Cincinnati Bengals 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into the 2019 season, few had high expectations for the Bengals, but not many expected them to be terrible either, as they had never won fewer than 6 games in Andy Dalton’s 8 seasons as a starter. Instead, the Bengals finished with the worst record in the NFL at 2-14 and received the #1 overall pick as a result. The Bengals picked a good year to be bad as this draft class not only contained Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who had a sensational season in 2018 and was seen as the consensus #1 pick going in 2019, but also LSU’s Joe Burrow, who took over as the consensus #1 overall pick following an outstanding senior season and an injury to Tagovailoa.

Burrow not only won the Heisman and the National Championship with an undefeated 15-0 team, but he also broke the NCAA’s single season record for passing touchdowns and the SEC’s single season record for passing yards and he has all the tools to translate to the next level. That being said, it’s worth noting he is a bit of a one-year wonder. Unlike Tagovailoa, who had multiple high level years as a starter in the SEC, Burrow was up and down in his junior year in 2018 and was seen by most as a late round pick by this point last year. Burrow is also older than Tagovailoa (age 24 as a rookie vs. age 22) and might not have as high of a ceiling overall. That being said, considering Tagovailoa’s medical situation, it’s hard to fault the Bengals for taking Burrow, although time will tell if that proves to be the correct decision.

Even though the Bengals had the worst record in the league last season, you can definitely argue they weren’t terrible, as a lot of the problem was bad luck, or good luck depending on how you view getting the #1 pick and adding Burrow. Of their 14 losses, 8 were decided by 8 points or fewer, while both of their wins came by 10 points or more, even though they had the 3rd worst turnover margin in the league at -14. In terms of first down rate differential, the Bengals ranked 24th at -3.47%, certainly not good, but certainly not at the worst in the league either.

The Bengals likely would have finished even higher had they not benched Dalton for 4th round rookie Ryan Finley for 3 weeks, as Finley was horrendous in his 3 starts, completing 47.1% of his passes for an average of 5.45 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. The Bengals had a pathetic 28.18% first down rate in Finley’s 3 starts, as opposed to 33.18% in Dalton’s 13 starts. It was understandable that the Bengals would want to go to Finley though, as they wanted to give the rookie a shot in a lost season, and the Bengals arguably would not have ended up with the #1 pick had they not started Finley for a stretch, as, even with Finley starting, two of those losses came by 7 points or fewer.

As soon as Dalton took back the starting job for the final 5 weeks of the season, the Bengals got their first win of the season and finished with a 2-3 stretch in which they actually had a positive first down rate differential at +1.81%, though an easy schedule during that stretch partially was a factor. Still, it’s good to see the Bengals end the season on a positive note, especially since they didn’t cost themselves draft position in the process, and it’s safe to say that Burrow is walking into a better situation than most #1 overall picks do in terms of existing talent on the roster, as they were far from the worst team in the league last season.

Burrow’s entrance officially closed the book on the Andy Dalton era, as Dalton was released ahead of a 17.7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and ultimately signed with the Cowboys as a backup this off-season. During Dalton’s 9 seasons as the starter (133 starts), the Bengals were consistently respectable on the field until the end, but never won a playoff game. In his final season, he completed 59.5% of his passes for an average of 6.61 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions while earning Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked quarterback grade out of 39 qualifiers, making it arguably the worst season of his career. Given that, Burrow won’t have a steep bar to pass, even as a rookie, though he’ll certainly have some rookie growing pains. With only Finley behind him on the depth chart as a mediocre backup, this is completely Burrow’s job before he’s thrown his first pass.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The way the Bengals finished last season is even more impressive because of all the injuries they suffered, particularly on offense, where they had the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season. It wasn’t just that they lost a lot of players, but they also lost some of their most important players, most especially #1 wide receiver AJ Green, who missed the entire season with an ankle injury. Missing his long-time top receiver, it’s not a surprise Dalton had arguably the worst season of his career in 2019.

