For most of the 2010s, the Bengals started Andy Dalton at quarterback and got largely middling starting quarterback play. When the Bengals were able to surround Dalton with talent, it led to five straight playoff appearances, but they were never able to get over the hump in the post-season, losing in their first playoff game all five times, and eventually they started losing a significant amount of talent, culminating in a 2-14 season in 2019. During that season, Dalton posted career worst numbers, was briefly benched before rookie backup Ryan Finley proved to be overmatched, and was ultimately released ahead of a 17.7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2020, with the Bengals having the opportunity to add a promising franchise quarterback prospect on a cheap rookie deal with the #1 overall pick, LSU’s Joe Burrow.
However, Burrow’s rookie year did not go as planned, as Burrow lasted just 10 games before a torn ACL ended his season, ending his rookie season with a 2-7-1 record. That poor record was not really Burrow’s fault though. The Bengals had one of the worst defenses in the league, ranking 31st in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.64%, and, while their offense wasn’t significantly better, ranking 23rd in first down rate over expected at -1.18%, Burrow was not the main problem, as the Bengals had a poor offensive line, struggled on the ground, and lacked a consistent third target in the passing game. Burrow, for his part, was PFF’s 19th ranked quarterback at the time he went down and he completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 6.65 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, despite minimal help from his offensive supporting cast and having to pass frequently for a team constantly trailing.
The Bengals predictably struggled mightily on offense in Burrow’s absence, finishing the season ranked 29th in first down rate over expected at -2.87% and ending up with a 4-11-1 record, despite the Bengals’ defense actually improving noticeably down the stretch, to finish a not totally terrible 22nd in first down rate allowed over expected at +0.93%. Even with that defensive improvement, however, the Bengals still ended up ranked 30th in schedule adjusted first down rate in 2020 at 3.80%, so, even though Burrow is expected to return healthy for week 1, the Bengals still have a lot of work to do to get back to being a competitive team.
One thing that would go a long way towards that goal would obviously be if Burrow not only returned to form after his injury, but also took a step forward in his second year in the league. Unfortunately, neither of those things are guaranteed, as quarterbacks tend to struggle in their first year back from an ACL tear and, even without the injury, Burrow wouldn’t necessarily be a lock to improve in his second season, as development of young players, especially at the quarterback position, is often not linear. Burrow gives this team a high variance and the upside to surprise teams this season, but that upside comes with downside and the rest of this roster is such that Burrow will probably need to be a top-10 quarterback for this team to even be in playoff contention, which doesn’t seem likely.
For what it’s worth, the Bengals aren’t concerned enough about Burrow to upgrade their backup quarterback situation, even though Brandon Allen and Ryan Finley are among the worst backup quarterback options in the league and both struggled mightily in Burrow’s absence last season. Finley is not even with the team anymore, leaving Allen, who has a 76.9 QB rating in 8 career starts since being selected in the 6th round in 2016, as the sole backup in case Burrow goes down again. It’s a shaky situation behind a high variance starter.
The most obvious issue on this offense last season was the offensive line. Their running game was an issue, averaging a 4.06 YPC average that ranked just 27th in the NFL, and I will get into that later, but their running game issues were mostly due to the absence of lead back Joe Mixon with injury and due to an offensive line that ranked 21st in run blocking grade on PFF. They were even worse than that in pass protection, ranking 27th in pass blocking grade. Burrow was only pressured on 32.2% of his dropbacks, 21st highest among 39 eligible quarterbacks, but that was mostly because he got the ball out under 2.5 seconds at the 9th highest rate in the league at 56.9%.
The injury that Burrow suffered is an obvious downside of offensive line issues and, given that, many expected the Bengals to use their 5th overall pick on Penei Sewell, the top offensive lineman in the draft, resulting in some criticism of the Bengals when they decided instead to upgrade their receiving corps with Burrow’s college teammate JaMarr Chase. I thought that decision made a lot of sense though and may have telegraphed by the Bengals’ decision to sign veteran offensive tackle Riley Reiff in free agency.
