Cincinnati Bengals at New York Jets: 2022 Week 3 NFL Pick

CIncinnati Bengals (0-2) at New York Jets (1-1)

The Bengals are favored on the road against the Jets and have a much tougher game on deck against the Dolphins, which happens to be on Thursday Night Football. Typically, that is not a good spot for a team, as favorites cover at just a 42.7% rate before Thursday Night Football all-time, as having an upcoming short turnaround tends to serve as a distraction for teams, especially as favorites. However, the Bengals are desperate at 0-2, a year after making the Super Bowl and coming into this season with legitimate aspirations of making it back, so it’s hard to argue this is going to be a trap game, for a team seeking to avoid 0-3.

The Bengals have also played better than their record, primarily losing to the Steelers because they lost the turnover battle by -5, which is not predictive week-to-week, and then barely losing on the road in Dallas, leading to them actually ranking 11th in overall efficiency despite their 0-2 record. However, they’ve faced a pretty underwhelming schedule thus far and should have performed better than that if they were a playoff caliber team. They still have the talent to be, but they haven’t played like one yet.

With that in mind, the Bengals are a still a little overvalued, even at 0-2, favored by 6 points on the road in New York against a Jets team that has issues at the quarterback position, but that otherwise isn’t half bad and that figures to be significantly more competitive than a year ago, thanks to better health and some key off-season additions. My calculated line has the Bengals favored by 4.5, but that’s not enough line value for the Jets to be worth betting, especially since the Bengals could be very focused to avoid 0-3 and to make a statement, even in what would ordinarily be a tough spot for a team, with a tough Thursday night game on road. The Jets are my pick, but for pick ‘em purposes only.

Cincinnati Bengals 24 New York Jets 20

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +6

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys: 2022 Week 2 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-1) at Dallas Cowboys (0-1)

The Bengals lost the turnover battle by five at home against the Steelers last week and still could have won the game on numerous occasions if not for losing their long snapper, leading to several missed kicks that would have won the game. That’s because they won the first down rate battle and the yards per play battle by 11.36% and 0.22 respectively, which are much more predictive week-to-week than turnover margin. They should be more than fine going forward, especially with Joe Burrow likely to be better than he was last week, in his first game back after off-season surgery.

Unfortunately, we’re not getting a good opportunity to get good line value with the Bengals after that loss, as this line has shifted from favoring the home team Cowboys by 2.5 points last week to now favoring the visiting Bengals by 7 points, as a result of the Cowboys’ blowout loss to the Buccaneers and the loss of quarterback Dak Prescott with injury. That being said, we are still getting at least a little line value with the Bengals, as the Cowboys offense is just that bad right now and not just because Prescott is out.

Already down two starting offensive linemen in free agency, they are also without left tackle Tyron Smith and now are without replacement left guard Connor McGovern, with both players injured, while their receiving corps, which already lost Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson this off-season, is also without wide receiver Michael Gallup due to injury right now. I’m not confident enough in the Bengals to bet on them as touchdown road favorites, as Cooper Rush could be better than expected against a Bengals team that doesn’t have a lot of tape on him and that could get caught off guard by him, like the Vikings were last season in Rush’s first career start, but the Bengals are still the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Cincinnati Bengals 24 Dallas Cowboys 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati -7

Confidence: Low

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals: 2022 Week 1 NFL Pick

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

The Steelers have made the post-season in back-to-back years with records of 12-4 and 9-7-1 respectively, but, in order to do that, they’ve needed to go 7-2 and 8-2-1 in one score games in the two seasons respectively, which is highly unlikely to continue into 2022. The Steelers’ defense will probably be better than the 20th ranked unit they were in terms of efficiency last season, but they’re unlikely to be as good as their 3rd ranked finish in efficiency in 2020, while their offense figures to continue to struggle like they have the past two seasons, when they have ranked 28th and 30th in offensive efficiency. 

The Bengals, meanwhile, ranked just 17th in overall efficiency in the regular season last year and needed to win the turnover battle to win three close post-season games, which is not sustainable long-term, but they are significantly improved on the offensive line this off-season, which was a huge weakness for them last season, holding back what should have been an elite offensive unit, given their skill position talent and their quarterback play. Despite their offensive line improvements and the Steelers offensive struggles, the Bengals are just 6.5-point home favorites over the Steelers.

Including playoffs, 10 of the Steelers’ 13 losses over the past two seasons would have covered this 6.5-point spread and the Bengals are the caliber of team that should be able to give them another 7+ point loss, as they did in 14-point and 31-point victories last season. My calculated line actually has the Bengals favored in this one by 12.5 points, so we’re getting quite a bit of line value with them as just 6.5-point home favorites. This is one of my favorite plays of the week, as I don’t expect this to be a close game.

Cincinnati Bengals 30 Pittsburgh Steelers 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati -6.5

Confidence: High

Cincinnati Bengals 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bengals went all the way to the Super Bowl last season, coming within one score of victory, in a run that was surprising in more ways than one. For starters, it was surprising to see the Bengals even make the playoffs, given the 4th worst playoff odds to do so in the NFL by sportsbooks before the season, behind the Texans, Lions, and Jets. Then once the Bengals got to the post-season, few expected them to make it all the way to the Super Bowl, coming off of a solid, but unspectacular 10-7 regular season. The Bengals’ efficiency in the regular season didn’t suggest they were about to go on a long playoff run either, as they finished 17th in mixed efficiency. 