Green wanted to leave Cincinnati in free agency this off-season, to pursue a significant salary guarantee with a contender, with time running out on his career, going into his age 32 season and coming off of a significant injury. Green also missed 6 games in 2016 and 7 games in 2018, meaning he’s been limited to 35 games over the past 4 seasons, so he’s hardly a sure thing at his age, but the Bengals still wouldn’t let him leave, keeping around for at least another year on the franchise tag, in order to ease Burrow’s transition into the NFL.

Green can’t be happy about how the situation has turned out, especially with the Bengals in no hurry to give him the long-term guarantees he wants, but his only other option is to threaten to sit out the season to force a trade, which would be a tough move for him to pull off, given that he already missed all of last season and would undoubtedly hurt himself financially sitting out another year at his age. Green has averaged a 87/1284/9 slash line per 16 games in his career, including 85/1251/8 per 16 games over his recent injury plagued seasons, so he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank at the least even if he’s not in his prime form, but he’s a big question mark at this point and his best days are likely behind him.

Fortunately, the Bengals are pretty deep in the receiving corps. Tyler Boyd and John Ross both earned above average grades on Pro Football Focus in Green’s absence last season, though Ross was limited to 8 games by injury, while Auden Tate and Alex Erickson were about average on 647 snaps and 615 snaps respectively. They got even deeper this off-season when they used the 33rd overall pick on Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins. Even in a deep group with Green and Ross returning, Higgins figures to compete for a role in 3-wide receiver sets immediately.

Tyler Boyd was the #1 receiver last year with Green out, leading the team with a 90/1046/5 slash line and he’ll be more of a 1b to Green’s 1a than a true #2 receiver in 2020. That was the case the last time Green played in 2018, when Boyd finished with a 76/1028/7 slash line. Boyd seems to produce better with Green in the lineup, on pace for a 98/1240/10 slash line through 16 games in 2018 before Green got hurt, though I wouldn’t expect him to keep up that pace in 2020 on a passing offense with more options. Still, Boyd is a talented secondary passing option who can be a #1 for stretches. The 2016 2nd round pick’s career got off to a shaky start, but after back-to-back 1000+ yard years, he’s still only in his age 26 season. He still has several years left in his prime and looks like the long-term #1 whenever Green eventually is not around.

Ross was on pace for a 1000+ yard season last year if he had stayed healthy all season, with a 28/506/3 slash line in 8 games, but he wasn’t particularly consistent, as he topped 45 receiving yards in a game just three times. A bust as the 9th overall pick in 2017, Ross barely contributed in his first 2 seasons in the league (0.56 yards per route run on 377 routes), largely due to other injuries, and he has just 4 games with more than 45 receiving yards for his entire career. 

The Bengals seem to be underwhelmed, despite his flashes of brilliance, not only adding Higgins, but declining Ross’ 5th year option for 2021, which would have guaranteed him 15.68 million for injury, a big risk considering his inability to stay healthy thus far. Ross still has upside, not even 25 until November, and he could earn himself a lot of money with a big year in what is now a contract year, but he could also easily get hurt again or find himself on the bench behind Higgins by season’s end. Higgins’ arrival also likely means that Auden Tate and Alex Erickson will be stuck in reserve roles, despite faring alright in the first significant action of their careers in 2019. Tate, a 2018 7th round pick, in particular seems to have good long-term potential, even if he doesn’t see the field much this season.

The Bengals lost long-time tight end Tyler Eifert in free agency this off-season, as he took a 2-year, 9.5 million dollar deal in Jacksonville. Eifert was a former first round pick and had some moments of being among the top tight ends in the league earlier in his career, but he was limited to 43 games due to injury from 2013-2018 and, though he played in all 16 games for the first time in 2019, all of those injuries seemed to have taken their toll on him, as he was nothing more than a snap eater and had an underwhelming 43/436/3 slash line.

