Jacksonville Jaguars at Cincinnati Bengals: 2019 Week 7 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (2-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-6)

A lot of teams are dealing with tough injury situations, but the Bengals might have the worst injury situation in the entire NFL. Already missing left tackle Cordy Glenn and #1 wide receiver AJ Green to begin the season, the Bengals are also without wide receiver John Ross, backup left tackle Andre Smith, right guard John Miller, their top two edge rushers Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson, and starting cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and William Jackson. With all of their absences, they are the worst team in the league outside of the Dolphins. 

However, I still think we’re getting some line value with them as 4-point home underdogs against the Jaguars. Ever since Minshew Mania went to the next level during the Jaguars’ week 3 victory over the Titans on Thursday Night Football, I have thought the Jaguars are overrated. Even with Gardner Minshew outperforming expectations, the Jaguars still rank just 24th in first down rate differential and he seems to be falling back to earth in recent weeks. The Jaguars rank just 26th in my roster rankings, so they shouldn’t be favored by this many points over anyone except the Dolphins. I have this line calculated at Jacksonville -2, so we’re getting a decent amount of line value with the Bengals, even as banged up as they are. I wouldn’t recommend betting on them though.

Jacksonville Jaguars 19 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +4

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 Week 6 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-5) at Baltimore Ravens (3-2)

The Ravens have been an overrated team all year, as the general public did not realize how much worse their defense has gotten since last year. During the off-season, they lost five of the 12 players who played at least 500 snaps for them in 2018, including key players like Za’Darius Smith, CJ Mosley, and Terrell Suggs, and then they lost another two due to injury, with cornerbacks Tavon Young and Jimmy Smith both out indefinitely. 

Things have gotten worse on defense with starting safety Tony Jefferson done for the year with a torn ACL, leaving cornerback Marlon Humphrey, cornerback Brandon Carr, edge defender Matt Judon, and defensive lineman Brandon Williams as the only four players who played 500+ snaps on last year’s dominant unit that are still on the team. As a result, their defense has gone from ranking 2nd in first down rate allowed at 32.65% to 26th at 38.63%.

Fortunately, the Ravens get an easy matchup this week as they face a bad Bengals team that is also missing some key players. Already without left tackle Cordy Glenn and #1 wide receiver AJ Green indefinitely, the Bengals will also be without backup left tackle Andre Smith and a pair of starting defensive linemen, Ryan Glasgow and Carlos Dunlap, the latter of whom is one of their best and most important players on either side of the ball. 

The Bengals haven’t won a game all year, including a loss last week at home to a previously winless Cardinals team, and are easily one of the worst few teams in the league right now. Even with the Ravens being overrated all year, I would say this line favoring them by 10.5 points over the Bengals at home is about right. In fact, I actually have this line calculated at Baltimore -12, so if anything we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Ravens. I’m taking the Bengals for pick ‘em purposes because the Ravens are in a look ahead spot with a trip to Seattle on deck (double digit favorites are 64-84 ATS since 2002 before being underdogs), but this is a no confidence pick either way.

Baltimore Ravens 27 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +10.5

Confidence: None

Arizona Cardinals at Cincinnati Bengals: 2019 Week 5 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (0-3-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-4)

The Bengals were favored by 4 points on the early line last week and, despite getting blown out on Monday Night Football by the Mason Rudolph led Steelers, they still briefly opened as 3.5-point favorites this week, before the line quickly dropped to 3. Even at 3, I was still considering betting on the Cardinals, as that line suggests these two teams are about even, which I didn’t quite agree with. Neither of these teams has a win, but the Cardinals have a better first down rate differential (-7.18% vs. -10.15%) and seem to be in a better spot, as the Bengals may not be fully focused against a winless non-conference opponent, 6 days after a blowout loss, and before a divisional rivalry game against the Ravens. However, then I saw the injury reports on Friday.

The Bengals have had terrible injury luck thus far this season and, while they’ll still be without several players, including #1 wide receiver AJ Green and left tackle Cordy Glenn, they do get back a pair of key contributors on the defensive line, Ryan Glasgow and Carl Lawson, while the Cardinals could be without starting wide receivers Christian Kirk and Damiere Byrd, starting left guard Justin Pugh, starting cornerback Tramaine Brock, starter edge defender Terrell Suggs, and rotational defensive lineman Zach Allen. Only Allen and Kirk have been ruled out, but none of the others got in a full practice on Friday, so there’s too much certainty to bet the Cardinals right now. Depending on injury reports Sunday morning, I may decide to place a small bet on the Cardinals. They’re the pick for pick ‘em purposes regardless, as even if the Cardinals are without everyone I still have this line calculated at Cincinnati -3.

