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.

Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in AFC North

Team Score: 73.80 (20th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 73.33

Defensive Score: 74.26

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (6-9) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-6-1)

After narrowly escaping in Jacksonville week 11, the Steelers improved to 7-2-1 and looked to be in control of the AFC North, but they’ve lost 4 of 5 games since then and now need help to get into the post-season. Part of that is the schedule, as they’ve had to face the Chargers, Patriots, and Saints over that 5-game stretch, but they’ve also lost to the Broncos and Raiders and also nearly lost that game to the Jaguars, beating them by just 4 points on a last minute touchdown after being down double digits in the 4th quarter. On the season, the Steelers have just two wins that would cover this 15-point spread and they have just four such wins since week 5 of last season, with two of them coming at home on Thursday night against an unprepared opponent. They’ve frequently played down to the level of their competition.

The Steelers should be completely focused this week though, in a game they need to win to have a shot at the playoffs, and the Bengals are one of the worst teams in the league right now due to all of their injuries. That being said, I still think this line is a little high at 15. The Steelers have some key injuries as well, with Antonio Brown at less than 100% with a knee injury he suffered mid-week and with starting middle linebacker Vince Williams expected to be out. There’s not nearly enough here to be confident in Cincinnati, but they have a good shot at keeping it within two touchdowns.

Pittsburgh Steelers 27 Cincinnati Bengals 13

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +15

Confidence: None

Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (6-8) at Cleveland Browns (6-7-1)

It’s weird seeing the Browns as big favorites. Originally this line opened up at Cleveland -7, which didn’t make much sense. That line suggested the Browns are 4 points better than the Bengals on a neutral field, but when these two teams met earlier this year in Cincinnati, this was an even line, suggesting the Browns were 3 points better than the Bengals at the time. Given that the Bengals have lost starting quarterback Andy Dalton and were blown out in their previous matchup with the Browns, I would have expected the odds makers to have a bigger gap between these two teams this time around, but maybe they’re just not used to having the Browns favored by more than a touchdown, given that the last time that happened was 2010.

Unfortunately, Cleveland -7 disappeared pretty quickly, as heavy action came in on the Browns quickly and caused the oddsmakers to adjust. Now the Browns are favored by 9 points, most they’ve been favored by in a game since they were favored by 11.5 points against the 49ers in week 17 of the 2007 season. Even at Cleveland -9, I think this line is a little short, as I have the Browns calculated as 11-point favorites in this game.

That might sound crazy since it’s the Browns, but they’ve been playing legitimately good football since getting rid of Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, going 4-2. Led by rookies Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb, their offense has moved the chains at a 41.59% rate in 6 games without Jackson and Haley, as opposed to 30.25% in 7 games prior. To put that in perspective, 41.59% would rank 5th in the NFL on the season, right behind the Rams, while 30.25% would rank 29th on the season, right behind the Jaguars. The Browns’ defense has also been better in recent weeks since getting linebacker Joe Schobert back from injury. Now they get top cornerback Denzel Ward back from a two game absence with a concussion and are close to full strength on both sides of the ball.

The Bengals, on the other hand, are going in the opposite direction and are nowhere close to full strength. I already mentioned they’re without their starting quarterback, but they’re also without their top-2 wide receivers AJ Green and Tyler Boyd and, even before losing those two, their offense hasn’t been the same since losing top tight end Tyler Eifert early in the season. They have a decent offensive line and running back Joe Mixon has been running well, but they really lack skill position talent on offense.

That’s a huge problem for the Bengals because their defense has been horrible all season, ranking 29th in first down rate allowed at 39.50%. They’re getting healthier, with every down linebacker Vontaze Burfict set to return this week from a 2-game absence, but he has struggled when on the field this season, so it’s unclear how much of a boost that really is. We’re not getting enough line value with the Browns for them to be worth betting, but I would expect them to win this game with relative ease, given the talent gap between these two teams right now.

Cleveland Browns 24 Cincinnati Bengals 13

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -9

Confidence: Low

Oakland Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Oakland Raiders (3-10) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-8)

Both of these teams exceeded expectations as big underdogs last week, the Bengals in a 26-21 loss in Los Angeles to the Chargers and the Raiders with a 24-21 home upset win over the Steelers. Both teams caught their opponents in a bad spot, with the Steelers playing the Patriots next and the Chargers having to turn around and face the Chiefs in Kansas City on a short week, and were able to cover with ease as a result.

Because the Raiders actually won last week, they’re in a bit of a bad spot this week, as teams tend to have a hangover effect after a home win as big underdogs, going 70-93 ATS over the past 30 years after a home win as underdogs of 6 or more. The Raiders’ win also shifted this line from Cincinnati -4.5 down to Cincinnati -3, so we’ve lost line value with the Raiders as well. However, I still think we’re getting a little bit of line value with the visitors, as this line suggests these two teams are about even and I have the Raiders slightly higher in my roster rankings.

The Bengals got off to a great start at 4-1, but have lost 7 of their last 8 as injuries have piled up. Without quarterback Andy Dalton, #1 wide receiver AJ Green, and #1 tight end Tyler Eifert on offense and without every down linebacker Vontaze Burfict and stud pass rush specialist Carl Lawson on defense, this is far from the same team they were early in the season and, on paper, they are one of the worst teams in the league. The Raiders at least have competent quarterback play and Derek Carr has looked better in recent weeks as he’s seemed to settle into Gruden’s system a little more. This is a no confidence pick with a bad team in a tough spot, but the Raiders are my pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Cincinnati Bengals 26 Oakland Raiders 24

Pick against the spread: Oakland +3

Confidence: None

Cincinnati Bengals at Los Angeles Chargers: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (5-7) at Los Angeles Chargers (9-3)

The Chargers have an easy opponent this week, facing a Bengals team that has lost 6 of their last 7 and that is incredibly banged up on both sides of the ball, with starting quarterback Andy Dalton, #1 wide receiver AJ Green, starting tight end Tyler Eifert, starting left tackle Cordy Glenn, key edge rusher Carl Lawson, every down linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and starting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick all on the sidelines with various injuries. However, despite the easy opponent, the Chargers are in a very tough spot, having to play their biggest game of the season in 4 days on Thursday Night Football against the Kansas City Chiefs, a game that could easily decide the AFC West.

Favorites typically struggle before a short week anyway, going 55-73 ATS since 2012, but that should especially be the case in this one, as I can’t imagine the Chargers aren’t spending some time on the Chiefs this week, with such an easy opponent in front of them this week. On the other side, the Bengals are distraction free, with only a home game against the Raiders on deck. Favorites are just 55-92 ATS since 2014 before being underdogs when their opponent will next be favorites. On top of that, favorites of 10+ are just 63-80 ATS since 2002 before being underdogs.

That being said, I can’t be confident in the Bengals at all, given the talent disparity between these two teams. The Chargers are one of the better teams in the league and I have them calculated as 16-point favorites in this one, so we’re actually getting a little bit of line value with them as only 14-point favorites. I’m taking the Bengals for pick ‘em purposes because I expect the Chargers to be flat and not give their best effort, but even still the Chargers could win this game by multiple scores.

Los Angeles Chargers 23 Cincinnati Bengals 10

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +14

Confidence: None

Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (5-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-6)

The Bengals got off to a solid start to the season, but they’ve had terrible injury luck and are now one of the worst teams in the league with backup Jeff Driskel, a 2016 6th round pick, making his first career start this week. It’s a shame Dalton went down because he was one of the bright spots for this team and they were just starting to get healthier around him, with top receiver AJ Green, every down linebacker Nick Vigil, and starting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick returning to the lineup this week, after their other every down linebacker Vontaze Burfict returned last week. If Dalton were healthy, this team might have enough to compete for a playoff spot, as Dalton could mask some of their flaws, but they’re in serious trouble without him.

Struggling left tackle Cordy Glenn is the only regular starter actually listed on the injury report this week, but Dalton also joins a sizeable list of key players on injured reserve, including talented edge rusher Carl Lawson, starting defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow, swing tackle Jake Fisher, and their top-2 tight ends Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft. Making matters even tougher for the Bengals, they’ve faced the 2nd toughest schedule in the NFL this season, with their opponents having a combined 56% winning percentage, and their schedule doesn’t get much easier this week.

The Broncos are only 5-6, the same as the Bengals, but the Bengals are 1-5 since a 4-1 start, while the Broncos rank 10th in first down rate differential at +2.22%, despite being the only team to face a tougher schedule than the Bengals (58%). They’ve lost just 2 games by more than a touchdown, with 4 of their losses coming by a combined 16 points to the Texans, Rams, and Chiefs (twice), who are a combined 27-6.

The Broncos have lost key parts of their offense as the season has gone along, with right guard Ron Leary and center Matt Paradis both out for the season and starting wide receiver Demaryius Thomas traded to the Broncos, but quarterback Case Keenum is playing his best football of the season right now and the same is true for this team on defense. We’re not getting much line value with the Broncos at -5.5 and the Broncos haven’t exactly been blowing teams out, with just one of their wins coming by more than a touchdown, but the Bengals are the easiest team they’ve faced in weeks. There’s not enough here to bet the Broncos, but they should be the right side.

Denver Broncos 24 Cincinnati Bengals 16

Pick against the spread: Denver -5.5

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: 2018 Week 12 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (3-6-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-5)

Earlier in the week, I was considering betting the Bengals in this one. They have not played as well in recent weeks as they did earlier in the season due to injuries, but it looked like there would be a chance they’d get both #1 receiver AJ Green and every down linebacker Nick Vigil back from injury this week, after getting Vontaze Burfict back last week. Instead, both Green and Vigil are expected to be out again and the Bengals could also be without left tackle Cordy Glenn and starting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who both missed practice on Friday.

Given that, I’m actually going to take the Browns, who have been better offensively since getting rid of Hue Jackson and Todd Haley and who are much better defensively with linebacker Joe Schobert back from injury. Schobert missed about 3 and a half games with injury, but made his presence known in his first game back, as the Browns pulled the upset over the Falcons in their last game prior to the bye. In the 6 games Schobert has started and finished this season, they have allowed a first down rate of 32.59%, as opposed to 46.69% in their other 4 games.

That’s not all him, but he’s playing at a legitimately All-Pro level this season, ranking 2nd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, so his presence in the lineup is much more important than casual bettors realize. There’s not enough line value with the Browns as 3-point underdogs to take them with any confidence and I’m concerned that the Bengals will have an advantage with Hue Jackson joining their staff immediately after being fired by the Browns, but the Browns are my pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Final Update: Both Glenn and Kirkpatrick are out for the Bengals and heavy sharp action on the Browns has pushed this line all the way down to even. With Glenn and Kirkpatrick out, I have this line calculated at Cincinnati -1.5, so we’re now getting a little bit of line value with the hosts. This is still a no confidence pick though.

Cincinnati Bengals 20 Cleveland Browns 19

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati PK

Confidence: None