The 2017 Bengals got off to about as bad of an offensive start to the season as you can have, not scoring a single offensive touchdown in their first 2 games of the season. They faced a pair of tough defenses, Baltimore and Houston, but that was obviously not the way they wanted to start the season and, as a result, they fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor.
The Bengals were better offensively under Lazor, who previously was the offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins from 2014-2016, but they were only better by default. The Bengals finished 22nd in first down rate at 32.15%, which isn’t terrible, but they also had tied for the fewest first downs (267) and they had the fewest plays run (927), so they weren’t exactly stringing together a lot of long drives. As a result, their defense had to play the most snaps in the league at 1,091 and was on the field for a league leading 32:51 per game.
Quarterback Andy Dalton’s numbers were not good either, as he had the lowest completion percentage (59.9%) and YPA (6.69) since his rookie season in 2011. He did throw for 25 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, but the Bengals only had 6 rushing touchdowns, so his touchdown total was more the result of the Bengals being pass heavy in the red zone, rather than Dalton actually regularly leading this offense on scoring drives.
Dalton didn’t actually play all that badly though, as he finished 16th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, tied for the 2nd highest rank of his career (he finished 8th in 2015). Largely a league average starting quarterback throughout his career, Dalton’s numbers have fluctuated from year-to-year, but that’s primarily because of how the talent around him on offense has changed. Last year was arguably the worst supporting cast he’s ever had around him. If his supporting cast is better in 2018, that will show on his stat sheet.
The most important improvements the Bengals had to make on offense this off-season were on the offensive line, which was one of the worst in the league last season. The 40 sacks they allowed isn’t terrible (13th most in the NFL), but that was largely because of Dalton’s quick release, as he got the ball out in 2.38 seconds on average, 3rd fastest in the NFL. They ranked 22nd in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus and 26th in term run blocking grade.
Dalton has been a significantly worse quarterback when pressured in his career, perhaps more so than any quarterback in the league, completing just 43.6% of his passes for an average of 6.49 YPA when pressured and 67.4% of his passes for an average of 7.37 YPA with a clean pocket. In 2015, when this Bengals’ offense was at its peak, they had one of the best offensive lines in the league, but just one starter remains from that 2015 line and their replacements did not fare well in 2017.
Fortunately, the Bengals understood how important improving their offensive line was this off-season and did a solid job upgrading it. Their biggest weakness was left tackle, where Cedric Ogbuehi finished 75th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles in 13 starts last season on the always important blindside last season. This was not a good off-season to need a left tackle, as both the draft and free agency lacked capable left tackle options, but the Bengals got creative and traded for Cordy Glenn from the Bills.
Glenn was limited to 16 games between 2016 and 2017 due to foot and ankle injuries and he was not cheap, as he has a 11.25 million dollar salary for 2018 and the Bengals swapped the 12th pick for the 21st pick to acquire him (the equivalent of giving up a late 2nd round pick), but he’ll be worth it if he can return to form. Glenn was a top-25 offensive tackle in 4 straight seasons from 2013 to 2016 and finished 8th at his position in his last full season in 2015. Only in his age 29 season, he should theoretically be in the prime of his career and he was probably the best left tackle option the Bengals could acquire this off-season.
With Glenn coming in, Ogbuehi is moving to right tackle, where he’ll compete for the starting job with fellow 4th year lineman Jake Fisher. Ogbuehi and Fisher went in the 1st and 2nd round respectively in 2015, so both still have upside, but their careers have not gotten off to great starts. Ogbuehi played just 68 snaps as a rookie, before struggling mightily at right tackle in 2016 (64th out of 76 eligible) and then at left tackle last season. Fisher, meanwhile, has made just 11 starts in 3 seasons in the league (including 7 at right tackle last season), but he has struggled mightily when on the field. The Bengals are holding out hope that one of these players can develop into a capable starter, but this could easily remain a position of weakness in 2018.