Reiff is going into his age 33 season, only signed to a one-year deal, and could have moved to guard had Sewell been the selection, but he’s also a satisfactory short-term solution at right tackle opposite 2019 1st round pick Jonah Williams, a solid starter in his own right, leaving the interior of this offensive line as the most pressing need. Without an interior offensive lineman worth taking in the top-5, adding Chase, who I thought was a little bit better of a prospect than Sewell regardless of position, and focusing on their offensive line with later picks seemed like the Bengals’ best option.
I will get into JaMarr Chase later in the receiving corps section, but the Bengals’ offensive line selections were 2nd round pick Jackson Carmen and 4th round pick D’Ante Smith. Both players were primarily tackles in college and could play there if needed at the professional level, but they project best as guards, which also happens to be their easiest path to playing time. Their biggest competition for playing time is a trio of holdovers in Quinton Spain, Xavier Su’a-Filo and Michael Jordan, who all earned negative grades from PFF in 8 starts, 5 starts, and 10 starts respectively.
Billy Price and Fred Johnson also saw some action at guard last season, but both were horrible in limited action and, if they make the team, they would likely slot in as a backup at center and tackle respectively rather than guard, as those are more natural positions for them. Spain is the most experienced guard option. He was a solid starter earlier in his career in Tennessee, making 48 starts in the first 4 seasons of his career from 2015-2018, but he has received below average grades from PFF in back-to-back seasons (26 starts) and, going into his age 30 season, his best days are likely behind him.
Su’a-Filo also has some experience, with 58 career starts in 7 seasons in the league, but he’s never earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season, he’s going into his age 30 season as well, and he’s made just 17 starts combined over the past 3 seasons as a reserve and spot starter. Jordan, meanwhile, is a 2019 4th round pick who has made 19 starts in his two seasons in the league, but largely out of desperation, struggling even more as a rookie than he did in 2020. It’s a very underwhelming trio so one or both of the Bengals’ rookies could see significant action in a very unsettled position group.
The Bengals are in better shape at center, where holdover Trey Hopkins is likely to remain in his starting job, without any meaningful competition being added for him this off-season. Hopkins is an unspectacular player, but he wasn’t really the problem last season, ranking 22nd out of 38 eligible centers on PFF in 15 starts. He’s played around that level throughout the past four seasons, a stretch in which he’s made 52 starts, after never starting a game throughout his first three seasons in the league as a former undrafted free agent. Still in his late prime in his age 29 season, I would expect more of the same from him in 2021.
As alluded to earlier, offensive tackle is the relative strength of this group, with Williams remaining at left tackle and Reiff being added opposite him. Williams’ biggest concern is durability, as he missed his entire rookie year in 2019, before missing another 6 games in 2020. He was PFF’s 43rd ranked offensive tackle in 10 starts when he did play and he has the upside to be better than that going forward, but he’s still pretty inexperienced, so it’s tough to confidently project his ceiling, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he missed more time with injury.
Reiff, meanwhile, finished last season as PFF’s 40th ranked offensive tackle, his 9th above average grade from PFF for a season in as many seasons in the league. His age is becoming a concern, now going into his age 33 season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him decline and have one of the worst years, if not the worst year of his career, but, even still, he should be an upgrade on Bobby Hart, a departed free agent who Reiff replaces. The Bengals aren’t in bad shape at left tackle, right tackle, and center, but guard remains a position of concern and they don’t have any dominant blockers at any position, barring a big breakout year from Williams.
JaMarr Chase joins a wide receiver group that already has a pair of talented starters in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and he’ll replace AJ Green, another former high draft pick (4th overall by the Bengals in 2011). The Bengals will be very happy if Chase can replicate Green’s career, but there’s no doubting Green had suffered a significant decline by the end of his tenure in Cincinnati, missing all of 2019 with injury and then returning in 2020 to average just 1.02 yards per route run and post just a 47/523/2 slash line on 104 targets. Even as a rookie, it won’t be hard for Chase to be an upgrade and he has the potential to make a big impact, even in year one, although that kind of thing is tough to depend on.