On top of that, the Bengals weren’t overly efficient during their playoff run either, which makes it even more surprising. In their three wins, which came by a combined 13 points, the Bengals didn’t win the yards per play battle or the first down rate battle once. The primary reason they won those close games is because they won the turnover battle by a combined +5 across those three games. The Bengals also won the turnover battle by two in the Super Bowl, to make that game closer than it could have been, bringing their overall post-season turnover margin to +7.

Turnover margin is highly inconsistent week-to-week and year-to-year, however, especially compared to efficiency metrics. Case in point, the Bengals had an even turnover margin in the regular season last year, showing no real propensity for forcing or avoiding turnovers until the post-season. Their post-season turnover success is unlikely to continue into 2022, so the Bengals will have to become a more efficient team on both sides of the ball (15th ranked offensive efficiency, 21st ranked defensive efficiency) if they want to have a chance to make it back to the Super Bowl, especially with the AFC becoming even more loaded this off-season.

The biggest reason for more optimism that the Bengals will be more efficient at least on offense this season is the improvements they’ve made on their offensive line to better protect franchise quarterback Joe Burrow. I’ll get into the specific additions later, but the Bengals took full advantage of having their franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie deal and used their financial flexibility to address by far their biggest need from a year ago. Burrow was sacked a league-leading 51 times last season, with the Bengals allowing the 3rd most sacks in the league, and, in addition risking injury to their most important player, having that many negative plays really has a big impact on an offense’s overall efficiency. 

That high sack total also came despite the fact that Burrow had the 4th highest percentage of passes thrown in less than 2.5 seconds last season. Burrow was effective on both quicker throws and longer developing plays, completing 70.4% of his passes for an average of 8.87 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in the regular season, while finishing as PFF’s 2nd ranked quarterback, but he was especially effective on longer developing plays, not surprising due to his arm strength and his talented receiving corps.

On passes thrown after more than 2.5 seconds last season, Burrow saw his yards per attempt average jump from 7.98 to 10.29 and his quarterback rating jump from 106.1 to 112.6. In fact, that YPA and QB rating led all quarterbacks in the league on throws after 2.5 seconds, with that QB rating being more than eight points higher than any other quarterback in the league on those types of throws. Better offensive line play should allow the Bengals to call more longer developing plays, which should result in more plays down the field.

Burrow is still a year one wonder in terms of being the elite quarterback he was last season, but the 2020 1st overall pick came into the league with a massive upside and he had a solid rookie season as well before a torn ACL ended his season, ranking as PFF’s 19th ranked quarterback. He could easily be one of the best quarterbacks in the league for years to come and, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was a year ago, his supporting cast should be better, thanks to improvements on the offensive line.

Burrow will be backed up by Brandon Allen for the second straight season, after the veteran journeyman won the backup job by outplaying Ryan Finley in Burrow’s absence in 2020. Allen still struggled for a lot of his stint as Burrow’s replacement though, completing 63.4% of his passes for an average of 6.51 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, good for a QB rating of just 82.0, and his career QB rating of 77.5 is even worse. The Bengals would obviously see a major drop off if Allen had to play for a significant period of time.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

To improve their offensive line, the Bengals made a trio of additions, signing Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’El Collins to reasonable contracts worth 18 million over 3 years, 35 million over 4 years, and 21 million over 3 years respectively. None are elite players at their positions, but they all should be upgrades on the players they’re replacing. Karras is coming off the best season of his career in 2021, when he played almost exclusively at guard and finished 18th among guards on PFF, but he’s expected to move back to center with the Bengals in 2022. He might not be as good back at center, but he still was a capable starter across 31 starts at center from 2019-2020, so he should easily be an upgrade on Trey Hopkins, who finished last season ranked 37th among 41 centers on PFF and was not retained as a free agent this off-season.

La’El Collins will take over at right tackle, where Riley Reiff was a solid starter across 12 starts last season, but then went down for the season with injury and was replaced by Isaiah Prince, a 2020 7th round pick, who struggled the rest of the way in the first significant experience of his career, including the Bengals’ playoff run. Reiff was not retained ahead of his age 34 season this off-season and Collins gives them a younger, more talented option. 

Collins missed all of 2020 with injury and served a 5-game suspension last season, which were big factors in the Cowboys releasing him this off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 10.7 million dollar salary, but he made 47 of 48 starts from 2017-2019 and he’s played at a high level when on the field recently, finishing 4th and 13th respectively among offensive tackles on PFF in his last two healthy seasons in 2019 and 2021 respectively. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Collins should continue to play at a high level in 2022 and doesn’t have an overly concerning injury history.

The only player who might not be an upgrade is Alex Cappa. Cappa will take over at right guard, which was a position of weakness last season, and he’s in the prime of his career, in his age 27 season, coming off three straight seasons as an above average starter in Tampa Bay (46 starts), including a 19th ranked season among guards on PFF in 2020 and a 15th ranked season in 2021. However, Cappa will effectively be replacing left guard Quinton Spain, who was PFF’s 16th ranked guard last season, across 16 starts, before not being retained as a free agent this off-season, ahead of his age 31 season. Cappa will be a solid starter and is a younger long-term option, but might not be noticeably better than Spain was last season.

Hakeem Adeniji and Jackson Carman were the starters who struggled at right guard last season and they’ll have to move to left guard this season to earn their way into their starting lineup. Carman already moved there towards the end of last season and the 2021 2nd round pick should be considered the favorite for the starting job by virtue of his draft status and his slightly better play last season, finishing 64th among 90 eligible guards on PFF, while Adeniji, a 2020 6th round pick, finished 84th and didn’t play much better on 233 rookie year snaps in 2020 either. Carman needs to take a step forward to be even an average starter, but he has the upside to do so. If he can, the Bengals would be without a clear weak spot on the offensive line, a huge change from last season.