The Bengals also used their 21st overall pick an offensive lineman, taking Ohio State center Billy Price. Between Price and Glenn, the Bengals were able to get two starting offensive linemen out of their first round pick. Price could have been a top-15 pick, but tore his pectoral at the combine, which may have knocked him down a few spots on teams’ boards. He’s expected to be healthy for training camp though and projects as a week 1 starter with the upside to be one of the better starting centers in the league in a few years. He also played guard in college, but it appears the Bengals prefer him at center, where he played as a senior. He’ll be an upgrade on last year’s starter Russell Bodine (now with the Bills), who finished 32nd out of 38 eligible centers on PFF.
Left guard Clint Boling was their only starting offensive lineman to earn a positive grade from PFF in 2017 and he’s also the only starter left over from their dominant 2015 offensive line. Boling finished as PFF’s 13th ranked guard, a career best, although he did struggle mightily in 2 starts down the stretch at left tackle. A 4th round pick in 2011, Boling has made 90 of 96 starts in 6 seasons since becoming the starter in 2012 and has earned a positive grade from PFF in 5 of 6 seasons. As long as he stays at left guard all season, Boling should be an above average starter again.
Trey Hopkins will likely remain the starter at right guard, though he’s not nearly as good of a player as Boling. An undrafted free agent in 2014, Hopkins had just 10 career offensive snaps prior to last season, but he made 12 starts, only missing the other 4 due to injury. He was not bad in pass protection, but finished 66th out of 80 eligible guards in the run game and got a negative grade overall. His main competition this off-season will come from 2016 5th round pick Christian Westerman, but he struggled at left guard in the first 2 starts of his career last year. Right guard should remain a position of weakness either way. The Bengals are much improved on this offensive line, but still have some holes and could be in big trouble if Cordy Glenn doesn’t stay healthy and return to form.
The Bengals offensive line issues were foreseeable, after the Bengals lost Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler in free agency and didn’t replace either. What was not foreseeable were the issues the Bengals had at the skill position spots, including in the receiving corps. The Bengals used their first 2 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft on wide receiver John Ross (9th overall) and running back Joe Mixon and they had running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert coming back from injury and a returning receiving corps that included Pro-Bowler AJ Green, experienced veteran Brandon LaFell, and 2016 2nd round pick Tyler Boyd.
Despite that, the Bengals had just one pass catcher earn an above average grade from Pro Football Focus. AJ Green was more or less his usual self, though his numbers were not quite what you’d expect him him. Over his career, he’s averaged a slash line of 87/1288/9 per 16 games, so his 75/1082/8 slash line in 16 games in 2017 was a noticeable dip. That can mostly be attributed to the lack of talent around him. Not only did the offense struggle to stay on the field, but the lack of other receiving threats around him meant Green saw constant double teams. He was targeted on 28.4% of the Bengals’ pass attempts last season, but caught just 51.7% of them and was the target on 7 of Dalton’s 12 interceptions.
He still finished as PFF’s 17th ranked wide receiver, his 6th straight season in the top-21 at his position. His best seasons have come in 2012 (9th) and 2015 (6th). His age is becoming a slight concern in his age 30 season, but he’s missed just 10 games with injury in 7 seasons in the league and should continue being a #1 caliber receiver for another couple years at the very least. They just need players to step up around him. He was their only receiver to top 548 receiving yards in 2017.
Brandon LaFell actually led this receiving corps with 860 snaps. He’s been a capable starter in the past and has 85 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s coming off of a terrible season, finishing 113th out of 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF, and may be at the end of his line, going into his age 32 season. He posted a mediocre 52/548/3 slash line on 88 targets and averaged just 1.04 yards per route run on 528 routes. He’s unlikely to get much better at this stage of his career. The Bengals are hoping one of their young receivers can step up and take a big chunk of LaFell’s playing time. The only reason he’s still on the roster at a non-guaranteed 4 million dollar salary is because of the uncertainty behind him on the depth chart. He’s not a roster lock if other guys impress this off-season.