That line still led all Bengals tight ends, however, and the Bengals didn’t do anything to replace him. Instead, they’ll likely be expecting more out of Drew Sample, who played just 108 snaps and caught just 5 passes as a 2nd round rookie last year. Sample is primarily a blocking tight end, however, managing just 46 catches in his entire collegiate career. He may have some untapped upside as a receiver, but I wouldn’t expect him to ever be a big factor in the passing game, so it’s strange the Bengals drafted him where they did. 

Veteran CJ Uzomah will likely be the primary pass catching tight end. He had a decent 43/439/3 slash line in 2018, but was limited to 27/242/2 in 2019. Even his meager production in 2019 was the 2nd best year of his career and he’s earned mediocre grades from PFF throughout his career as well. He’ll have a bigger pass game role in 2020 with Eifert gone, but I don’t expect the tight end position to be used that much in this offense, given that they are way deeper at wide receiver.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Bengals also had injury problems on the offensive line, which made things even worse for a group that wasn’t very good to begin with. First round pick Jonah Williams, who was expected to start at one of the two tackle spots, got hurt early in the off-season and missed the whole season. Cordy Glenn, who became locked in at left tackle when Williams got hurt, was limited to 291 snaps in 6 games, unsurprisingly coinciding with the Bengals’ best offensive stretch of the year at the end of the season. Aside from Glenn, the other 9 offensive linemen who played a snap for the Bengals all earned a below average grade from Pro Football Focus.

Glenn was let go this off-season, owed 9.5 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season in 2020, after several injury plagued years, and the Bengals didn’t make any significant additions upfront either, so, while they get Jonah Williams back, this offensive line should still have a lot of problems this season. Williams himself is a question mark as well, expected to line up on the blindside at left tackle, despite having never played a snap in the NFL. Even if he has significant growing pains, he could be the Bengals’ best offensive lineman by default.

Center Trey Hopkins was probably their 2nd best offensive lineman, even though he finished just 24th out of 35 qualifying centers on PFF. Hopkins was given a 3-year, 20.4 million dollar extension last season, suggesting they view him as the starter long-term. Hopkins has just 37 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, with 16 of those coming last season, and he has been pretty underwhelming overall, but he should be locked in to his starting job going into 2020.

Billy Price was drafted 21st overall in 2018 to be the Bengals’ starting center long-term, but he was limited to 558 snaps by injury as a rookie, finished 35th out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF, and eventually lost his starting job to his former backup Hopkins after an injury plagued off-season last off-season. Price played both center and guard in college and ended up seeing 586 snaps at guard in 2019, but he fared even worse there than he did at center, finishing 86th out of 89 qualifying guards on PFF. Now going into his 3rd season in the league, Price may still have some untapped potential, but, with Hopkins locked in at center, he’ll have to compete for one of the starting jobs at guard and may find himself on the bench, at least to begin the season.

At left guard, Price’s primary competition will be 2019 4th round pick Michael Jordan. As a rookie last season, Jordan didn’t fare much better than Price did, finishing 84th out of 89 qualifying guards, but he got better as the season went on and the Bengals still like his long-term upside, still only going into his age 22 season. He’s not a lock to ever develop into a consistent starter and even if he does it might not be in 2020, but it would be hard for him to be worse than he and Price were at left guard last season.

At right guard, veteran Xavier Su’a-Filo is Price’s primary competition and I would guess Price’s best shot to get into the starting lineup would be at right guard, where veteran John Miller was underwhelming as the primary starter last season (13 games) and is no longer on the team. Su’a-Filo signed with the Bengals for 9 million over 3 years this off-season, more in line with being a backup than a starter, and, while he’s a former 2nd round pick (2014) who made 31 starts for the Texans from 2016-2017, he was pretty underwhelming in those starts and has been a reserve and spot starter in his other 4 seasons in the league (22 starts total). Regardless of who ends up starting, guard figures to be a significant position of weakness again in 2020.