Sunday Update: Pugh, Brock, and Suggs are all playing for the Cardinals. I’m going to put a small bet on the Cardinals.

Arizona Cardinals 20 Cincinnati Bengals 19 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: Arizona +3

Confidence: Medium

Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (0-3)

When the NFL scheduled this game on Monday Night Football, they probably thought they’d be getting a competitive early season matchup between two hated division rivals. Instead, they got the second Monday Night Football game in the past thirty years between a pair of teams that are 0-3 or worse. The other instance was a 9-7 victory by the 0-4 Cowboys over the 0-4 Redskins in week 5 of 2001. Both of these teams came into the season with expectations, but have been ravaged by injury. 

For the Bengals, the sheer amount of key players they are missing this early in the season is pretty incredible. They came into the season with major injury concerns, losing first round pick Jonah Williams for the season in June, losing long-time starting guard Clint Boling to an early retirement due to injury, and losing top wide receiver AJ Green, starting cornerback Darqueze Dennard, and top offensive lineman Cordy Glenn indefinitely with injuries suffered in training camp, and things have just gotten worse from there. In addition to the aforementioned players, the Bengals will also be without a pair of key rotational defensive linemen, defensive end Carl Lawson and defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow, who also missed last week loss in Buffalo.

The Steelers don’t have the sheer number of missing key players that the Bengals have, but they have the most impactful injury between these two teams, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out for the season. The Steelers are publicly confident in backup quarterback Mason Rudolph, who was a third round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, but he hasn’t shown much to be confident in thus far, averaging just 6.22 yards per attempt and leading the Steelers to just 19 first downs and 4 touchdowns on 79 snaps on 18 drives, a first down rate of just 29.11%. For comparison, the Steelers had a 40.55% first down rate last season. The Steelers almost won their first game with Rudolph as the starter in San Francisco last week, but they ultimately lost, despite winning the turnover battle by 3. In terms of first down rate, they were -14.24% and that tends to be much more consistent week-to-week than turnover margin. 

Starting caliber quarterbacks rarely fall to the third round, so it’s not exactly a surprise that Rudolph has looked like a backup caliber player, especially this early in his career. As much as the Bengals are missing, they at least have a competent quarterback under center. The Steelers will also be without starting tight end Vance McDonald, rotational edge rusher Anthony Chickillo, and situational middle linebacker Vince Williams.

Despite that, I still have the Steelers as the slightly better team in my roster rankings, as they still have a pretty strong roster around the quarterback. This line, which favors the hometown Steelers by 3.5 points, is about right, so we aren’t getting much line value in either direction. The Bengals are my pick because they are in a better spot, hosting the Cardinals next week in a game in which they will likely be favored, while the Steelers host the Ravens in a game in which they will likely be underdogs. Underdogs are 100-56 ATS since 2014 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and even at 0-3 it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Steelers get caught looking forward to a bigger divisional game next week. They’re facing a fellow winless team and this could be a bit of a sandwich game between a close loss on the road and a big divisional home game. It’s not enough to bet the Bengals in the shape they are in, but they should be the right side.

Pittsburgh Steelers 19 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +3.5

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills: 2019 Week 3 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-2) at Buffalo Bills (2-0)

Earlier this week, I thought I would be betting on the Bengals in this one because the Bills are in an awful spot this week. They return home after playing their first two games of the season on the road, a situation teams typically struggle in (28-52 ATS in week 3 home openers since 1989). They could easily be tired from starting the year with back-to-back road games and not give their best effort at home against an 0-2 team. On top of that, they have to turn around and play one of their biggest games of the season next week, with the New England Patriots coming to town. The early line for that game has the Patriots favored by 6.5 points and teams are just 47-85 ATS since 2014 before being home underdogs of 5+. On top of that, favorites of 6+ are just 33-62 ATS since 2008 before being underdogs of 6+ the following week. The Bengals seem unlikely to get the Bills’ best effort this week in this situation.

That being said, the Bengals could still have a lot of trouble covering the spread in this game because they are so banged up right now. I was expecting they might be healthier this week, but wide receiver AJ Green and left tackle Cordy Glenn remain out indefinitely and they will also be without a pair of key players, Ryan Glasgow and Carl Lawson, on the defensive line and their 3rd cornerback BW Webb with injury. In their current injury situation, the Bengals are one of the worst teams in the league and, even though the Bills aren’t a great team, I still have them favored by a full touchdown in this game. The bad spot really hurts their chances of covering, so I’m still taking the Bengals for pick ‘em purposes, but even if the Bills don’t play their best it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them win by at least a touchdown. 