John Ross has the upside to be an above average starter long-term, but he didn’t catch a pass as a rookie and fumbled on the only touch he received all season (a 12 yard carry). Injuries and underwhelming practices limited him to just 17 offensive snaps in 3 games. It’s about as bad as a rookie year can go, especially since he came into the league with durability concerns. He has blazing speed (combine record 4.22 40) and a high upside as a deep threat, but is undersized at 5-11 188 and is a complete unknown going into his 2nd season in the league. At the very least, he should give them more than he gave them as a rookie, but they need him to be a starter by the end of the season.
Tyler Boyd also dealt with a injury in 2017, missing time with a knee injury, but he was also a healthy scratch on occasion and had disciplinary problems with the coaching staff. He played in just 10 games total. Boyd doesn’t have the upside than Ross does, but he hasn’t looked bad when on the field and has played in 60.2% of the snaps in 26 career games. Only in his age 24 season, Boyd could develop into a capable receiver in 2018 if he stays healthy and out of trouble.
The Bengals also have two other young receivers who saw playing time last season, 2017 4th round pick Josh Malone (247 snaps) and 2016 undrafted free agent Alex Erickson (185 snaps), but both were pretty underwhelming. This receiving corps is so wide open that they could earn roles with strong off-seasons if other guys disappoint, but I wouldn’t expect much from either. Malone has the higher upside of the two, hence why he went in the 4th round, while Erickson is best as a return man. 7th round rookie Auden Tate has also drawn rave reviews in practice this off-season, but we’ve yet to see him do it in pads. The Bengals should get more out of their young wide receivers in 2018, but they need a consistent second option to step up opposite AJ Green.
The Bengals should also get more out of their tight ends, though that mostly depends on the health of Tyler Eifert. A first round pick in 2013, Eifert has played in just 24 in the past 4 seasons since his rookie year, due to a variety of injuries (elbow, neck, ankle, knee, back). He’s scored 18 times in those 24 games and finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked tight end in his one healthy season in 2015, when he caught 52 passes for 615 yards and 13 touchdowns in just 13 games, but he’s played just 10 games total in 2 seasons since. He’s still relatively young, going into his age 29 season, but he’s rehabbing from his second back surgery and is not considered a lock for training camp. He should give them more than last season when he played just 2 games, but it’s unclear if he’ll ever be healthy enough to live up to his potential.
In Eifert’s absence, Tyler Kroft led Cincinnati tight ends with 825 snaps, 9th most at his position. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Kroft was a capable backup tight end on about a third of the snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, but was overstretched in a larger role, finishing 64th among 72 eligible tight ends. He had a 42/404/7 slash line on 381 routes run, an average of just 1.06 yards per route. He’d be best as a #2 tight end, but that can only really happen if Eifert is healthy. Outside of Eifert and Kroft, the Bengals’ tight ends had just 12 catches in 2017. CJ Uzomah, a 5th round pick in 2015, is a capable blocker, but that’s about it. Despite that, they didn’t add any help at the position this off-season. They should get more out of Eifert, but how much more is a big question. There’s upside in this receiving corps, but questions all around.
The Bengals also struggled to run the ball in 2017, though that was mostly the fault of the offensive line, which should be better this season. Joe Mixon was the lead back and averaged just 3.52 yards per carry on 178 carries, but 2.34 yards per carry came after contact, as he showed an impressive ability to fight for extra yards. He earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus, despite the underwhelming statistical performance. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Mixon had the talent to go in the top-10 if not for off-the-field concerns and still has a huge upside, only turning 22 this summer. If the offensive line is better, he could have a breakout statistical year.
Mixon is not their only capable running back, as Giovani Bernard is also a former 2nd round pick (2013) and has earned positive grades in all 5 seasons in the league. Bernard actually averaged a significantly higher YPC than Mixon, averaging 4.36 yards per carry on 105 carries, but that was largely because he was mostly running in obvious passing situations when the defense was in sub packages. He also had a lower carry success rate than Mixon (41% vs. 40%). He should continue taking some playing time away from Mixon, but, if Mixon gets going, the Bengals will likely ready the hot hand.