Tee Higgins was a rookie last year, but that didn’t stop him from leading this group with a 67/908/6 slash line. The first pick in the second round in 2020 (#33 overall), Higgins has a sky high upside and could take another step forward in his second season in the league. Development of young players is not always linear, but Higgins should see his production increase just from increased opportunity, after taking until a couple weeks to crack the starting lineup as a rookie, and the potential is there for him to have a big year. He averaged 1.82 yards per route run as a rookie, 25th among eligible wide receivers, and he earned PFF’s 36th highest grade among wide receivers for the season.
Tyler Boyd had a similar caliber season to Higgins, finishing with a 79/841/1 slash line on 110 targets, averaging 1.65 yards per route run, and finishing as PFF’s 37th ranked wide receiver on the season. That is slightly down from his 76/1028/7 and 90/1046/5 slash lines from 2018 and 2019 respectively, but the Bengals spread the ball evenly to Higgins, Boyd, and Green and, with Chase replacing Green this off-season, they will have three talented young wide receivers to spread the ball around to in 2021, which will likely limit any one of them from posting huge numbers.
Higgins probably has the highest upside of the bunch, but Chase has the potential for a big rookie year impact and Boyd is a talented receiver who is still in his prime, in his age 27 season, coming off three straight above average seasons as a starter. The Bengals also have good wide receiver depth because projected #4 receiver Auden Tate is a 2018 7th round pick who has averaged 1.44 yards per route run over the past two seasons, including a 40/575/1 slash line when he saw the most action of his career as an injury replacement in 2019.
The tight end position is likely to remain a relative non-factor in this offense, but, after just 71 targets made their way to tight ends in 2020, that number could increase with the return of primary receiving tight end CJ Uzomah from an injury that ended his season after 96 snaps in 2 games. Uzomah had 8 catches in those two games before going down, but it was unlikely he would have sustained that pace, as he’s largely been an underwhelming receiving option throughout his career, averaging 1.02 yards per route run over 6 seasons in the league since being selected in the 5th round by the Bengals in 2015. Even after a major injury, he’s expected to retain his receiving tight end role, but only by default.
Drew Sample filled in as the primary receiving tight end in Uzomah’s absence, in addition to his normal role as a blocking specialist. Sample remained an above average blocker, but managed just a 40/349/1 slash line with an average of 0.85 yards per route run on the season. Sample was actually a second round pick in 2019, but he was a big reach because of his lack of receiving upside. With Uzomah set to return, Sample will go back to being a #2 tight end who focuses on blocking and doesn’t see any sort of significant target share. He’s part of an underwhelming tight end duo, but this group is obviously carried by a talented receiving corps.
As I mentioned earlier, the absence of featured running back Joe Mixon for most of last season was a big part of the problem for the Bengals on the ground. However, Mixon didn’t really produce at a high level either when healthy, averaging just 3.60 YPC and a 46% carry success rate (39th out of 47 eligible running backs). The offensive line was a big part of the problem and Mixon largely did his part by contributing 2.55 YPC, 70.8% of his yardage, after first contact, but overall Mixon finished last season with the lowest PFF grade of his career, after finishing in the top-17 among running backs in each of his first 3 seasons in the league.
Mixon was also still noticeably better than backup Giovani Bernard, who averaged 3.35 YPC on 124 carries, 2.32 YPC after contact, and had a carry success rate of 48% as Mixon’s primary replacement. Mixon is also only going into his age 25 and averaged 4.23 YPC with 17 touchdowns on 693 carries in his first 3 seasons in the league, while adding a 36/290/1 slash line per season and just missing two games total due to injury, so he has obvious bounce back potential. The Bengals seem to agree, letting Bernard walk this off-season and not replacing him. Bernard had become an ineffective runner in recent years, but he had been the Bengals’ primary passing down back for years and, without another passing down specialist on this roster, expect Mixon to see his biggest passing game role yet (his career high is 55 targets in 2018).