Right tackle Bobby Hart is also locked into a starting job, even though he’s not particularly good either. A 7th round pick in 2015, Hart has somehow made 53 career starts, including all 16 last season, but he’s finished below average on PFF in all 4 seasons as a starter, including 70th out of 89 qualifiers in 2019. Without any real competition for his job, Hart is locked in as a starter on what should be among the worst offensive lines in the league again this season.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

Despite poor blocking in front of him, lead back Joe Mixon had a solid season, rushing for 1,137 yards and 5 touchdowns on 278 carries (4.09 YPC). Mixon got most of those yards himself, rushing for 3.15 yards per carry after contact and the 6th most rushing yards after contact in the league with 877. That is more or less on par with how he’s fared in 3 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2017. Despite routinely underwhelming blocking in front of him, he’s rushed for 2,934 yards and 20 touchdowns on 692 carries (4.24 YPC) in his career, with 2.84 YPC coming after first contact. Overall, he’s been a top-17 running back on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons and, still only going into his age 24 season, he could keep getting better in 2020.

The one area where Mixon isn’t particularly useful is in the passing game, with 108 catches in 44 career games with an average of just 6.49 yards per target. It’s not that he’s a bad pass catcher, but given that he gets most of the Bengals’ carries and that he needs rest from time-to-time, Mixon frequently comes off the field in passing situations for veteran back Giovani Bernard. Bernard has 295 catches in 99 career games in 7 seasons in the league and has matched the 108 catches that Mixon has over the past three seasons. 

In the past, Bernard has been a useful pace of change back as well, averaging 4.19 YPC over his first 4 seasons, but he’s seen his carries per game drop from 10.6 to 4.9 since the addition of Mixon 3 years ago and he averaged a career worst 3.21 YPC on a career low 53 carries last season. Bernard may have a little left in the tank in his age 29 season, but he shouldn’t see more than a few carries and a few check downs per game. This is Mixon’s backfield, as he’s been consistently one of the better backs in his three years in the league, despite his young age.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

While the Bengals’ offense struggled last season, their defense was actually pretty solid overall, finishing 18th in first down rate allowed at 35.78%. It was really a tale of two seasons though, as they ranked 7th with a 32.03% first down rate allowed in the final 7 weeks of the season, after ranking 27th at 38.78% first down rate allowed through week 10. The biggest difference was the play of edge defender Carlos Dunlap. 

Dunlap got off to an underwhelming start in his first 5 games, was limited to 68 snaps due to injury in the next 4 games, but then finished the season on a tear, earning Pro Football Focus’ #1 edge defender grade in the final 7 games of the season. Over that stretch, he had 8 sacks, 10 hits, and a ridiculous 16.2% pressure rate, while also earning PFF’s highest run defense grade by an edge defender to boot. Despite his slow start, Dunlap still finished as PFF’s 4th ranked edge defender on the season thanks to his late season tear, and he finished with a 13.2% pressure rate and the position’s 2nd highest grade against the run.

Playing at a high level is nothing new for Dunlap, as he’s finished in the top-35 among edge defenders in 9 straight seasons on PFF. Over that stretch, he has totalled 72 sacks, 146 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate, while consistently playing above average against the run. His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, so he might not repeat one of the better years of his career again in 2020, but he has shown few signs of slowing down and he’s also been remarkably durable throughout his career. The 739 snaps he was “limited” to by injury last season still ranked 28th in the NFL among edge defenders, even though they were Dunlap’s fewest in a season since 2012. Last season was also the first time he had missed a game since 2012. Dunlap may slow down a little bit in 2020, but he should remain one of the better all-around edge defenders in the league, especially if he’s healthy all season.