Left tackle Jonah Williams was the Bengals’ best offensive lineman last season and could easily be their best again this season. A first round pick in 2019, Williams missed his entire rookie season with injury, but he finished 43rd among offensive tackles in 10 starts in 2020 and 24th among offensive tackles in 16 starts in 2021. Only going into his age 25 season, his best play could still be ahead of him. The Bengals made the obvious decision to pick up his 5th year option this off-season, guaranteeing him 12.604 million for 2023. The Bengals will almost definitely try to extend him long-term sometime in the next year and he should end up with a top of market deal whenever he ultimately signs. Depth is a concern on this offensive line, without any proven backups, but this starting five should be an above average group as long as they’re healthy, which would be a drastic change from last season.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

I mentioned earlier than the Bengals have a talented receiving corps, but that might be underselling it, as they have arguably the top receiving corps in the league and a trio of wide receivers who would all be #1 wide receivers for many teams across the league. JaMarr Chase led the way, as the 2021 5th overall pick had one of the best rookie seasons ever by a wide receiver, transitioning seamlessly from dominating the SEC as Joe Burrow #1 receiver at LSU to dominating the NFL as Joe Burrow’s #1 receiver with the Bengals.

Chase finished with a 81/1455/13 slash line and was the NFL’s 4th leading receiver last season, despite his 128 targets ranking just 19th in the NFL. Chase benefitted from having Burrow throwing him the ball and having a lot of talent around him on offense, but he also finished as PFF’s 11th ranked wide receiver in his own right and was especially dangerous after the catch, ranking 5th among wide receivers with 8.1 yards per catch coming after the catch. He should remain one of the best wide receivers in the league for years to come, still only going into his age 22 season.

Tee Higgins also surpassed 1000 yards last season, totaling with a 74/1091/7 slash line in just 14 games, while finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked wide receiver. That came after the 2020 2nd round pick posted a 67/908/7 slash line, despite inconsistent quarterback play, as a rookie, when he also finished as PFF’s 35th ranked wide receiver. Still only going into his age 23 season, Higgins’ best years could still be ahead of him and he’d be a #1 wide receiver for at least half of the league, if not more. Higgins and Chase have a good chance to both surpass 1000 yards again next season and for years to come, something only two other wide receiver duos in the league did last season (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams).

Tyler Boyd has a pair of 1000-yard receiving seasons on his resume, but he’s only the third wide receiver on this season behind Chase and Higgins. Despite that, he still finished last season with a 67/828/5 slash line, his 4th straight season surpassing 800 receiving yards. It was also his 4th straight season finishing in the 60th percentile or higher among wide receivers on PFF. He doesn’t quite have the top end athleticism and ability of Higgins and Chase, but he’s still a very reliable possession receiver who excels in the slot and who would be many teams’ top wide receiver if he was elsewhere. Still only going into his age 29 season with just four games missed over the past four seasons, I don’t see any reason to expect a drop off this season.

With the three wide receivers that they have, the Bengals understandably don’t have much use for the tight end position in this offense, but CJ Uzomah was not a bad 4th option last season (49/493/5 on 63 targets) and, while he signed with the Jets in free agency, the Bengals replaced him with a comparable player in Hayden Hurst. Hurst is an unspectacular player who has not been an above average pass catcher or run blocker in his career, but his 1.21 yards per route run average for his career is higher than the 1.07 yards per route run that Uzomah averaged last season and Hurst obviously won’t be relied on for a big role in this offense, likely serving mostly as a check down option if nothing develops downfield.

Backup tight end Drew Sample will see a significant role, likely to see around the 458 snaps in 17 games he had last season. Sample was a surprise 2nd round pick in 2019 because of his lack of receiving production in college and he hasn’t proven to have untapped receiving ability at the next level, averaging a pitiful 0.82 yards per route run throughout his career, but he’s at least a solid blocker, which is mostly what he’ll be used for. He caught just 11 passes in the regular season last season and could easily fail to exceed that total in 2022.

The Bengals likely won’t use a lot of two tight end sets, given the wide receiver talent they have, but they do have a bit of a concerning depth situation behind their top-3 wide receivers. While they didn’t need depth last season because Boyd, Higgins, and Chase missed a combined four games, they did have a reliable 4th option in Auden Tate if they needed him and he’s no longer with the team, leaving them without a reliable 4th option. If one of their top-3 wide receivers suffers an injury, this offense will feel the effect in a noticeable way. At full strength though, it’s hard to find a team with better passing game weapons.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Featured running back Joe Mixon also is involved in the passing game, taking 48 targets for 42 catches, 314 yards, and two touchdowns last season, in addition to ranking 3rd in the NFL with 292 carries. Mixon has played a similar role for the Bengals over the past four seasons, averaging 285 carries and 43 catches per 16 games over that stretch, and, while he is not an elite running back, he has fared pretty well with his heavy workload, averaging 4.25 yards per carry and 1.11 yards per route run over those four seasons, while finishing in the top-16 among running backs in three of those seasons. The 2017 2nd round pick is still only in his age 26 season and should remain an above average starter for at least another couple seasons.

