ranked overall draft prospects and are NFL ready pass rushers, so they were arguably the two biggest steals of the draft.

The Bengals really need an upgrade over Michael Johnson at the defensive end spot opposite Carlos Dunlap. Johnson has finished below average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, including 105th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on 832 snaps in 2016. Now going into his age 30 season, Johnson’s best days are behind him and he’s only ever played well in contract years. Johnson may nominally remain the starter in 2017, but Willis and Lawson will eat into his snaps, especially in sub packages. Lawson is also getting some action at linebacker this off-season and could be an option there in base packages. With Johnson owed 5 million non-guaranteed in 2018, it’s possible this is his final season in Cincinnati, opening the door for either Lawson or Willis to take over as the starter next season.

Dunlap is one of the best defensive ends in the league though. He’s been a top-15 defensive end in each of the last 6 seasons on Pro Football Focus and finished last season 8th. Over the past 4 seasons, he’s made 63 starts and has played in all 64 games. A true every down defensive end, capable of rushing the passer and stuffing the run, Dunlap played 840 snaps last season and is still in the prime of his career, going into his age 28 season. With Willis and Lawson coming in, they might line Dunlap up inside on passing downs to get their 4 best pass rushers on the field at the same time. Dunlap has the size to do that at 6-6 290.

Another reason why lining Dunlap up inside more often makes sense is because they lack a 2nd interior sub package rusher next to Geno Atkins. Veteran Pat Sims and 2nd year player Andrew Billings will compete for the starting job, but neither is much of a pass rusher, so ideally it would be only a base package job. Sims was a solid run stopper in his prime, but is going into his age 32 season and has finished below average in 3 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. Billings has upside, but was just a 4th round pick and missed his entire rookie season with injury. It’s likely to be a position of weakness regardless of who starts.

Regardless of where he lines up, Dunlap forms a dangerous one-two punch on the defensive line with Atkins, who is every down defensive tackle. Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked defensive tackle in both 2011 and 2012, Atkins’ career was sidetracked by a torn ACL suffered in 2013. He missed 7 games that season and was not the same player in 2014, but he’s returned to form over the past 2 seasons, finishing 3rd and 5th among defensive tackles in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Outside of the 7 games he missed in 2013, he’s played in every game in 7 seasons in the league. Like Dunlap, Atkins is still in the prime of his career, going into his age 29 season, so they should be a dangerous duo once again. They haven’t had a 3rd player step up over the past 2 seasons, but rookies Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson have potential. The arrow is pointing up on this defensive line.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

In addition to the offensive playmakers they were missing, the Bengals also were without top linebacker Vontaze Burfict for 5 games last season, which hurt this defense. Three of those games missed were as a result of suspension, following his illegal hit in the playoff loss to the Steelers the previous season. Burfict has had a reputation as a dirty player since college and is always a suspension risk, but injuries are actually a bigger concern for him. Not only did he miss the final 2 games of last season with concussion, but he was limited to 15 games by injuries in 2014 and 2015 combined.

Since playing all 32 games in his first 2 seasons in the league, Burfict has played in just 26 of 48 games since. He finished in the top-4 among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013, 2014, and then last season, when he finished 2nd, so he’s a very good player when he’s on the field, but he’s had a lot of trouble staying on the field over the past 3 seasons. Fortunately, he’s still only going into his age 27 season, so he should still have a lot of good seasons left in the tank if he can stay healthy.

With Burfict missing time, veteran Karlos Dansby led this linebacking corps in snaps played with 781 last season and played pretty well, despite his advanced age. He is no longer with the team, but the Bengals brought in 5th year linebacker Kevin Minter from the Cardinals to replace him. Minter will compete for snaps with last year’s 3rd linebacker Vincent Rey and last year’s 3rd round pick Nick Vigil, with Carl Lawson also potentially in the mix for snaps at outside linebacker in base packages.

Minter received 4.25 million on a one-year deal this off-season, so he’s probably the favorite for the every down job inside. Minter was always known as a two-down run stuffer before 2016 and struggled mightily in his first every down role in 2015, when he finished 78th out of 97 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus, especially struggling in coverage. In his contract year in 2016, however, the 2013 2nd round pick put it all together and played well both in coverage and against the run. He finished 18th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He’s a one-year wonder, but the Bengals protected themselves by only giving him a one-year deal. He could have another solid season.