With Dunlap a little banged up early in the season, fellow starting edge defender Sam Hubbard actually led Bengals edge defenders in snaps last season with 852. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Hubbard was solid on 508 rookie year snaps and carried that over to a larger role last season. He was mostly a snap eater, but he held up against the run, added 8.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 11.9% pressure rate, and still has room to get better, only going into his age 24 season. A breakout 3rd season in the league is not out of the question and he should remain at least a solid starter.

The Bengals’ depth was solid at the position too. Fourth defensive end Arthur Brown was pretty underwhelming in the first action of the 2018 5th round pick’s career last season, but he barely had a role, playing just 241 snaps, 110 of which came in the two games Dunlap missed, and he could be a little better in 2020. On top of that, third defensive end Carl Lawson is an effective situational edge rusher, even if he has a lot of trouble against the run. 

A 4th round pick in 2017, Lawson has totalled 14.5 sacks, 35 hits, and a 14.1% pressure rate in 3 seasons in the league in a part-time role (33.1 snaps per game). A torn ACL ended his 2018 season after 7 games and he didn’t seem to be quite the same player while limited to 12 games in 2019, but, only going into his age 25 season, Lawson definitely has bounce back potential, now another year removed from the injury. He, Dunlap, and Hubbard should be able to effectively rush the passer consistently and Dunlap and Hubbard are good run stuffers in base packages as well.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Bengals have been notorious in recent years for not spending significant money on outside free agents, opting instead to build through the draft and use their cap space to re-sign their own guys. That can be a viable strategy if you are consistently nailing your drafts and need the financial flexibility to keep the guys you’ve developed, but the Bengals have not drafted particularly well in recent years and they consistently have barely spent over the league minimum, suggesting their decision to sit out free agency was more financial than an actual team building strategy.

That changed this off-season, as the Bengals handed out four significant contracts to outside free agents, all on the defensive side of the ball. The best addition was ex-Texans nose tackle DJ Reader, who comes over on a 4-year, 53 million dollar deal. Reader is primarily a big run stuffer at 6-3 347, but has rare three down ability for his size, with a 8.4% pressure rate for his career and an average of 40.7 snaps per game over the past 2 seasons. 

Reader is also still only going into his age 26 season and is coming off of the best season of his career, excelling against the run, totalling 2.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate, and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked interior defender overall. Reader might not be quite as good in 2020, but he has plenty of years of his prime yet and could remain one of the better players at his position for the duration of his 4-year deal. He was a smart addition for a team that needed to replace free agent departure Andrew Billings, who gave them solid play on 657 snaps last season. Reader should play a similar role and be an upgrade.

He’ll pair with long-time Bengal Geno Atkins to make one of the best defensive tackle duos in the NFL. Along with Dunlap, Atkins has played at a high level on this line for years, finishing in the top-5 among interior defenders on PFF in 5 of his 9 years as a starter (133 starts). His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 32 season, possibly part of why they made the big investment in Reader, and he’s finished “just” 22nd and 21st among interior defenders over the past 2 seasons respectively, but he should remain at least an above average starter for another couple seasons.

Josh Tupou was the top reserve defensive tackle last season with 465 snaps, but he’ll likely have to compete for that role with Ryan Glasgow, who returns after being limited to 118 snaps in 5 games by a thigh injury and a torn ACL. Glasgow also tore that same ACL in 2018, limiting him to 92 snaps in 3 games, so he’s a big question mark and will have to earn his way back into the rotation. A 4th round pick in 2017, Glasgow has flashed against the run in limited action thus far in his career (622 snaps), but he’s still highly unproven and coming off back-to-back serious injuries. Tupou, a 2017 undrafted free agent, flashed against the run in the first significant action of his career last season and earned an above average grade overall, so Glasgow isn’t a lock to get his job back even if healthy and may have to settle for deep reserve snaps. Glasgow and Tupou are solid depth behind one of the best defensive tackle duos in the NFL.