Buffalo Bills 20 Cincinnati Bengals 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +6

Confidence: Low

San Francisco 49ers at Cincinnati Bengals: 2019 Week 2 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (1-0) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-1)

The Bengals entered the season as one of the most banged up teams in the league. In the off-season, they lost first round rookie Jonah Williams for the season, long-time starting guard Clint Boling to an injury related retirement, and several other players like wide receiver AJ Green, left tackle Cordy Glenn, and cornerback Darqueze Dennard indefinitely due to various injuries. Despite that, they almost pulled the upset week 1 in Seattle, as one of the biggest underdogs of the week. They lost by just 1 point in a game that swung on the Seahawks recovering 3 of 4 fumbles and the Bengals won the first down rate battle by 3.67%. 

The Seahawks were an overrated opponent, especially with defensive end Ezekiel Ansah out with injury, but the Bengals get another opponent this week that could be overrated. The 49ers won 31-17 in Tampa Bay week 1, but they lost the first down rate battle by 3.85%, winning largely due to takeaways, which are inconsistent week-to-week. Jimmy Garrappolo looked rusty in his return from injury and the Bengals defense looked significantly improved in week 1 over last season’s underperforming unit. We’re not getting much line value with the Bengals -1, but I have these two teams about even in my rankings, so this line should be closer to -3. The Bengals are my pick for pick ‘em purposes, but there’s not enough here to bet on them. 

Cincinnati Bengals 20 San Francisco 49ers 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati -1

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bengals are ushering in a new era, letting head coach Marvin Lewis go after 16 seasons with the team. Lewis seemingly had nine lives in Cincinnati and only Bill Belichick had been head coach of his current team longer than Lewis before the Bengals let him go, but the Bengals have missed the post-season for three straight seasons and felt it was the right time to make a change in leadership. Prior to those last 3 seasons, Lewis led the Bengals to 5 straight post-season appearances and 7 total in his 16 seasons with the team, but he never took his team past the wild card round, losing all 7 post-season games.  

There’s hardly any guarantee the Bengals’ next head coach will be better though, especially since Cincinnati is a notoriously hard place to coach. Owner Mike Brown controls all aspects of football operations, including the 53 man roster, and is known for overvaluing his own starters and rarely if ever adding outside free agents. The Bengals have had just 7 winning seasons in Brown’s 28 seasons in control of the team, all of which came during Lewis’ tenure, and they went an embarrassing 55-137 in Brown’s first 12 seasons before Lewis showed up. This isn’t to say that the Bengals are suddenly going to become a laughing stock again just because their fired their coach, but it’s a reminder of the tough situation that the Bengals’ new coach is walking in to.

Likely due to Brown’s reputation, the Bengals had a tough time finding someone to take their head coaching job, getting turned down by several high profile candidates and ultimately settling for Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. After Taylor was hired, the Bengals had an even tougher time finding a defensive coordinator, not hiring Lou Anarumo until right before the NFL combine in late February. Anarumo’s only NFL play calling experience comes from a 12-game stretch as an interim defensive coordinator with the Dolphins in 2015, which is also when Zac Taylor’s only NFL play calling experience comes from, as he was the Dolphins’ interim offensive coordinator for the final 5 games of the 2015 season.

Taylor fits the recent trend of hiring young (he turned 36 in May) offensive minds from successful teams and his work with quarterback Jared Goff over the past 2 seasons with the Rams is very impressive, but fitting a recent trend doesn’t necessarily mean someone is going to be a head coach, nor does spending a couple years with Sean McVay. The key thing that Taylor is missing is an experienced coach on his staff, like McVay has with Wade Phillips. Instead, Taylor has a defensive coordinator with limited play calling experience and an offensive coordinator in Brian Callahan who has never been anything higher than a quarterbacks coach.

Many thought that with a new head coach coming in that the Bengals would make a move signaling a long-term change at the quarterback position, possibly even with a quarterback drafted 11th overall, but they didn’t address the position until the 4th round when they took NC State’s Ryan Finley, who will compete for the backup job in 2019 with Jeff Driskel, a 2016 6th round pick with a 5.70 YPA average and a 59.7% completion percentage on 176 career attempts.

Dalton has just two years left on his current contract and is not a spectacular quarterback, but moving on from him before the end of his contract (which pays him a relative bargain 33.9 million over the next 2 seasons) would be counterproductive because he’s still a solid starter. If the Bengals really don’t want to pay Dalton the going rate for a solid starting quarterback on his next deal, they can target quarterbacks high in a much better quarterback draft in 2020.

The Bengals were actually a pretty effective offense in 2018 before injuries hit. Through the first 8 games of the season, the Bengals ranked 7th in first down rate at 40.33%. AJ Green then got hurt and played just 17 snaps the rest of the way and then Dalton suffered an injury of his own that knocked him out for the final 5 games of the season. As a result, the Bengals had just a 32.75% first down rate in their final 8 games and fell to 15th overall on the season.