Running backs are more susceptible to injury than any position though and, while Mixon has mostly been durable, he did miss 10 games in 2020. If that happened again in 2022, the Bengals would be in a lot of trouble, as backup Samaje Perine is an underwhelming replacement option. He has averaged 4.64 yards per carry over the past two seasons, but he has done so on carry totals of 63 and 55 and he averaged 3.45 YPC in the one season in his career in which he saw significant action, carrying the ball 175 times as a rookie in 2017. 

The Bengals like to use Perine to give Mixon a rest in obvious passing situations, but he is underwhelming in that role as well, averaging 1.00 yards per route run and 6.09 yards per target over the past two seasons. The Bengals also have 2021 6th round pick Chris Evans and 2019 6th round pick Trayveon Williams, but they are both very inexperienced, with career carry totals of 17 and 41 respectively, so they are unlikely to make much of an impact, even if they do make the final roster. This remains Joe Mixon’s backfield and he should be one of the better running backs in the league again.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Bengals will have a lot of continuity on defense this season, returning 14 of their 15 defenders who played at least 250 snaps last season. Their one loss could actually prove to be addition by subtraction, as Larry Ogunjobi finished 103rd among 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF across his 724 snaps last season. The Bengals drafted Florida’s Zachary Carter in the third round and he will likely have a rotational role as a rookie, but BJ Hill will be the one to take Ogunjobi’s place in the starting lineup, which should be a good thing for this defense, as he was significantly better than Ogunjobi last season, despite his more limited snap count at 502. 

Hill was PFF’s 28th ranked interior defender in 2021 and actually earned above average grades from PFF in each of his first three seasons in the league prior to last season as well. Despite that, he fell out of favor with the Giants, seeing his snap count drop from 642 to 486 to 375 across his three seasons there before they traded him to the Bengals for reserve offensive lineman Billy Price last off-season, a move that proved to be a steal for the Bengals. Cincinnati kept him on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal this off-season and he should prove to be an above average starter now that he gets a chance to see more every down starter, in his age 27 season. Also good against the run, Hill also has 13 sacks, 13 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate in 64 career games, despite a relatively limited role.

DJ Reader will start opposite Hill and he was one of the biggest reasons for the Bengals’ surprising performance on defense last season, returning to action after being limited to 259 snaps in five games by injury in 2020 to finish as PFF’s 8th ranked interior defender on 590 snaps in 2021. Reader also finished 7th among interior defenders on PFF in 2019, as well as top-35 finishes in 2017 and 2018, and he’s never had much of an injury history outside of 2020, playing at least 14 games in 5 of 6 seasons in the league. A dominant run stuffer at 6-3 347, Reader is also a surprisingly efficient pass rusher for a big interior defender, with a career 7.7% pressure rate, albeit with just 8.5 actual sacks (25 quarterback hits) in 81 games. Still only going into his age 28 season, there is no reason to expect a drop off from Reader in 2022.

Josh Tupou also returns as a reserve, after playing 410 snaps last season, and he should have a similar role this season. Tupou has been a solid run stuffer as a rotational player in the past, but he struggled in that aspect in 2021 and has never provided much pass rush, with a 4.9% pressure rate for his career. Tupou also sat out the 2020 season, so his last solid rotational season came in 2019 when he played 465 snaps, which is a career high for him. He could bounce back and be a solid run stuffer, but that’s not a guarantee and even that isn’t much of an upside, even for a reserve. He could be pushed for playing time by both Zachary Carter and 2021 4th round pick Tyler Shelvin, who struggled across 49 rookie year snaps. Depth is a concern at the interior defender position for the Bengals, but DJ Reader is a well above average starter and Hill should be a solid starter as well.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Not much changes for the Bengals at the edge defender position this season, though they figure to get at least some contribution from 2021 3rd round pick Joseph Ossai, who missed his whole rookie season with injury. How much contribution they get remains to be seen, but they have the opportunity for him to carve out a significant reserve role, as top reserves Cameron Sample and Wyatt Ray struggled across 310 snaps and 219 snaps respectively. 

Sample was a 4th round pick in 2021 and has the upside to be better in 2022, while Ray is a 2019 undrafted free agent who had played 72 snaps prior to last season. Ossai and Sample figure to be higher on the depth chart this season than Ray, who is not a lock to make the final roster and who will likely never develop into a useful rotational player. The Bengals also have 2020 5th round pick Khalil Kareem, who has shown a little bit of promise thus far in his career, albeit across just 369 career snaps in two seasons in the league.

Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard will remain the starters. Hendrickson is one of a few great free agent signings the Bengals have made on defense over the past few off-seasons, including DJ Reader. Hendrickson is only the league’s 19th highest paid edge defender on a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal, but he finished his first season in Cincinnati as PFF’s 11th ranked edge defender in terms of pass rush grade, while totaling 14 sacks (5th in the NFL), 15 quarterback hits, and a 16.5% pressure rate. 

Hendrickson was somewhat of a risky signing because he was a one-year wonder, with 13.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and a 13.3% pressure rate in his contract year in 2020, after the 2017 3rd round pick totaled just 6.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.3% pressure rate across the first three seasons of his career combined, but Hendrickson has proven to be a late bloomer and, still only going into his age 28 season, he should continue being one of the better edge rushers in the league. His run defense has always left something to be desired, but he has still finished in the top-29 among edge defenders in overall grade on PFF in back-to-back seasons.