Mixon was already on his way to putting up a massive touch total last year before getting hurt, averaging 23.3 touches per game in the 6 games he did play, up from an average of 18.2 per game in his first three seasons in the league, and, now without Bernard to steal passing down snaps, Mixon could exceed even last year’s per game touch total. His heavy workload may have contributed to his relatively inefficiency and his eventual injury, but the Bengals don’t have a choice but to use Mixon as a true three down feature back and he has the upside to be very productive in that role, especially if the Bengals can be improved on the rest of this offense and open up more running lanes. Expect Mixon to finish among the league leaders in touches, assuming he can avoid another injury.
With Bernard gone, it looks like Samaje Perine will be Mixon’s primary backup. He’ll be a true backup in that role and has shown little promise on passing downs throughout his career, so he’s not a candidate to be used like Bernard was. The good news is he has a lot more upside than Bernard as a runner. A 4th round pick in 2017, Perine’s career got off to a rough start as he averaged just 3.46 YPC across 188 carries while bouncing around three different teams in his first 3 seasons in the league, but he landed in Cincinnati for 2020 and showed some promise down the stretch, averaging 4.78 YPC on 63 carries. Still only going into his age 26 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Perine continue being a capable #2 runner, but he is very unproven.
Perine’s primary competition for the #2 job will be Trayveon Williams, who also flashed some potential as a backup last season, averaging 6.04 YPC on 26 carries. Williams is even less experienced and proven than Perine though, as those carries are the only carries of Williams’ brief career, after being selected by the Bengals in the 6th round in 2019. Both he and Perine would only be true backups if they won the job, with Mixon dominating this backfield. If Mixon were to suffer another injury, the Bengals would be in big trouble at this position, but his return should give them a boost.
For years, the Bengals have been led upfront by edge defender Carlos Dunlap and interior defender Geno Atkins, who were consistently high level players throughout most of their tenure in Cincinnati, but last season was the beginning of the end for both. In his age 31 season in 2020, Dunlap played just 277 snaps in 7 games and, unhappy with his playing time, was sent to the Seahawks for a late round pick and instantly proved he had something left in the tank. Atkins, meanwhile, stayed on the roster all year, but played just 119 snaps in 8 games as the last place Bengals wanted to test out other options and made the 32-year-old Atkins a frequent healthy scratch down the stretch, before releasing him for financial reasons this off-season.
I will get into what the Bengals have done on the interior to try to replace Atkins in a little bit, but on the edge, Dunlap was replaced last season by 2017 4th round pick Carl Lawson and 2018 3rd round pick Sam Hubbard, who both earned above average grades from PFF in 2020, across 665 snaps and 723 snaps respectively. Lawson was the better of the two, finishing 16th among edge defenders on PFF, but he was a free agent this off-season and the Bengals opted to let him walk on a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal to the Jets to instead sign ex-Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson to a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal.
Hendrickson and Lawson got the same amount annually and Hendrickson had the significantly bigger sack total last season with 13.5, compared to 5.5 for Lawson, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. While Hendrickson played on one of the most talented overall defenses in the league in New Orleans and added 11 hits and a 13.3% pressure rate in addition to his sack total, Lawson surpassed those totals with 24 hits and a 14.6% pressure rate, despite seeing much more frequent double teams on a less talented overall defense.
That is true of their career numbers too, as Hendrickson has totaled 20 sacks, 24 hits, and a 11.5% pressure rate in 45 career games, while Lawson has totaled 20 sacks, 60 hits, and a 14.3% pressure rate in 51 career games. The Bengals could have kept a better, more familiar player for the same price, but instead they opted to sign an inferior player who has never played in their scheme, which is a head scratching move if you look beyond just 2020 sack totals.
Hubbard remains as the other starter opposite Hendrickson. He’ss not a great pass rusher, but he has earned slightly above average grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league (28 starts in 44 games, an average of 46.0 snaps per game) because he is a good run stuffer who has also added 16.5 sacks, 18 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate in his career. Hubbard still may have untapped upside, now going into his age 25 season, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see him remain the player he has largely been throughout his entire career.
Depth was a big concern at the edge defender position last season, especially after Dunlap was traded, as top reserves Amani Bledsoe and Khalid Kareem struggled across 312 snaps and 259 snaps respectively, especially rushing the passer, combining for just 1 sack, 2 hits, and a 4.9% pressure rate. Both were seeing the first action of their careers, Bledsoe as a 2019 undrafted free agent and Kareem as a 2018 6th round pick, but neither is a guarantee to improve going forward, so the Bengals didn’t waste time in adding more youth to the group, using 3rd, 4th, and 7th round picks on edge defenders.
Third round pick Joseph Ossai would seem to have the clearest path to a rotational role as a rookie, but fourth round pick Cameron Sample is one to watch as well at a position that significantly lacked depth in 2020. Neither Hubbard nor Hendrickson are high level starters (despite Hendrickson’s sack total last season) and their depth, while likely improved, still consists of unproven young players, but this isn’t a bad position group overall.
The Bengals’ decision to move on from Geno Atkins in the near future was likely made when the Bengals made their biggest free agent addition in years last off-season and signed ex-Texan DJ Reader to a contract worth 53 million over 4 years. Reader’s season was ended after 259 snaps across 5 games, but even Reader’s injury did not get Atkins significant playing time, as the Bengals instead opted to give significant snap counts to underwhelming veterans Mike Daniels (356 snaps), Christian Covington (559 snaps), Xavier Williams (311 snaps), and Margus Hunt (293 snaps). All four earned below average grades and none are promising young players, so the Bengals didn’t even get any long-term clarity at the position from benching one of the best defensive players in franchise history. At least on the edge, Dunlap had been benched for significantly younger options.
Atkins is gone, as are all of the aforementioned players aside from Mike Daniels, who was retained in free agency. The Bengals also signed Larry Ogunjobi from the Browns to a 1-year, 6.2 million dollar deal, who figures to start opposite Reader, who is set to return from injury. Ogunjobi got decent money, but it’s unclear how much of an upgrade he’ll be for the Bengals. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Ogunjobi flashed a lot of potential across 300 rookie year snaps, but he hasn’t been able to translate that into a larger role.
Ogunjobi has averaged 784 snaps per game over the past 3 seasons, but has never earned more than an average grade from PFF, including back-to-back seasons in which he has finished 104th among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF and 103rd among 123 eligible respectively. Now in his age 27 season, it’s unlikely he has further significant untapped upside, so he will likely remain a middling snap eater at best for this unit.
Reader’s return is what gives this group the potential to be a lot better in 2021. Reader didn’t quite show his best form before the injury, but he’s only in his age 27 season and he has plenty of bounce back potential. A 5th round pick by the Texans in 2016, Reader earned an average or better grade from PFF in all four seasons in Houston and improved in every season, culminating in a 2019 season in which he ranked 7th among interior defenders on PFF across 622 snaps, not only dominating against the run at 6-3 347, but adding 2.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate. All in all, he has a 7.8% pressure rate for his career, including last season. Reader might not be quite as good in 2021 as he was in 2019, but he figures to be an above average starter at the least for the Bengals at a position that was a significant problem without him in 2020.
Daniels returns as a backup and, while he did struggle last season, he at least has a history of success. Daniels was one of the best interior defenders in the league in his prime and finished 20th among interior defenders on PFF as recently as 2017, but injuries have limited him to 30 total games and a max of 419 snaps in a season in the past three seasons since and they seem to have sapped his abilities as well, leading last year’s career worst rank, finishing 108th among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF. Now going into his age 32 season, it’s safe to say his best days are behind him, but if he can manage to stay relatively healthy he might not be a bad rotational option. There’s also a possibility he completely falls off though, which the Bengals seem to have prepared for by using a 4th round pick on LSU’s Tyler Shelvin to give them added depth.