Grade: A

Linebackers

While the Bengals had a solid defensive line last season, one that gets significantly better with the addition of Reader, their linebackers were arguably the worst in the league. With Nick Vigil (985 snaps) and Preston Brown (410 snaps) hitting free agency this off-season, the Bengals had a great opportunity to upgrade this group, but they didn’t do much of significance, signing veteran journeyman Josh Bynes and using a 3rd round (Logan Wilson), a 4th round, (Akeem Davis-Gaither), and a 7th round pick Markus Bailey on linebackers. Bailey is unlikely to see a significant defensive role as a rookie, but the other three will compete for roles with holdovers Germaine Pratt and Jordan Evans.

Pratt probably has the best shot to secure a role and could play every down. He wasn’t particularly good on 437 rookie year snaps, finishing 77th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but he could be better in his 2nd season in the league and the Bengals are still high on his upside, so it’s hard to see him not being a significant contributor in a thin position group. Evans, meanwhile, was limited to 76 snaps last season and struggled mightily in the first 2 seasons of his career in 2017 and 2018 on a combined 822 snaps. A former 6th round pick, he’s far from a guarantee to ever develop into a capable starter, but he’ll still get a shot in this group.

Bynes may be a journeyman, now changing teams with the 4th time in 10 seasons in the league, and he only signed on a one-year, 1.65 million dollar deal, but he could prove to be a steal if he plays like he has in the past two seasons. In the first 7 seasons of his career, Bynes was primarily a special teamer and backup, making 29 total starts and exceeding 456 snaps in a season just once, but he always showed well against the run and he had a bit of a late breakout year in 2018 with the Cardinals after developing some coverage abilities as well, finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked off ball linebacker overall on 726 snaps. 

That wasn’t enough to land him a starting job going into the 2019 season, but the Ravens signed him as a situational run stuffer and he excelled in that role, finishing as PFF’s 9th ranked off ball linebacker overall on 391 snaps. His arrival also coincided with a drastic improvement in play on defense by the Ravens, though there were other reasons for the improvement beyond Bynes’ addition. Now going into his age 31 season, Bynes might not be able to keep this level of play up, but he could easily be a valuable base package player, though he’d likely be overmatched in an every down role. With mid round rookies legitimately competing for roles, this is a very underwhelming group.

Grade: C

Secondary

The biggest investments the Bengals made this off-season were all in the secondary, signing ex-Vikings cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander to deals worth 42 million over 3 years and 4 million over 1 year respectively and signing ex-Saint Vonn Bell to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Waynes replaces starting outside cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, while Alexander replaces slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Kirkpatrick and Dennard were limited to 334 snaps and 495 snaps respectively last season due to injury, forcing underwhelming backup BW Webb into 834 snaps. This off-season, the Bengals have cleaned house, including Webb, and will start Waynes and Alexander in 3 cornerback sets with William Jackson.

Jackson had injury problems of his own last season, only missing the final 2 games of the season, but playing through a shoulder injury all season that clearly affected his play. A first round pick in 2016, Jackson missed his whole rookie year with a torn pectoral, but finished in the top-28 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2017 and 2018, allowing 47.3% completion over that stretch. In 2019, he fell all the way to 111st out of 135 qualifiers and allowed 60.9% completion on the season. Injuries have consistently been a problem throughout his career, and, since he was an older rookie, he’s already going into his age 28 season, so he’ll have a shorter prime than most, but he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2020.

Outside opposite Jackson, Waynes will start, as he did 44 times over the past 3 seasons with the Vikings. A first round pick in 2015, Waynes didn’t quite live up to expectations, barely playing in his first 2 seasons (776 snaps) and then putting up consistently middling grades in 3 seasons as a starter. The Bengals are paying him like he’s more than that, giving him the 7th highest annual salary of any cornerback in football, but, already going into his age 28 season, he’s unlikely to get much better at this point. He should remain a capable starter, but I wouldn’t expect more.