Hubbard, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick by the Bengals in 2018. He isn’t nearly as good as Hendrickson, but he has consistently earned middling grades from PFF across his first four seasons in the league, so he’s a consistent player who you could do worse than. He had 7.5 sacks last season, though that was largely on volume, as he finished 6th among edge defenders with 877 snaps played and had an underwhelming 10.3% pressure rate overall. A better run stopper than pass rusher, Hubbard’s pressure rate last season is mostly in line with his career average of 10.0%. 

Hubbard is still only going into his age 26 season, but I wouldn’t expect much more than he’s shown so far, even if he does happen to have the best season of his career. He would likely benefit from playing a smaller role, but the Bengals will need one of their young reserve edge defenders to step up for that to happen. Trey Hendrickson elevates this position group significantly by himself, but they otherwise are an underwhelming bunch.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Not much changes in the linebacking corps for the Bengals either, although that’s not really a good thing, as this was an underwhelming group a year ago. Top linebacker Logan Wilson earned a middling grade from PFF across 707 snaps, but their second linebacker Germaine Pratt struggled across 692 snaps, finishing 69th among 94 eligible linebackers on PFF. Wilson and Pratt are about recent third round picks, Wilson being drafted in 2020 and Pratt being drafted in 2019. Wilson also was a middling player across 343 rookie year snaps and should continue being at least a capable starter going forward, but Pratt has mostly struggled throughout his career.

Pratt could be pushed for his job by Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey, also recent draft picks (4th and 7th round respectively in 2020), who both flashed in limited action last season, across 207 snaps and 256 snaps respectively. Both are very unproven though, as Markus Bailey played just 44 rookie year snaps prior to last season, while Davis-Gaither struggled on his 314 rookie year snaps in 2020. With no off-season additions made to this group, they should be very similar to last season’s underwhelming group, barring one of their young linebackers taking a big step forward.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Bengals’ biggest weakness on defense last season was probably cornerback Eli Apple, who received a below average grade from PFF across 15 regular season starts, before ultimately surrendering the game winning touchdown in the Super Bowl to Cooper Kupp. Apple isn’t as bad as internet memes might suggest and it’s not all that surprising that the Bengals brought him back as a free agent this off-season, but he’s never earned more than a middling grade from PFF across 6 seasons in the league (63 starts) and the Bengals needed to at least add competition for him, which they did when they used their second round pick on Nebraska cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. Apple is probably the favorite to open the season as the starter, but Taylor-Britt will likely be starting sooner rather than later and, while he could struggle in his first NFL action, he also possesses an upside that Apple does not.

Whoever wins the battle between Apple and Taylor-Britt will start opposite Chidobe Awuzie, another one of the Bengals’ great free agent signings from recent off-seasons. A 2nd round pick by the Cowboys in 2017, Awuzie showed promise early in his career, including a 27th ranked season among cornerbacks on PFF as a 16-game starter in 2019, but he saw his play drop off significantly on the Cowboys’ miserable 2020 defense, led by overmatched defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, resulting in Awuzie finishing 101st among 136 eligible cornerbacks in PFF, right before he was about to hit free agency.

Given the circumstances, Awuzie would have been wise from a financial standpoint to take a one-year deal somewhere last off-season, with the intention of trying free agency again this off-season after rehabbing his value. Instead, Awuzie signed a 3-year deal with the Bengals worth up to only 21.75 million total, which proved to be a huge steal for the Bengals. Out of Nolan’s system, Awuzie put it all together in 2021 and had the best season of his career, finishing as PFF’s 2nd ranked cornerback on the season. 

Given how well he played and that he is still only going into his age 27 season, Awuzie likely would have commanded at least 30 million guaranteed over the first two years of a new contract as a free agent this off-season, but, instead, the Bengals have him locked in for the next two years at just 12.5 million total. He might not repeat the best season of his career again in 2022, but he’s very much in the prime of his career and should have another high level season this year.

The Bengals also got a good value with ex-Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton last off-season, signing him to a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal to be their slot cornerback. Hilton consistently earned above average grades throughout his four seasons in Pittsburgh, not only covering at an above average level, but also providing value as a run stopper and a blitzer, so it was surprising he didn’t have more of a market, but his lack of size and ability to play outside at 5-9 185 probably had something to do with it. With the Bengals, he played 84.2% of his 803 snaps on the slot and yet again finished above average on PFF, ranking 23rd among cornerbacks at season’s end. He should continue that into 2022 and beyond, still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season.

In addition to the selection of Taylor-Britt in the second round, the Bengals also used a 2022 first round pick on the secondary, taking Michigan’s Daxton Hill. While their selection of a cornerback early was not surprising, the selection of a safety was because safety was not a weakness for the Bengals last season. However, starting safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell are both not signed long-term, with Bates being franchise tagged ahead of free agency this off-season and Bell going into the final year of his contract, and the Bengals must not be confident in their ability to sign them both long-term. 

A 2nd round pick in 2018, Bates likely wants to be paid at the top of the safety market, currently at least 17.5 million annually, and, while he has shown top level ability in 2018 and 2020, finishing 12th and 1st respectively among safeties on PFF in those two seasons, he has also earned middling grades from PFF in both 2019 and 2021, so his lack of consistency is probably giving the Bengals some pause on paying him what he wants. He’s an incredible coverage safety at his best, but he’s also missed among the most tackles by any safety in the league over the past four seasons combined, with 65 total. He has obvious bounce back potential, which would be a huge boost for this defense, but he’s been very inconsistent in the past.