The Bengals also get run stuffing specialist Josh Tupou back from opting out of the 2020 season. Tupou finished the 2019 season as PFF’s 22nd ranked interior defender against the run, while totaling 465 snaps, but he’s not a pass rush threat, without a sack or a hit in his career and, aside from that 2019 season, the 2017 undrafted free agent has otherwise played just 173 snaps. It’s possible he picks up right where he left off as a valuable run stuffer, even after a year off, but that’s far from a guarantee and he’s highly unlikely he has untapped pass rush upside. This is a deeper group than a year ago, but they’ll need Reader to play at a high level in his return from injury because this is an otherwise underwhelming group.
The Bengals linebacking corps was arguably their worst defensive group in 2020, with every linebacker who played more than 100 snaps for this defense earning a below average grade from PFF. Despite that, the Bengals didn’t make any notable additions to this group this off-season. Instead, they let go of veteran Josh Bynes, who led this group with 761 snaps, and will be hoping their young linebackers can step up in larger roles.
Behind Bynes, 2019 3rd round pick Germaine Pratt was 2nd in this group with 686 snaps, but he struggled mightily, ranking 90th among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF. He still has theoretical upside, only in his age 25 season, but he struggled on 437 snaps as a rookie as well and, even if he’s better in 2021 than he was in 2020, it’s likely to only be by default. Meanwhile, 2020 3rd and 4th round picks Logan Wilson and Akeem Gaither-Davis will be relied on for larger roles in their second season in the league, despite struggling across 343 and 314 snaps respectively as rookies.
Jordan Evans has only played 139 snaps over the past two seasons and, in the only seasons in his career in which he has seen significant action, the 2017 6th round pick struggled mightily as a rookie across 312 snaps and then again across 510 snaps in 2018, but he could still be forced into somewhat significant action in a thin group. The Bengals will be counting on underwhelming young players in a group that will almost definitely struggle again in 2021.
Cornerback wasn’t really a weakness in 2020 for the Bengals, but they had a lot of free agents at the position this off-season and, in fact, lost their top-3 cornerbacks in terms of snaps played this off-season, with William Jackson, Mackenzie Alexander, and LeShaun Sims all no longer with the team, so it was a position of need this off-season. To address this need, they handed out contracts worth 21.75 million over 3 years and 24 million over 4 years to Chidobe Awuzie from the Cowboys and Mike Hilton from the Steelers respectively. Awuzie will start opposite Trae Waynes, a free agent addition from last off-season who missed all of 2020 with injury, with slot specialist Hilton on the slot in sub packages.
Waynes is probably the shakiest of the trio because of the injury and the missed season, but he was a capable starter throughout the previous 4 seasons prior to last season (52 starts in 59 games) and is still relatively young in his age 29 season, so he should be able to remain a capable, if unspectacular starter. Awuzie is also coming off of an injury plagued year, struggling across 452 snaps in 8 games, but he was a solid starter in 2018 and 2019 (30 starts), especially playing well in 2019 when he ranked 27th among cornerbacks on PFF, and he’s still young in his age 26 season, so he has a lot of bounce back potential, now healthier and away from Dallas’ terrible scheme.
Hilton, meanwhile, is one of the better slot specialists in the league, ranking in the top-15 among cornerbacks in slot coverage snaps per game over the past four seasons with the Steelers and averaging just 1.17 yards per route run allowed on those slot coverage snaps. He’s not just a good coverage cornerback though, as he’s also a solid run defender and as good of a blitzer off the edge as any slot cornerback in the league, totaling 9.5 sacks, 13 hits, and a 16.0% pressure rate in 59 career games.