If he doesn’t and starts to struggle again, the Bengals could move Vincent Rey inside. Currently, Rey is the favorite for the base package outside linebacker job. He would play about half the snaps and come off the field for a 5th defensive back in obvious passing situations. Rey is going into his age 30 season and has some talented young options behind him on the depth chart, but he’s coming off arguably the best season of his career. He finished 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 590 snaps, just the 2nd time in his 7-year career in which he’s finished above average. He’s unlikely to be as good again, but Vigil played just 111 snaps as a rookie and Lawson was just a 4th round pick, so Rey could hold them off. They have options and depth in what is a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Bengals used first round picks on cornerbacks in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Dre Kirkpatrick, the 17th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, didn’t become a full-time starter until his 4th season in the league in 2015. Darqueze Dennard, the 24th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, is now going into his 4th season in the league with just 4 career starts under his belt. William Jackson, the 24th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, missed his entire rookie season with a torn pectoral and could have to wait equally long to become a starter, given all the depth the Bengals have at the position.

Not only did Kirkpatrick take until his 4th season to become a starter, but he hasn’t played well in two seasons since becoming the starter, especially struggling in 2015, when he finished 103rd out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. He was better in his contract season in 2016, finishing 52nd, but he hasn’t lived up to his potential as a first round pick. The Bengals didn’t seem to care though, locking him up on a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, while letting their top-2 offensive lineman walk. He’s the 11th highest paid cornerback in the NFL. Considering how much depth the Bengals have at cornerback, it’s a move that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Darqueze Dennard, meanwhile, is not even a lock for a starting job in now his 4th season in the league, as Adam Jones is still playing at a pretty high level opposite Kirkpatrick. Jones is also a former first round pick, way back in 2005 with the Titans. Jones is now going into his age 34 season, but has been the Bengals’ best cornerback over the past 5 seasons, despite all of the first round cornerbacks the Bengals have added over that time period. He’s finished above average in all 5 seasons, including 33rd in 2016. His age is a concern, but he’s still probably the favorite for the starting job. At the very least, he’ll continue covering the slot in sub packages, which is where he’s best.

Dennard is not even a lock for the #3 job, with William Jackson returning from injury and Joshua Shaw also in the mix, after playing alright on 618 snaps in 2016. Shaw, a 2015 4th round pick, flashed in limited action as a rookie too and played ahead of Dennard last season when both were healthy. Dennard has a higher upside, but has been nondescript on just 585 career snaps in 3 seasons in the league. It’s possible that Shaw and/or Jackson open the season ahead of him on the depth chart. This is a crowded cornerback group.

Kirkpatrick isn’t the only defensive back this team has given a big contract to recently, as they also re-signed safety George Iloka to a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal last off-season. Iloka was a much better re-signing than Kirkpatrick, as he finished in the top-20 among safeties on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2013-2015. The 2012 5th round pick fell to 47th in the first year of his new contract, but he is only going into his age 27 season, so he definitely could bounce back in 2017. He’s at least a solid starting safety regardless and he’s durable, missing just 4 starts in 4 seasons as a starter.

The Bengals did not re-sign fellow safety Reggie Nelson as a free agent last off-season, but they had an obvious internal replacement in Shawn Williams. Williams flashed on 474 snaps in 2015 and then finished 33rd among safeties in 15 starts in 2016, his first full season as a starter. The 2013 3rd round pick was given a 4-year, 20.185 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie contract in 2016. The Bengals likely saved themselves a significant amount of money by locking him up before his strong 2016, as he would have been a hot commodity on the open market this off-season. The Bengals’ safeties are better than their cornerbacks, but they are deep at cornerback and have a solid overall secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Bengals probably peaked in 2015. They had next to no injuries until Andy Dalton got hurt late in the season, derailing their playoff chances after a 10-2 start. Last off-season, they lost two significant wide receivers in free agency in Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Then, during the season, they lost several key offensive players to injury in AJ Green, Tyler Eifert, and Giovani Bernard. They added much needed offensive weapons in the draft this year, but they lost their top-2 offensive linemen in free agency, which will hurt this offense immensely.

Green, Eifert, and Bernard should all be back healthy this season, but the Bengals still had the 7th fewest offensive adjusted games lost to injury in 2016, as pretty much all of their other starters played all 16 games. They probably won’t be able to count on having fewer games lost in 2017, but those games lost might be by less important players. Defensively, they added needed edge rushers through the draft, but they are likely to have more injuries on that side of the ball, after finishing with the 2nd fewest defensive adjusted games lost to injury last season. This team still has enough talent to compete for a playoff spot, but they’re unlikely to come close to what they were in 2015 before Dalton got hurt. 

Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in AFC North

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