Through 8 games, Dalton completed 63.4% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, a 92.9 QB rating. Even though that QB rating fell to 76.5 without Green, Dalton still finished as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked quarterback on the season. A starter since week 1 of his rookie season in 2011, Dalton has made 120 of 128 starts since (missing 8 with injury) and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 8 seasons in the league, maxing out at #8 in 2015. All in all, he has completed 62.3% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 188 touchdowns, and 86 interceptions in his career. Now going into his age 32 season, it’s understandable why the Bengals don’t want to give him a mega extension worth upwards of 25 million annually to keep him long-term, but it wouldn’t be easy for the Bengals to find an upgrade.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Before getting hurt, AJ Green was on pace for a 90/1374/12 slash line last season. That’s in line with his career average 87/1284/9 slash line per 16 games, in 8 seasons (111 games) in the league. His age is becoming an issue, going into his age 31 season, and he’s developing an injury history, with two of his past three seasons ending on injured reserve, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down on the field and even if he begins to decline he could easily still be one of the better receivers in the league. With Green going into the final year of his contract, the Bengals will have to make a long-term decision on him shortly.

Green wasn’t the Bengals’ only productive wide receiver in 2018, as fellow starting wide receiver Tyler Boyd finished with a 76/1028/7 slash line in just 14 games and was even on pace for a 98/1240/10 slash line through 8 games with AJ Green as the primary target. Boyd is a one-year wonder, with just 76 catches for 828 yards and 3 touchdowns total in his first two seasons in the league (26 games) prior to his breakout 2018 season, but he’s also a former 2nd round pick and doesn’t turn 25 until November, so he could easily continue being one of the more productive receivers in the league. If Boyd and Green can stay healthy and perform even close to as well as they did to start last season, this offense is going to be a lot better than people think.

They’ll be even better if Tyler Eifert can stay healthy too, as they had a whopping 45.56% first down rate through 4 games (3rd in the NFL) before he broke his ankle and went down for the season. That’s a big if though, as Eifert has been as injury prone as any player in the league in his career, missing 53 of 96 games since the Bengals took him in the first round in 2013. He had a breakout 52/615/13 season in just 13 games in 2015, coinciding with the Bengals’ best season of the Andy Dalton era, but Eifert has played in just 14 of 48 games since. Still only going into his age 29 season, Eifert is theoretically still in the prime of his career and played well in limited action last season, but it’s hard to count on him. If the trio of Green, Boyd, and Eifert all stay healthy and produce like they can, this could be an explosive passing game.

That’s easier said than done though, so the Bengals are hoping someone else emerges in this receiving corps. The most likely candidate is John Ross, the 2017 9th overall pick, who is still likely to be the 3rd wide receiver, despite an awful start to his career. Injuries and ineffectiveness limited him to 17 snaps in 3 games in a catchless rookie season and then he struggled mightily when forced into a larger role in 2018, ranking dead last among qualifying receivers in Pro Football Focus grade, drop rate (25.0%), yards per route run (0.57), and target completion percentage (36.2%). It’s too early to complete write him off, but he’s entering a make or break third season in the league. Alex Erickson and Cody Core struggled in limited action in 2018 (364 snaps and 311 snaps respectively), so Ross doesn’t have much competition for the #3 wide receiver job.

At tight end, the Bengals re-signed CJ Uzomah to a 3-year, 18.3 million dollar deal and used a second round pick on Washington tight end Drew Sample this off-season, understandably not confident that Eifert can give them a full 16 games. Uzomah’s contract suggests he’ll start, but Sample is the better blocker and Eifert is their best passing game weapon, so it’s unclear how Uzomah fits in. Uzomah also has never topped 43 catches in a season and has just 79 in 4 seasons in the league, so his contract looks like another case of Mike Brown overvaluing his own free agents.

Sample was not much of a receiver in college, with 46 career catches, and likely won’t have a big passing game role as a rookie, but he’s an NFL ready blocker and athletic for his size at 6-5 255, so he might have some untapped receiving potential. He has much more upside long-term than Uzomah, who may need Eifert to get hurt again to see significant playing time. This is a strong receiving corps overall when healthy and at the very least they’ll probably be healthier in 2019 than they were in 2018.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

In addition to the talent the Bengals have in the receiving corps, the Bengals also have a solid running back duo. Joe Mixon is the lead back, rushing for 1168 yards and 8 touchdowns on 237 carries (4.93 YPC) in 2018 and ranking 9th among running backs in run grade on Pro Football Focus. That’s a steep increase from the 3.52 yards per carry he averaged on 178 carries as a 2nd round rookie in 2017, but he was better than that raw average suggests, averaging 2.43 yards per carry after carry and earning an above average run grade from PFF, so his mini breakout season in 2018 isn’t much of a surprise. A top-10 talent who only fell to the 2nd round because of off-the-field concerns, Mixon could easily keep improving, still only turning 23 this summer.