Assuming the Bengals don’t misuse him by playing him outside frequently, which they likely won’t need to, Hilton should continue being the same player in his new city, still only in his age 27 season. The Bengals also have holdover Darius Phillips, who showed a lot of promise across 593 snaps last season, after doing the same across 108 snaps in 2019. The 2018 5th round pick is still pretty inexperienced, but he’s good insurance to have as a 4th cornerback.
At safety, the Bengals return starters Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell and they were probably the biggest strength on an otherwise underwhelming defensive unit. Bates in particular was dominant, finishing the season as PFF’s top ranked safety overall. He might not be the biggest name, but he allowed just two catches of 20+ yards and no catches of 40+ yards, despite playing as a deep coverage safety on about 75% of his snaps and despite having minimal support from his supporting cast. On top of that, Bates also batted away 12 passes, 3 more than any other safety.
Bates is a one year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played last season, most recently finishing 73rd among 98 eligible safeties on PFF in 2019, and, even last season he left something to be desired against the run, but the 2018 2nd round pick also ranked 12th among safeties on and, only in his age 24 season, he has the upside to continue playing at a high level for years to come. He’s also very experienced and durable, starting from week one of his rookie year and not missing a game due to injury en route to making 48 of a possible 48 starts in his career. Even if he’s somewhat unpredictable and even if last year ends up being the best year of his career, Bates could still be one of the better safeties in the league in 2021 and beyond.
Bell, meanwhile, is primarily a box safety, making him a good complement to Bates. Bell leaves something to be desired in coverage, but even with that taken into account, he’s still earned an average or better overall grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, making up for his deficiencies in coverage by finishing in the top-9 among safeties in run defense grade 4 times in 5 seasons in the league since the Saints selected him in the 2nd round in 2016.
Signed to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal by the Bengals last off-season, Bell proved to be a solid addition in year one and, only in his age 27 season with just 3 career games missed due to injury in 5 seasons in the league, I see no reason to expect anything different from him in 2021. The Bengals also have good safety depth because they signed veteran Ricardo Allen, who is in his age 30 season and probably isn’t quite good enough to be a starter anywhere any more, but who also has 76 career starts in 6 seasons in the league and can provide above average veteran depth. With a talented safety duo and a retooled cornerback group that looks at least respectable, the Bengals’ secondary is the strength of their defense.
The Bengals finished last season with the 9th highest special teams DVOA in the league and their only below average aspect in DVOA was place kicking. They made 32/33 extra points, but hit just 79.4% of their field goals as a team. Long-time Bengals kicker Randy Bullock finished 30th among 36 eligible kickers on PFF and hit just 20/26 field goals, before being replaced by Austin Seibert, who wasn’t better, making 6/8, including just 1 of 3 from beyond 40 yards.
Bullock was not retained this off-season and, while Seibert remains with the team, he would be a very underwhelming option and will almost definitely lose his job to 5th round rookie Evan McPherson, barring a meltdown by McPherson in training camp or the pre-season. Being drafted doesn’t always mean success for a kicker, but McPherson finished his collegiate career with a 85.0% field goal percentage that is the best all-time in the SEC, including 16-23 on 40+ yards field goals and 5/8 on 50+ yard field goals. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade on last year’s Bullock/Seibert combo as a rookie and I would expect him to do so.
It’s possible the Bengals could have a rookie punter this season as well, as they signed one of the better undrafted free agent punters Drue Chrisman to push long-time veteran Kevin Huber, who has been a reliable punter for the Bengals for 12 seasons, but has been increasingly mediocre in recent years and now heads into his age 36 season. The Bengals still had a strong punting DVOA last season, but that was largely due to Huber’s supporting cast, as Huber ranked just 28th out of 34 eligible punters with 4.25 seconds of hang time and was PFF’s 33rd ranked punter overall.
Chrisman, who ranked 13th among Power Five punters with 45.0 yards per punt for Ohio State last season, could win the job with a strong pre-season and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he wound up as an upgrade over Huber. The fact that two rookies could be an upgrade for the Bengals at kicker and punter in 2021 tells you all you need to know about the Bengals’ issues at these positions last season, but they had an impressive special teams DVOA without a good kicker or punter, so if everything else stays the same, the Bengals could be even better on special teams in 2021.