Vonn Bell, meanwhile, has proven to be a steal on the 3-year, 18 million dollar deal the Bengals gave him two off-seasons ago and he will be due a big raise on his next contract. A 2nd round pick by the Saints in 2016, Bell was mostly a middling starter in New Orleans, but he did finish 26th among safeties on PFF in 2018 and he’s shown that form more consistently in Cincinnati, ranking 20th and 21st among safeties on PFF in his two seasons with the team. He should continue his above average play into 2022.

Unless either Bates or Bell are traded, which is a possibility given their contract situations, Hill will likely start the season as a reserve, but he could see some action on the slot as a 4th cornerback and the Bengals could use more three safety looks this season to try to mask some of their lack of linebacker depth and, ultimately, he figures to be a starter on this defense long-term one way or another. This is a more talented group than a year ago after the Bengals used their first two draft picks on defensive backs and, while Chidobe Awuzie might not play as well as a year ago, any regression from him could easily be offset by a bounce back season from Jessie Bates, so this is a strong group overall.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Bengals finished last season 8th in special teams DVOA, in large part due to the high level of play of rookie kicker Evan McPherson. The Bengals were underwhelming aside from McPherson though, with punter Kevin Huber being middling at best, below average punt and kick return units, and just one player (Mitchell Wilcox) who finished in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF last season. The Bengals kept pretty much everything the same this season, so they’ll need McPherson to have another high level year for this to remain an above average unit. McPherson could be one of the best kickers in the league for years to come, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he struggled a little bit more in year two than he did as a rookie and, if that’s the case, this would be more of a middling special teams unit.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Bengals finished last regular season ranked 17th in efficiency and needed a +7 turnover margin in their four playoff games to come as close to the Super Bowl as they did, something they showed no propensity for in the regular season (+0 turnover margin) and something they won’t be able to rely on going forward into 2022. For that reason, the Bengals needed to get better this off-season if they were going to have a chance to make it back to the Super Bowl, but they did a great job of addressing their needs this off-season, especially on the offensive line, turning a big position of weakness into a strength. 

In fact, on paper, the Bengals look like one of the best teams in the league and one of the top Super Bowl contenders. The Bengals have a good chance to win the AFC North and, while the AFC is loaded with other contenders and it’s very tough for Super Bowl losers to return the following season (just one has done so in the past 25 seasons), those are really the biggest things standing in the Bengals’ way, as they have the talent to make it back. Whether or not they do remains to be seen, but they have as good of a shot as anyone. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Final Prediction: I consider the Bengals Super Bowl contenders, but they’ll have a tough path out of the loaded AFC and might not even be the best team in their division, with the Ravens expected to be much healthier this season. They should still qualify for a post-season berth, but like any AFC contender, they will have a tough path out of the conference and there are teams with a better chance than them.

Prediction: 11-6, 2nd in AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals vs. Los Angeles Rams: Super Bowl LVI Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (13-7) vs. Los Angeles Rams (15-5) in Super Bowl LVI

The Bengals have had an improbable run to the Super Bowl, maybe even more so than most people realize. Not only have they pulled upsets over higher seeded teams in their last two playoff wins to qualify for the Super Bowl as a 4-seed, after entering the season with the worst odds in their division, but all three of their wins have come by one score with two of the wins coming on the last play and, most importantly, they have actually lost the first down rate and yards per play battle by all three games, with their +5 turnover margin across the three games being the primary driver of their close victories. 

Unfortunately for the Bengals, yards per play and first down rate tend to be significantly more predictive of future winning than winning percentage or point differential, while turnover margin is highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. The Bengals, for example, had an even turnover margin in the regular season, despite facing one of the easiest schedules in the league. They weren’t particularly good in first down rate or yards per play in the regular season either, ranking 18th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, which is based on first down rate and yards per play. That was the 3rd worst among 14 playoff qualifiers.

It’s possible the Bengals could continue beating the odds, but it’s unlikely and I would bet against it, especially against a team like the Rams, who have legitimately been one of the best teams in the league this season. They rank 9th, 6th, 5th, and 3rd in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, making them probably the most well-balanced team in the league. When you factor in that they’ll at least have some homefield advantage with this game being in Los Angeles, I have the Rams calculated as at least 7 point favorites, so we’re getting significant line value with them at -4.

Los Angeles Rams 27 Cincinnati Bengals 20

Pick against the spread: Los Angeles -4

Confidence: High

Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 AFC Championship Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (12-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-5)

These two teams met in Cincinnati a few weeks ago, with the Bengals pulling the home upset as 4-point underdogs in a last second victory, coming back from 11 points down at halftime. This matchup is in Kansas City, but that is not the only reason the odds are against the Bengals repeating what they did last time, as teams are just 6-12 ATS as underdogs in the playoffs against a non-divisional opponent they beat as underdogs in the regular season. 

The spreads oddsmakers set tend to be more accurate than public perception, so if they are making a team underdogs twice, it’s usually for a good reason and, in fact, odds makers seem to usually set the line too low for the rematch, likely intentionally, in hopes of trapping some bettors on the underdog. That seems to be the case here, as the Chiefs are a completely different level than the Bengals, even when you take into account that the Bengals beat the Chiefs previously. 

The Bengals entered the post-season with one of the weakest strengths of schedule of any team in the league and, as a result, finished the regular season just 18th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, which is based on predictive metrics, yards per play and first down rate, and takes strength of schedule into account. The Bengals have won twice so far in the post-season, but beating the Titans and Raiders isn’t particularly impressive, especially when you consider that they were one-score games in which the Bengals lost the yards per play and first down rate battle and almost definitely would have lost the game if not for winning the turnover battle in both games by a combined +4, which is not a predictable metric that they can continue to depend on. 

The Chiefs, meanwhile, are where they are, with a 14-5 record and hosting the AFC Championship, despite one of the toughest schedules in the league and despite just a +3 turnover margin (including playoffs). In fact, winning turnover margin by a significant margin has been about the only way to beat the Chiefs this year, as the Chiefs started 3-4 in large part due to a -10 turnover margin, but have won 11 of 12 since then (6-1 against playoff qualifiers) and have flipped their turnover margin to +13 over that stretch. 

The Chiefs’ defense also has been a lot better since the start of the season, due to improved health, with key players like safety Tyrann Mathieu, cornerback Charvarius Ward, edge defender Frank Clark, and interior defender Chris Jones all missing time early in the season and returning, as well as the addition of edge defender Melvin Ingram in a mid-season trade. The Chiefs’ defense had some injury problems last week against the Bills, missing Mathieu and talented cornerback Rashad Fenton, but both are expected back this week.

The Chiefs defense still only ranks 28th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, but they have been at least passable since their horrendous start and, despite their low ranked defense on the season, the Chiefs still rank 2nd in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, led by a top ranked offense and a 2nd ranked special teams. If their defense can be even a complementary unit, which it can when it’s healthy, the Chiefs are the best team in the league, which they are right now, about 10.5 points above average in my roster rankings, while the Bengals are just 2 points above average.

This line may seem high at seven, especially for a conference championship game, but conference championships tend to be blowouts actually at a higher rate than regular season games, with the average margin of victory being 12.48 points, as opposed to 11.62 points in the regular season. On top of that, favorites of 6 or more are 11-4 ATS in a conference championship game, with all fifteen winning straight up by an average of 15.4 points per game. Usually when the oddsmakers think a conference championship is uneven, they are actually understating it, which is what I think is the case here. I am very confident the Chiefs can cover the seven points and win by multiple scores.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Cincinnati Bengals 20

Pick against the spread: Kansas CIty -7

Confidence: High

Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans: 2021 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (11-7) at Tennessee Titans (12-5)

The Titans finished with tied for the best record in the AFC and won the AFC’s #1 seed on tiebreakers, but they overall did not have as impressive of a season as some other teams in the AFC. Their 12-5 record is supported by a 6-2 record in one-score games and their +65 point differential ranks just 11th in the NFL, despite the fact that they have a +4 margin in return touchdowns, giving them an extra 28 points. Return touchdown margin is not predictive week-to-week, especially since the Titans finished with a -3 turnover margin, and, if not for those four return touchdowns, the Titans would rank just 13th in point differential at +37. 

The Bengals, meanwhile, rank 8th with a +84 point differential, despite having a worse record than the Titans. If you include their playoff victory over the Raiders and exclude their week 18 loss to the Browns where they rested their starters, that point differential becomes +96. Despite that, the Bengals are underdogs of 3.5 points here in Tennessee, which is more significant than you might think, with about 1 in 4 games decided by 3 points or fewer. 

That line expects the Titans to be significantly better than they have been in the regular season, as a result of their improved health on offense. The Titans’ offense had significant injury issues in the second half of the season, but wide receivers AJ Brown (three games missed) and Julio Jones (four games missed) and offensive linemen Rodger Saffold (two games), Taylor Lewan (two games), and Nate Davis (three games) have all returned after missing time, while feature back Derrick Henry (ten games) is expected to rejoin the lineup this week to complete this offense.

However, even at full health, I don’t have the Titans worth being favored by this many points over the Bengals, as they had just a +32 point differential through eight games before Henry and company went down. On top of that, there is no guarantee that Henry is at full strength in his first game back. We’re not getting a lot of line value with the Bengals, but my calculated line has the Titans favored by just 2 points, so the Bengals definitely have a good chance to cover this spread. There isn’t quite enough here for the Titans to be worth betting, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Update: It looks like Henry will split carries with Dont’a Foreman if he plays, which drops my calculated line a little to 1.5, while simultaneously this line has moved up to 4. I think there is enough here for a bet on Cincinnati, who were the better team in the regular season in all of the more predictive metrics, including schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, in which they held a 2.5-point edge. Even if the Titans are healthier, it’s hard to get this line all the way up to 4, especially since the Bengals still hold the edge in my roster rankings even with the Titans’ offense close to full strength, as Joe Burrow has shown significant improvement as the season has gone on and, now with his knee injury clearly in the rear review, has broken out as a legitimate top level quarterback.

Tennessee Titans 24 Cincinnati Bengals 23

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +4

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills: 2021 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

New England Patriots (10-7) at Buffalo Bills (11-6)

These two teams are pretty similar, as they have solid records, but even more impressive point differentials, with the Bills ranking 1st at +194 and the Patriots ranking 3rd at +159. That carries over to efficiency rating, which is more predictive week-to-week, as the Bills rank 7th in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency and 1st in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, while the Patriots rank 5th in both metrics, having played a slightly tougher schedule with a better winning percentage against playoff qualifiers. Neither team has fared well against playoff qualifiers though, mostly accumulating their impressive point differentials against sub .500 teams.

One of the wins against playoff qualifiers that each team has came at the expense of the other, with these two teams splitting the season series and each winning on the opposing team’s homefield. There is more of a tendency to discount the Patriots’ win in Buffalo because it came in tough conditions in a game in which the Patriots kept the ball on the ground almost every play and relied on their defense to stop a more traditional Bills offense, but the season long stats suggest these two teams are even enough that a season series split would make sense and, though the Bills’ win came by more points, they only outgained the Patriots by about a tenth of a yard per play across the two matchups.