Bernard actually played more snaps than Mixon last season because he got the majority of the passing down work. He finished 3rd on the team with 43 catches and has averaged 46 catches per season in his career. Mixon was not bad as a receiver either, catching 30 passes for 287 yards, and could easily see more passing game work in his 2nd season in the league, but Bernard will likely remain their preferred passing down back. The Bengals also used a 4th round pick on the University of Miami’s Mark Walton, but he doesn’t fill an obvious need and likely won’t play a big role as a rookie. He’s a versatile back though and can push either Mixon or Bernard for playing time if they struggle. This is a deep running back group.
Despite constantly being on the field as a result of an ineffective offense, the Bengals’ defense was actually pretty solid last season, finishing 10th in first down rate allowed at 32.81%, despite playing a league leading 1,091 snaps. As a result, the Bengals actually finished middle of the pack in first down rate differential, finishing 17th at -0.67%. Their 7-9 record in 2017 was not bad all things considered and, if they improve on offense and continue playing well on defense, they should definitely compete for a playoff spot in the weak AFC.
Their defensive line was a big part of their success defensively last season. Every down linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap lead the way upfront once again, as they have for years. A defensive tackle and defensive end selected in the 4th and 2nd round respectively in 2010, Atkins and Dunlap combined for 16.5 sacks and 24 quarterback hits in 2017 and have a total of 125.5 sacks and 196 hits in 8 seasons with the Bengals. They also are both above average run stuffers. They’re an inside/outside terror on the defensive line.
Atkins tore his ACL in 2013 and was quite not the same player when he returned in 2014, but, outside of those 2 seasons, he’s finished in the top-5 at his position in 5 straight seasons. Even including those two seasons and his rookie year, he’s earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons in the league. He’s also never missed a game with injury aside from the ACL tear. Dunlap, meanwhile, has also been incredibly durable and consistent, playing in all 80 games in the last 5 seasons and finishing in the top-19 among 4-3 defensive ends in all 5 seasons, including 17th in 2017. His top level isn’t as good as Atkins, but he’s still a talented edge player nonetheless.
Age is becoming a bit of a concern, as Atkins is in his age 30 season and Dunlap is in his age 29 season, and they’re also both going into the final year of their contracts and are due significant raises (they’re owed 9.55 million and 7.3 million respectively in 2018), but they should continue playing at a high level in 2018 and the Bengals are reportedly hoping to have both extended long-term before the start of the season. Both could push for 14-15+ million annually.
Even with two defensive linemen playing every down, the Bengals still like to rotate defensive linemen. Michael Johnson finished 3rd on this defensive line in snaps with 685, playing 425 outside and 260 inside (including 182 of 364 pass rush snaps). The veteran defensive end was coming off of 3 straight poor seasons, but moving him around the line seemed to help him, as he finished as about an average starter. He was dominant in a contract year in 2012 and then on the franchise tag in 2013, finishing 13th and 3rd respectively among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF, but he hasn’t been nearly as good as that since and is now going into his age 31 season. He may continue being a capable rotational defensive lineman, but he’ll almost definitely have a smaller role in 2018 and is not considered a roster lock at a non-guaranteed 5 million dollar salary.
The reason for that is because the Bengals have a trio of young defensive ends behind him on the depth chart that will push Johnson for snaps. Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson were added in the 3rd and 4th round respectively in 2017 and then they used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard. Both Willis and Lawson proved to be steals, as both flashed a lot of upside in limited action as a rookie.