One key player who returns for the Bengals is kickoff returner Brandon Wilson, who has been one of the best in the league over the past two seasons, ranking 1st and 4th among returners on PFF in the past two seasons respectively and averaging 28.5 yards per return with two scores on 44 attempts. Jones should continue returning kicks at a high level in 2021, but unfortunately he’s never returned a punt and would likely not be a candidate for that role, even with long-time punt returner Alex Erickson no longer with the team.
Erickson was an unspectacular punt returner, but he averaged 8.0 yards per return across 135 returns over the past five seasons and the Bengals don’t have a clear replacement. Cornerback Darius Phillips has some return experience, but most of it has come as a kickoff returner (21.9 yards per return across 17 career kickoff returns) and he’s struggled with just 6.4 yards per return on 5 career punt returns. He also could be in line for a larger defensive role, in which case giving him more special teams as well work might not be the best move.
Reserve wide receiver Trent Taylor has averaged 9.6 yards per return across 49 returns in his career, but that might not be enough to guarantee him a roster spot if he can’t earn one as a pass catcher. Punt returner is not likely to be a strength for the Bengals in 2021 and, while it wasn’t in 2020 either, I would expect their punt return game to be slightly worse in 2021. Fortunately, kickoff returner is still an obvious strength, which makes up for their punt return issues a little bit.
I mentioned earlier that the Bengals had a strong punting DVOA, ranking 7th, despite underwhelming play by their actual punter. That was because of strong play by their punt coverage unit, which was part of strong play overall by their special teamers. Unfortunately, the Bengals suffered some key losses to their special teams in free agency, as Cethan Carter (312 snaps) and Shawn Williams (297 snaps), who both finished above average on PFF and ranked in the top-3 in snaps on special teams for the Bengals, are no longer with the team. Carter in particular will be a big loss, having finished the 2020 season as PFF’s 25th ranked special teamer overall.
Jordan Evans, who led the group with 340 snaps and also played well, is still around and he’s an experienced multi-year special teamer who has consistently earned above average grades from PFF, but they’ll need other players to step up behind him. Akeem Davis-Gaither (289 snaps), Brandon Wilson (265 snaps), and Mason Schreck (150 snaps) all earned above average grades from PFF last season, but they are all one-year wonders who are far from guaranteed to repeat their strong play.
Kavon Frazier was added in free agency and he’s been at least capable across three seasons of 200+ snaps in his career, but he’s not nearly as good as the players who departed. Linebackers Germaine Pratt (219 snaps) and Logan Wilson (201 snaps) held their own on special teams last season, but could be ticketed for larger roles on defense in 2021. The Bengals will likely be relying on several rookies for key roles in what overall looks like a downgraded special teams compared to a year ago.
The Bengals will get Joe Burrow back from injury this season and he gives them a relatively high upside, but this team had a lot of problems outside of the quarterback position last season and didn’t really do enough to address them. They should be better on the offensive line and in the receiving corps and they’ll get a key player back on each side of the ball in Joe Mixon and DJ Reader, but the Bengals didn’t have an unusual amount of injuries last season, so they can’t necessarily depend on better health overall, and their big splash move on defense Trey Hendrickson is probably a downgrade over the player he’s replacing. The Bengals should be reasonably competitive, but I think they’re at least a year away from being a playoff team unless they can get a borderline MVP caliber year from their young quarterback in his first season back from knee surgery. I will have a final prediction for the Bengals at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21 Update: Not much has changed in my projection for the Bengals, who figure to get a little bit of boost from their special teams, but an insignificant amount.
9/4/21 Update: I have nothing new to add here, but barring an MVP caliber year from Joe Burrow, I have a hard time seeing this team making any noise this season.
Prediction: 6-11 4th in AFC North