Alexander also comes over from the Vikings, where he was also a high pick, going 54th overall in 2016. Like Waynes, Alexander hardly played early in his career, playing 391 snaps total in 2016 and 2017, but he’s played 564 snaps and 534 snaps over the past 2 seasons as the Vikings’ primary slot receiver and he has earned above average grades from PFF in both seasons. Alexander will likely be a pure slot cornerback in Cincinnati, but he has the ability to play outside in a pinch if needed as well.

At safety, Vonn Bell is likely a replacement for incumbent Shawn Williams. Williams has started 57 games over the past 4 seasons and was generally a solid starter, but he fell to 89th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF last season, prompting the Bengals to search for an upgrade in free agency this off-season. Bell is definitely an upgrade against the run, as he’s finished in the top-5 among safeties on PFF in run stopping grade in 3 of his 4 seasons in the league (45 career starts), but he’s also consistently struggled in coverage. Bell is only going into his age 26 season and the former 2nd round pick may still have some untapped potential in coverage, but he’s definitely a box safety first and foremost, which is why he’s likely replacing Williams rather than the other incumbent starter Jessie Bates, who is a deep coverage safety.

Bates finished just 76th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF last season, but the 2018 2nd round pick was much better as a rookie (12th among safeties) and most of his issues last season were against the run, as he held up in deep coverage, but missed a league leading 23 tackles. As a rookie, he still wasn’t great against the run, but he only missed a modest 14 tackles and allowed just a 59.9 QB rating into his coverage, allowing 19 completions for 2 touchdowns and picking off 3 passes with another 4 broken up. Bates also got a lot better as his 2019 season went on, with PFF’s 19th highest grade among safeties in week 10 and later, part of why this defense turned around down the stretch. Only going into his age 23 season, Bates still has a ton of long-term upside and could easily have a strong third season in the league.

With BW Webb no longer on the team, after ranking 102nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on 834 snaps as an injury replacement last season, third year cornerback Darius Phillips is expected to take over as the fourth corner. A 5th round selection in 2018, Phillips has primarily played on special teams thus far in his career and he was underwhelming on 232 rookie year snaps, but he showed a lot more promise on 108 snaps last season. Despite his limited playing time, he intercepted 4 passes, including 2 in the season finale against the Browns, and broke up another 3 passes. 

Phillips is still very inexperienced and he’s a projection to a larger role, but he has a lot of upside from the #4 cornerback spot and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Bengals had to turn to him in case of an injury to one of their top guys. The Bengals also have good depth at safety with Shawn Williams as the 3rd safety. They could frequently use 3 safety sets in sub packages to mask their lack of depth at linebacker with both Bell (5-11 205) and Shawn Williams (6-0 212) capable of playing linebacker in passing situations. This is a deep secondary and one with a lot of upside if William Jackson and Jessie Bates can have bounce back years after down 2019 seasons.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Bengals had the worst record in the league last season, but they have more talent than most teams coming off of a 2-14 season, as most of their losses were close, especially down the stretch when their defense played at a high level. That defense now adds DJ Reader in free agency and should get bounce back years from defensive backs William Jackson and Jessie Bates. Outside of a terrible linebacking corps, they have as much talent as some of the best defenses in the league.

The addition of Joe Burrow atop the draft is also huge for them long-term, even if he isn’t necessarily going to be a huge upgrade on Dalton right away. Burrow will likely be under siege frequently behind a horrible offensive line that will hold the whole offense back, but the Bengals have plenty of skill position talent and should be better on offense than they were last season, at the very least. The Bengals are unlikely to compete for a playoff spot, but they were competitive in most of their games last season and should be able to at least win a few more of the close ones this season. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Bengals might not win many games in a tough division, but they should be competitive in most of their games and they’re capable of pulling some surprise upsets as well. It would take a huge rookie year from Joe Burrow to elevate this offense to the point where this could be a playoff team, but the defense is very capable, even with expected starting cornerback Trae Waynes set to miss significant time.

Projection: 6-10 (4th in AFC North) 

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