Willis primarily played on run plays as a rookie (212 of 360 snaps), but he played the run well and also added a sack and 10 hurries on 143 pass rush snaps. He’s expected to play more of an every down role in his 2nd season in the league, though he’s still a projection to a larger role. Lawson, on the other hand, is a pure pass rush specialist, playing just 72 run snaps and rushing the passer 389 times, 3rd most on the team. He totaled 8.5 sacks, 11 hits, and 38 hurries, though he did struggle mightily against the run. He’ll likely remain a pass rush specialist and could easily have another strong season in that role. Hubbard, meanwhile, can line up inside and outside and could be a replacement for free agent departure Chris Smith (223 snaps inside, 178 snaps outside last season). Smith finished 53rd out of 64 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season, so it wouldn’t be hard for Hubbard to be an upgrade. Johnson will need a good off-season to stay on the roster, given all of the competition he faces for playing time.
At defensive tackle, Geno Atkins was the only every down player the Bengals had last season, but they added veteran Chris Baker this off-season to give them another potential every down option. The 6-2 320 pounder looks like a pure run stuffer, but gets more pass rush than you’d think. A late bloomer, Baker broke out as an every down player with the Redskins in 2015 and 2016, after the 2009 undrafted free agent played sparingly to begin his career. He finished 11th and 6th among 3-4 defensive ends in those 2 seasons respectively, totaling 10.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits between the two seasons.
That earned him a 3-year, 15.75 million dollar deal from the Buccaneers, but he had work ethic issues in Tampa Bay and was limited to 455 underwhelming snaps in one season before being let go this off-season, owed 4.875 million non-guaranteed. The Bengals are getting him on a one-year deal worth 3 million with just 300K guaranteed and it’s a worthwhile flyer if he’s motivated. His age is a concern, going into his age 31 season, but he could easily be an upgrade at the other defensive tackle spot. He’s reportedly in much better shape.
Ryan Glasgow and Andrew Billings were 2nd and 3rd on the Bengals among defensive tackles in snaps played with 412 and 334 respectively last season, but both were underwhelming and were purely base package players. Glasgow was a decent run stuffer, but was useless as a pass rusher. He didn’t touch the quarterback on 176 pass rush snaps. Billings, meanwhile, was not good in either aspect, finishing 75th among 79 eligible defensive tackles. They were recent 4th round picks (Glasgow in 2017, Billings in 2016) playing the first action of their career, so they could get better going forward, but Baker is an obvious upgrade on both if he plays up to his potential. They also used a 5th round pick on defensive tackle Andrew Brown, but it’s unclear if he’s going to have a role as a rookie on an overall deep defensive line.
The one big concern on this defense is every down linebacker Vontaze Burfict being suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs. When on the field, Burfict is a true game changing linebacker. That was evident last season, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 31.99% rate in the 10 games Burfict played last season (which would have been 8th in the NFL), as opposed to 34.26% in the 6 games he missed (which would have been 19th in the NFL). He’s been a top-6 4-3 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the past 5 seasons, but, between multiple suspensions and injury, he’s been limited to just 36 games in the past 4 seasons and he’ll play a maximum of 12 games in 2018. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, Burfict needs to stay out of trouble going forward.
With Burfict limited to 10 games last season, Nick Vigil and Vincent Rey led this linebacking corps in snaps with 759 and 607 respectively, but both struggled, finishing 86th and 66th out of 90 eligible linebackers. With Burfict’s pending suspension, the Bengals actively sought linebacker help this off-season, signing ex-Bill Preston Brown to a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal and using their 3rd round pick on Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson. It’ll be an open competition for snaps, especially with Burfict out.
Brown’s salary suggests he’ll be a starter. The 2014 3rd round pick started 62 of 64 games in 4 seasons with the Bills, but he was overall a below average starter. He was an average starter as a rookie, but struggled in the next 3 seasons, with his worst play coming in 2015, when he finished dead last out of 60 eligible middle linebackers. Last season, he finished 41st out of 52 eligible. He was understandably greeted by a cold free agency market.
Vincent Rey started at middle linebacker last season and the veteran could end up back there if Brown continues to struggle, but Rey struggled last season there and is more of a starting candidate at the other outside linebacker spot. The 8-year veteran has been a useful depth linebacker because of his versatility, but he’s only earned positive grades from PFF in 2 of the past 6 seasons and is now going into his age 31 season. He’s best as a two-down run stuffer at this stage of his career. At the very least, he should see playing time early in the season with Burfict out.