Despite the Bills only being slightly better than the Patriots at best, this line, favoring them by 4 points at home, suggests they are a noticeably better team, with homefield advantage only counting for about 1.5 points in recent years and about 30% of games being decided by 4 points or fewer historically. My calculated line has the Bills favored by 2, so we’re getting significant line value with the Patriots, crossing the key number of three, which decides about 1 in 6 games. 

Three is the amount the Bills were favored by in the matchup between these two teams in Buffalo earlier this season, which I thought was too high at the time, and now I think it’s an overreaction to the Patriots’ slow finish to the season that this line has shifted even higher to four, as the Patriots won the yards per play and first down rate battle in two of their three losses to end the season, with the exception being their home loss to the Bills. The Patriots are worth a bet at +4 and I am hoping for +4.5 before gametime for potentially a bigger bet.

Update: This line has moved up to 4.5. The Patriots will be without left tackle Isaiah Wynn, but I wasn’t expecting him to play and his absence isn’t that big of a deal because they can move Trent Brown to left tackle and insert Michael Onwenu at right tackle, where he has had a lot of success when called upon over the past two seasons. Cornerback Jalen Mills being out might be a bigger deal because they are thinner at that position, but I was also expecting him to be out and the Bills have questionable cornerback depth as well, since losing top cornerback Tre’Davious White a few weeks ago. I am going to increase this bet.

Buffalo Bills 24 New England Patriots 23

Pick against the spread: New England +4.5

Confidence: High

Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (10-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)

I don’t normally lock games in this early in the week and this is especially risky given the NFL’s COVID protocols, but neither of these teams has any significant questionable players according to the early practice report and like the Raiders enough as 6-point underdogs that I want to take the risk and lock it in early because sharp action is likely to drop this line throughout the week (it started at 6.5 yesterday). At first glance, the Bengals might seem like an obvious choice, as they beat the Raiders by 19 in Las Vegas earlier this season and, despite their identical records, the Bengals also have a significant edge in point differential at 84 vs -65, with the Raiders going 7-2 in one-score games, including 4-0 in overtime. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

While the Bengals may have won by a score of 32-13 in the first matchup, the Raiders outgained the Bengals by 1.80 yards per play. The reason for that is the same problems the Raiders had for much of the season, as they lost the turnover battle by one and performed poorly on third down on both sides of the ball, allowing the Bengals to convert 8 of 16, while converting just 1 of 7. On the season, the Raiders have the 27th ranked turnover margin in the league at -9, while ranking 22nd in third down conversion percentage and 15th in third down conversion percentage allowed, which is in large part to blame for their 23rd ranked point differential.

Fortunately for the Raiders, turnover margin is not predictive week-to-week, nor is underperforming on third downs, which the Raiders are, as they actually rank 15th on offense and 8th on defense in schedule adjusted efficiency, a metric based on yards per play and first down rate differential, much more predictive metrics week-to-week. The Bengals, meanwhile, rank just 16th on offense, 20th on defense, and 18th in mixed efficiency, behind the 9th ranked Raiders. 

This game is in Cincinnati, but homefield advantage is only worth a couple points at most now and could actually work against the Bengals for spread purposes, as home favorites are 6-16 ATS since 2002 when making their first career playoff start, which Joe Burrow is. Even if they don’t win this game outright, the Raiders should keep this game close and my calculated line has the Bengals as just 2.5-point favorites. I would still like the Raiders at +5.5, but I want to lock in 6 before I can’t anymore.

Cincinnati Bengals 24 Las Vegas Raiders 23

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas +6

Confidence: High

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Cleveland Browns (7-9)

This could have been an exciting divisional matchup between two young quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow, but the Bengals pulled the upset on the Chiefs last week, clinching the division and eliminating the Browns from playoff contention even before the Browns’ eventual loss in Pittsburgh, and, with the Browns season over, quarterback Baker Mayfield has been shut down for the season with his myriad of injuries, while the Bengals will also be without quarterback Joe Burrow, as he is being rested with a knee injury, with the Bengals’ chances of climbing into a top-2 seed in the AFC are minimal.

Burrow will be joined on the sidelines by feature back Joe Mixon, who is in COVID protocols, while a trio of talented starters, safety Vonn Bell, starting left guard Quinton Spain, and defensive end Trey Hendrickson, are also in COVID protocols. On top of that, interior defender DJ Reader could be rested with an injury to get 100% for the Bengals’ playoff game next week and, overall, it doesn’t seem like the Bengals are trying that hard to win this game, leading to the Browns becoming 6-point favorites.

It’s possible some of the aforementioned players could play and it’s unclear what would happen with the line if that happened, but the Browns also might not be trying too hard to win this game, which could become important, as most of their secondary (cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Troy Hill and Greedy Williams and safeties John Johnson and Ronnie Harrison) are legitimately questionable and could be held out of a meaningless game when they might otherwise play. 

If the Browns’ secondary plays and the Bengals’ questionable players don’t, we are getting line value with the Browns at -6, as my calculated line would be Cleveland -9 in that scenario, but depending on who plays for the Bengals and who is out for the Browns, that line could drop as low as Cleveland -3.5, so I can’t be confident at all in either side. I am taking the Browns for now, but that could easily change, as could this line.

Cleveland Browns 20 Cincinnati Bengals 13

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -6

Confidence: None