Mixon isn’t nearly as good as a receiver though. His catch total jumped from 30 to 43 from year 1 to year 2, but he averaged just 5.4 yards per target last season, earned a below average pass catching grade from PFF, and dropped 4 passes as well. Fortunately, the Bengals have a good passing down specialist in Giovani Bernard who can play in obvious passing situations, in addition to serving as a change of pace back (4.18 yards per carry on 744 career carries).

As long as Mixon is healthy, Bernard won’t average the 10.6 carries per game he averaged in his first 4 seasons in the league from 2013-2016, as he’s averaged just 5.8 carries per game over the past 2 seasons, but his catch totals haven’t really dropped, averaging 3.4 catches per game in his first 4 seasons in the league and 2.8 catches per game in 2 seasons since Mixon was drafted. He should be a good bet for another 40-45 or so catches in a situational role in 2018.

The Bengals also added a pair of running backs in the 6th round of this year’s draft, drafting Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams and Oklahoma’s Rodney Anderson with picks 182 and 211 respectively, but neither is expected to have much of a rookie year role as long as Mixon and Bernard are healthy. They are more replacements for Mark Walton, a 2018 4th round pick who had 19 touches as the 3rd back in 2018, but was ultimately let go this off-season after multiple arrests. They won’t be needed much behind Mixon and Bernard.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Bengals have plenty of talent at the skill positions on offense, but their offensive line needed some work this off-season. Four of their five offensive line starters in 2018 earned below average grades from Pro Football Focus and their highest ranked offensive lineman, left guard Clint Boling, only ranked 41st at his position (out of 88 qualifying). Right tackle Bobby Hart, who finished as PFF’s 73rd ranked offensive tackle out of 85 qualifying in 16 starts last season, was set to hit free agency this off-season, giving the Bengals the opportunity to find an upgrade in free agency, but in typical Bengals fashion they decided instead to bring Hart back on a 3-year, 16.15 million dollar deal.

This is the same Bobby Hart who struggled mightily with the Giants in 2017 (90th out of 92 eligible offensive tackles on PFF) and got kicked off the team before the season even ended. He was a little better in 2018, but largely by default and he’s shown no signs of ever developing into an above average starter. The 2015 7th round pick has 37 career starts and is still only going into his age 25 season, but he’s earned below average grades from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league and would likely be one of the worst starting offensive tackles in the league again in 2019 if he continues starting.

The Bengals did sign an outside free agent at right guard, signing ex-Bill John Miller to a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar deal, but he likely won’t move the needle much. Miller has been a capable starter for stretches of his career in 4 seasons in the league (47 total starts), including a solid 2018 season, but he has been inconsistent and was benched by the Bills for veteran journeyman Vlad Ducasse after 4 games in the 2017 season. He’d be an upgrade over Alex Redmond, who struggled in 15 starts at right guard last season, but he may not be an upgrade by much.

The biggest addition the Bengals made on the offensive line this off-season was using the 11th overall pick on Alabama’s Jonah Williams. Williams was not the Bengals’ primary target at 11, as linebacker Devin Bush was taken one spot ahead of them, and his addition complicates things upfront a little bit, even if he does project to be a solid player long-term. Williams has the versatility to play both tackle and guard, but the Bengals already have veterans making starter’s money at both guard and both tackle spots, so starting him would mean paying starter’s money to a reserve. Right tackle and right guard would be the best spots for him, but the Bengals are also trying him at left tackle. Incumbent left tackle Cordy Glenn could move to guard or right tackle, but Williams lacks elite foot speed and doesn’t have great length, winning more with technique in college, so he might not be a great fit on the blindside.

Wherever he ends up playing, Cordy Glenn will remain a starter for the Bengals in 2019. It’s understandable why the Bengals would want to move Glenn off the blindside, as his play has fallen off in recent years and he’s now going into his age 30 season, but his salaries the next two years (9.25 million in 2019 and 9.5 million in 2020) are cost prohibitive for a right tackle or guard, unless he happens to find a 2nd life as a Pro-Bowl caliber player at a different position. Glenn was PFF’s 21st ranked offensive tackle as recently as 2016 and their 6th ranked offensive tackle in 2015, but those days are likely behind him now. He’s also missed 18 games with injury over the past 3 seasons.

Clint Boling is their incumbent left guard, but Glenn has seen action at that spot this off-season, so Boling will likely have to compete for a starting job upfront, even though he was the Bengals’ best offensive lineman in 2019. Boling’s versatility works to his advantage because he can play both tackle spots and both guard spots and he’s plenty experienced, starting 106 of 112 games over the past 7 seasons and earning an average or better grade from PFF in all 7 of those seasons.

Boling’s age is becoming a concern, now in his age 30 season, but he should remain a starting caliber player for at least a couple more seasons and deserves a starting job somewhere on this line. Boling, Glenn, Williams, Miller, and Hart will compete for roles this off-season, with one of them ending up as a reserve. Hart is the weakest of the bunch, but his salary suggests he is at least in the mix for a starting role. At the very least, the Bengals have more depth and options upfront this season.

The only offensive lineman who seems to be locked into a starting spot going into 2019 is center Billy Price, who ironically might have been their worst offensive lineman in 2018, finishing 36th out of 39 eligible centers on PFF. Price dealt with injuries all season though, which seemed to sap his effectiveness, in addition to limiting him to 558 snaps in 10 games. Price was also a rookie last season and the 2018 21st overall pick is an obvious candidate to take a big step forward in 2019 if he can stay healthy. He rounds out an offensive line that has better depth and more options than last season, but that still lacks a dominant starter.

Update: Jonah Williams is out for the year with a shoulder injury. Cordy Glenn will stay at left tackle and John Miller and Bobby Hart are now locked in on the right side.

Update: The Bengals have lost another offensive lineman, with left guard Clint Boling retiring after not being able to practice all off-season due to injury. With Williams gone, Boling was expected to start somewhere on this offensive line when healthy, but now the Bengals will turn to 2016 5th round pick Christian Westerman, who has impressed in Boling’s absence this off-season, but has played just 183 offensive snaps in his career. He has some upside, but offensive line is a big concern for the Bengals in 2019.

Grade: C-

Edge Defenders

The Bengals had major issues on defense in 2018, finishing the season 28th in first down rate allowed at 38.34%, probably a big part of the reason why Marvin Lewis was let go, as his background is as a defensive coach. Lewis stepped in to call the plays on defense after week 10, firing defensive coordinator Teryl Austin in the process, but it didn’t make much of a difference for this unit. The biggest problem was injuries. Much like on offense, where the Bengals had the 27th most adjusted games lost to injury, the Bengals also had the 23rd most adjusted games lost to injury on defense. Probably their biggest loss was Carl Lawson, their top edge rusher who went down in October with a torn ACL after 7 games.

Lawson had just 1 sack in those 7 games, but he added 7 hits and a 13.6% pressure rate. He also had 8.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 15.2% pressure rate on 389 pass rush snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2017. Lawson almost never plays on run plays and he might not be 100% right away in his return this season, but even at less than his best he could still be their best edge rusher. Without him, the Bengals didn’t have another edge rusher with higher than a 10% pressure rate.

Carlos Dunlap used to be a dominant edge rusher, with 55 sacks, 118 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate in a 7-year stretch from 2012-2017. In 2018, he still had 8 sacks and 14 hits, but just a 9.0% pressure rate and earned just an average pass rush grade from Pro Football Focus. Dunlap was still a dominant run stuffer, ranking 7th among edge defenders on PFF in run defense grade, but he turned 30 this off-season and his best days as a pass rusher may be behind him. He should still have at least a couple more seasons left as an above average starter though. After playing 74% of the snaps in 2018 (52.4 per game), it’s possible the new coaching staff cuts his snaps a little bit to keep him fresher.

With Lawson hurt, Michael Johnson (467 snaps), Jordan Willis (537 snaps), and Sam Hubbard (508 snaps) all saw action on the edge last season. Lawson is only a sub package player and nominal base starter Michael Johnson is no longer with the team, currently unsigned after finishing 95th out of 113 qualifying edge defenders on PFF in 15 starts in 2018, so Willis and Hubbard will compete for the starting base package defensive end job opposite Dunlap. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Willis doesn’t get to the quarterback at all, with 2 sacks, 5 hits, and a 7.1% pressure rate in 2 seasons in the league, and last season he finished 103th out of 113 eligible edge defenders on PFF, but he showed a lot more promise as a run stuffer as a rookie and could easily bounce back in his 3rd season in the league.

Hubbard, meanwhile, was also a 3rd round pick, being drafted in 2018. He showed a lot more pass rush than Willis as a rookie, with 6 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.9% pressure rate, and wasn’t a bad run stuffer either. He seems to have more long-term upside than Willis and could easily be better in his 2nd season in the league in 2019, but Willis can still win the base package job if he proves himself to be a better run stuffer this off-season. Both will have a role either way. The Bengals are counting on a bounce back year from Dunlap and Willis, a breakout year from Hubbard, and a healthy season from Lawson, but there’s definitely potential here. They should get more edge rush than they did in 2018.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

With Lawson out, the Bengals’ most productive pass rusher in 2018 was defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who remains one of the most disruptive interior defenders in the league, with 10 sacks, 8 hits, and a 13.0% pressure rate last season, while finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked interior defender. That’s actually a bit of a down year for him, as he was a top-4 interior defender on PFF in 5 of the 7 seasons prior to 2018, with the exceptions being a 2013 season that was cut short by a torn ACL and a 2014 season where he wasn’t 100% in his return from that injury. Even with those years included, Atkins has 71 sacks, 98 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate in 9 seasons in the league. The one concern here is age, as he goes into his age 31 season. The Bengals are obviously hoping last year’s slight decline isn’t the start of a trend. Even if it is, he could easily be an above average starter for at least another couple seasons. He’s still probably their best defensive player.

Andrew Billings returns as the other starting defensive tackle, after making all 16 starts and earning an above average grade from PFF in 2018. Billings is a one-year wonder, going in the 4th round in 2016, missing his entire rookie season with injury, and then struggling mightily on 334 snaps in 2017, but he could easily continue his solid play going forward. The 6-1 325 pounder is at his best against the run, but showed surprising pass rush ability in 2018, with 2.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.2% pressure rate, after managing just 5 pressures on 127 pass rush snaps in 2017. If he continues developing as a pass rusher, he could play every down.

The Bengals also have Ryan Glasgow returning from an injury. The 2017 4th round pick looked on his way to a dominant year as a run stuffer in 2018, but he ended up tearing his ACL in his 3rd game of the season, which ended his promising season after just 92 snaps. Glasgow wasn’t bad on 412 snaps as a rookie in 2017 and, assuming he’s healthy, he could continue developing into a valuable run stuffer for them. The Bengals lack an interior pass rush specialist to play next to Atkins in obvious passing situations, but Sam Hubbard has the versatility to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages, lining up on the interior on 46.3% of his pass rush snaps in 2018. He’ll likely continue doing that in 2019. If Carl Lawson and Ryan Glasgow are both healthy in 2019, this should be an improved defensive line.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

By far the Bengals’ worst defensive unit in 2018 was their linebackers. Former Pro-Bowler Vontaze Burfict missed 9 games with injury, but he also struggled mightily when on the field and the Bengals didn’t have a single linebacker who earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus on the season. The Bengals let Burfict go ahead of a 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season, but they didn’t really do anything to replace him.

The Bengals were banking on linebacker Devin Bush falling to them at 11, but everyone knew he was their target, so the Steelers were able to move up to 10 and snatch him ahead of them, leaving the Bengals to settle for drafting NC State’s Germaine Pratt in the 3rd round. Pratt will compete for a role as a rookie with 2018 3rd round pick Malik Jefferson, who played just 11 snaps as a rookie, and other holdovers like Preston Brown, Nick Vigil, Jordan Evans, and Hardy Nickerson.

Vigil and Brown were both starters in 2018, although they played just 11 games and 7 games respectively due to injury and did not play well. Brown was re-signed to a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar contract this off-season, rather than the Bengals trying to find an upgrade in free agency, suggesting he’ll likely be the starter at one of the linebacker positions. The 2014 3rd round pick is an adequate run stuffer, but struggles in coverage and is not worth his salary. In an ideal world, he would just play the third linebacker spot, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but the Bengals’ lack of linebacker talent will likely force him into a larger role.

Nick Vigil was probably their best linebacker by default last season, but the 2016 3rd round pick has finished below average on PFF in all 3 seasons in the league. He’ll likely remain in an every down role, as he has been in the past 2 seasons (65.0 snaps per game), but he’ll have to face some competition for the job. The rookie Germaine Pratt is probably the best of the Bengals’ other options, but it’s unclear if the 3rd round pick can contribute in a positive way as a rookie. Vigil has missed 10 games with injury over the past 2 seasons, so Pratt may end up in the starting lineup at some point even if he doesn’t win the job in training camp.

Jordan Evans and Hardy Nickerson saw action last season because of injuries, but they struggled mightily and are backup quality players at best, so they shouldn’t be playing significant roles. Malik Jefferson theoretically has upside because he’s athletic and went in the 3rd round last year, but the fact that he couldn’t get on the field as a rookie in a horrible linebacking corps is not a good sign. The only reason Jefferson is in the mix for a role in 2019 is because this group didn’t really get any better. It would be a surprise if the Bengals had even average linebacker play this season.

Grade: D

Secondary

The Bengals’ secondary was their healthiest group on defense in 2018, and subsequently their best. They also return every defensive back who played a snap for them in 2018 and added BW Webb on a 3-year, 10.5 million dollar deal in free agency, which by the Bengals’ standard is a big outside investment. Webb wasn’t bad in 16 starts for the Giants last season, but he’s a one-year wonder. He went in the 4th round in 2013, but earned a below average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of the first 4 seasons of his career, while making just 10 starts, and then he spent the 2017 season out of the league, not playing a snap. He could prove to be a late bloomer and continue playing well, but he’s already going into his age 29 season and could regress in 2019.

It looked like Webb was originally signed as a cheaper alternative to slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard, a 2014 1st round pick who seemed likely to get more money on the open market, but his market never developed and he ended up returning on a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal, in hopes of getting better long-term offers next off-season. He’ll likely return to his old slot role, pushing Webb into a depth role as the 4th cornerback.

Despite his high draft status, Dennard barely played in the first 3 seasons of his career, averaging 15.3 snaps per game, but that number has jumped to 54.3 snaps per game in the past 2 seasons and he’s played well. In addition to being a solid slot cornerback, he’s also held up on the outside when asked to play there, so It’s a surprise the 24th overall pick couldn’t find a good deal on the open market in a thin cornerback free agency class. Perhaps a knee injury, which required off-season surgery, was part of the reason, but he’s fully expected to be healthy for week 1.

William Jackson and Dre Kirkpatrick remain as the starting outside cornerbacks. They are also former first round picks, going 24th overall in 2016 and 17th overall in 2012 respectively. Jackson is the better of the two. He missed his entire rookie season with injury, but flashed a lot of potential on 698 snaps in 2017, allowing just 15 catches with 11 pass breakups on 43 targets. That earned him the starting role in 2018 and, though he wasn’t quite as good as he was in 2017, he still allowed just a 55.1% completion rate, while breaking up 10 passes in 16 starts and finishing as PFF’s 29th ranked cornerback. Jackson should continue playing at a high level in 2019.

Kirkpatrick is paid like he’s the kind of cornerback that Jackson is, re-signed to a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar deal 2 off-seasons ago, but he’s never been much better than an average cornerback. Like Dennard, Kirkpatrick didn’t play much early in his career, despite being a high draft pick, playing 591 snaps combined in his first 3 seasons in the league. He’s made 56 starts in the past 4 seasons, but has never finished higher than 42nd among cornerbacks on PFF. He’s not a bad starter, but he’s overpaid and the Bengals may ultimately decide to move on from him to re-sign Jackson, who has two years left on his deal. Kirkpatrick’s 9.85 million dollar salary for 2020 is not guaranteed.

At safety, Shawn Williams and Jessie Bates remain as starters. Williams has been a starter since 2016 and has earned an above average grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons. Williams is coming off of another solid season in 2018 and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, so I wouldn’t expect a drop off. Bates, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2018 and had a very impressive rookie year.

Bates showed well enough in training camp and the preseason for the Bengals to cut incumbent starter George Iloka and replace him with Bates in the starting lineup and then he went on to finish as PFF’s 13th ranked safety while starting all 16 games. Bates has a bright future and could easily develop into one of the better safeties in the league. The Bengals should get solid secondary play overall again in 2019, with promising young defensive backs William Jackson and Jessie Bates leading the way.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Bengals were 4-1 last season before injuries started piling up. Injuries are part of the game, but the Bengals had the 5th most adjusted games lost to injury in 2018, including season ending injuries suffered by key players like quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver AJ Green, tight end Tyler Eifert, and edge defender Carl Lawson. The Bengals have a good chance to be better in 2019 simply by being healthier, though they’re not off to a great start with first round pick Jonah Williams going down for the season and long-term left guard Clint Boling surprisingly retiring due to injuries. 

Even if they have better health, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a true playoff contender though. They still have obvious issues in their linebacking corps and their offensive skill position talent could once again be held back by an inconsistent offensive line. The new coaching staff is an interesting wrinkle as well. It’s possible that fresh voices in the locker room will be good for this team, but this coaching staff is very inexperienced and many of their coaches were not their first or second choice, including head coach Zac Taylor. The Bengals could be better than people think and they have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, but they’re still behind Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the AFC North.

Final Update: So much for the Bengals being healthy on offense. Not only is AJ Green out for the first few weeks of the season, but the Bengals lost first round pick Jonah Williams for the season, had left guard Clint Boling retire due to injury, and will likely be without left tackle Cordy Glenn week 1 due to a concussion. The Bengals should still win some games against a weak schedule, but they don’t look like a competitive football team.

Prediction: 7-9, 3rd in AFC North