Rey’s biggest competition for the other outside linebacker job is Nick Vigil. Vigil played 94.6% of the snaps in 11 games last season, but figures to have a smaller role in a deeper linebacking corps once Burfict returns. The 2016 3rd round pick struggled mightily last season, but could be better in a smaller role in his 3rd season in the league. If not, Rey provides them good insurance. Malik Jefferson could also earn a role down the stretch in an unsettled linebacking corps. He’s a freak athlete, but he’s a boom or bust prospect that needs to get more physical. Burfict is their only true every down linebacker and he’s out for the first 4 games of the season.
The Bengals also have a strong secondary, lead by a trio of recent first round picks. The Bengals used the 17th pick in 2012 on Dre Kirkpatrick, the 24th pick in 2014 on Darqueze Dennard, and the 24th pick in 2016 on William Jackson. Jackson looks like he’s going to end up being the best of the three, as he finished 7th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his first full season of action last season, after missing his entire rookie year with torn pectoral.
He allowed just 15 completions and no touchdowns on 43 targets (34.9%) and 0.38 yards per route run on 396 routes (best in the NFL), with an interception and 10 pass deflections. He’s inexperienced, as even last season he still only played 65.6% of the snaps and made 5 starts in 15 games, but he has the look of a future #1 cornerback and should be able to earn a starting role in 2018. Kirkpatrick and Dennard were the starters in 2017 (868 snaps and 899 snaps respectively), but Jackson outplayed both.
Dennard was their best slot cornerback in 2017, playing 357 of 566 coverage snaps there, allowing just 0.88 yards per snap, and finishing with a positive grade overall on PFF, but Jackson could cut into his outside snaps and make him more of a slot specialist in 2018, which is also the final year of his rookie deal. He made just 4 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league, buried on the depth chart in a more veteran secondary, but he flashed in limited action in those seasons and fared well in his first season of significant action in 2017.
Kirkpatrick also did not see significant playing time until his 4th season in the league, as he made just 5 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2012-2014. Unlike Dennard, he struggled in limited action early in his career and was even worse in his first season as a starter in 2015, finishing 116th out of 118 eligible cornerbacks and committing 14 penalties. He’s finished closer to the middle of the pack in the last two seasons, but has never earned a positive grade for a season from PFF in 6 seasons in the league and has 31 penalties in 3 seasons as a starter. The Bengals bizarrely re-signed him to a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. He should remain a starter, but he’s the 3rd best cornerback on the team and he’s unlikely to be better in his 7th season in the league.
Starters George Iloka and Shawn Williams return at safety. Iloka has been a little better than an average starter in 5 seasons (76 starts), with his best season coming in 2014 when he finished as PFF’s 11th ranked safety. The 2012 5th round pick is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and should continue playing well. He’s also been very durable, missing just 4 games in the past 5 seasons. Williams, meanwhile, is coming off of a season in which he was limited to 579 snaps in 11 games by an elbow injury. In his absence, converted cornerback Josh Shaw played 449 snaps and finished 87th out of 89 eligible safeties.
A 2013 3rd round pick, Williams has made 30 starts in the past 3 seasons and has been about an average starter, so having him healthy for a full season should be a little bit of a boost for this secondary. They also added Wake Forest safety Jessie Bates in the 2nd round of the draft. He gives them needed insurance at the position, but was a bit of a surprising selection with both Iloka and Williams signed through 2020 on team friendly deals. This is a deep and talented secondary.
The Bengals should be improved both on the offensive line and at the skill positions in 2018, while their defense still has a strong defensive line and secondary. Their defense may struggle to begin the season without linebacker Vontaze Burfict, but they have top-10 talent on paper. If the offense can even be average, this team should be able to compete for a playoff spot in the weak AFC. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.
Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC North