Cincinnati Bengals 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into the 2019 season, few had high expectations for the Bengals, but not many expected them to be terrible either, as they had never won fewer than 6 games in Andy Dalton’s 8 seasons as a starter. Instead, the Bengals finished with the worst record in the NFL at 2-14 and received the #1 overall pick as a result. The Bengals picked a good year to be bad as this draft class not only contained Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who had a sensational season in 2018 and was seen as the consensus #1 pick going in 2019, but also LSU’s Joe Burrow, who took over as the consensus #1 overall pick following an outstanding senior season and an injury to Tagovailoa.

Burrow not only won the Heisman and the National Championship with an undefeated 15-0 team, but he also broke the NCAA’s single season record for passing touchdowns and the SEC’s single season record for passing yards and he has all the tools to translate to the next level. That being said, it’s worth noting he is a bit of a one-year wonder. Unlike Tagovailoa, who had multiple high level years as a starter in the SEC, Burrow was up and down in his junior year in 2018 and was seen by most as a late round pick by this point last year. Burrow is also older than Tagovailoa (age 24 as a rookie vs. age 22) and might not have as high of a ceiling overall. That being said, considering Tagovailoa’s medical situation, it’s hard to fault the Bengals for taking Burrow, although time will tell if that proves to be the correct decision.

Even though the Bengals had the worst record in the league last season, you can definitely argue they weren’t terrible, as a lot of the problem was bad luck, or good luck depending on how you view getting the #1 pick and adding Burrow. Of their 14 losses, 8 were decided by 8 points or fewer, while both of their wins came by 10 points or more, even though they had the 3rd worst turnover margin in the league at -14. In terms of first down rate differential, the Bengals ranked 24th at -3.47%, certainly not good, but certainly not at the worst in the league either.

The Bengals likely would have finished even higher had they not benched Dalton for 4th round rookie Ryan Finley for 3 weeks, as Finley was horrendous in his 3 starts, completing 47.1% of his passes for an average of 5.45 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. The Bengals had a pathetic 28.18% first down rate in Finley’s 3 starts, as opposed to 33.18% in Dalton’s 13 starts. It was understandable that the Bengals would want to go to Finley though, as they wanted to give the rookie a shot in a lost season, and the Bengals arguably would not have ended up with the #1 pick had they not started Finley for a stretch, as, even with Finley starting, two of those losses came by 7 points or fewer.

As soon as Dalton took back the starting job for the final 5 weeks of the season, the Bengals got their first win of the season and finished with a 2-3 stretch in which they actually had a positive first down rate differential at +1.81%, though an easy schedule during that stretch partially was a factor. Still, it’s good to see the Bengals end the season on a positive note, especially since they didn’t cost themselves draft position in the process, and it’s safe to say that Burrow is walking into a better situation than most #1 overall picks do in terms of existing talent on the roster, as they were far from the worst team in the league last season.

Burrow’s entrance officially closed the book on the Andy Dalton era, as Dalton was released ahead of a 17.7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and ultimately signed with the Cowboys as a backup this off-season. During Dalton’s 9 seasons as the starter (133 starts), the Bengals were consistently respectable on the field until the end, but never won a playoff game. In his final season, he completed 59.5% of his passes for an average of 6.61 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions while earning Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked quarterback grade out of 39 qualifiers, making it arguably the worst season of his career. Given that, Burrow won’t have a steep bar to pass, even as a rookie, though he’ll certainly have some rookie growing pains. With only Finley behind him on the depth chart as a mediocre backup, this is completely Burrow’s job before he’s thrown his first pass.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The way the Bengals finished last season is even more impressive because of all the injuries they suffered, particularly on offense, where they had the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season. It wasn’t just that they lost a lot of players, but they also lost some of their most important players, most especially #1 wide receiver AJ Green, who missed the entire season with an ankle injury. Missing his long-time top receiver, it’s not a surprise Dalton had arguably the worst season of his career in 2019.

Green wanted to leave Cincinnati in free agency this off-season, to pursue a significant salary guarantee with a contender, with time running out on his career, going into his age 32 season and coming off of a significant injury. Green also missed 6 games in 2016 and 7 games in 2018, meaning he’s been limited to 35 games over the past 4 seasons, so he’s hardly a sure thing at his age, but the Bengals still wouldn’t let him leave, keeping around for at least another year on the franchise tag, in order to ease Burrow’s transition into the NFL.

Green can’t be happy about how the situation has turned out, especially with the Bengals in no hurry to give him the long-term guarantees he wants, but his only other option is to threaten to sit out the season to force a trade, which would be a tough move for him to pull off, given that he already missed all of last season and would undoubtedly hurt himself financially sitting out another year at his age. Green has averaged a 87/1284/9 slash line per 16 games in his career, including 85/1251/8 per 16 games over his recent injury plagued seasons, so he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank at the least even if he’s not in his prime form, but he’s a big question mark at this point and his best days are likely behind him.

Fortunately, the Bengals are pretty deep in the receiving corps. Tyler Boyd and John Ross both earned above average grades on Pro Football Focus in Green’s absence last season, though Ross was limited to 8 games by injury, while Auden Tate and Alex Erickson were about average on 647 snaps and 615 snaps respectively. They got even deeper this off-season when they used the 33rd overall pick on Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins. Even in a deep group with Green and Ross returning, Higgins figures to compete for a role in 3-wide receiver sets immediately.

Tyler Boyd was the #1 receiver last year with Green out, leading the team with a 90/1046/5 slash line and he’ll be more of a 1b to Green’s 1a than a true #2 receiver in 2020. That was the case the last time Green played in 2018, when Boyd finished with a 76/1028/7 slash line. Boyd seems to produce better with Green in the lineup, on pace for a 98/1240/10 slash line through 16 games in 2018 before Green got hurt, though I wouldn’t expect him to keep up that pace in 2020 on a passing offense with more options. Still, Boyd is a talented secondary passing option who can be a #1 for stretches. The 2016 2nd round pick’s career got off to a shaky start, but after back-to-back 1000+ yard years, he’s still only in his age 26 season. He still has several years left in his prime and looks like the long-term #1 whenever Green eventually is not around.

Ross was on pace for a 1000+ yard season last year if he had stayed healthy all season, with a 28/506/3 slash line in 8 games, but he wasn’t particularly consistent, as he topped 45 receiving yards in a game just three times. A bust as the 9th overall pick in 2017, Ross barely contributed in his first 2 seasons in the league (0.56 yards per route run on 377 routes), largely due to other injuries, and he has just 4 games with more than 45 receiving yards for his entire career. 

The Bengals seem to be underwhelmed, despite his flashes of brilliance, not only adding Higgins, but declining Ross’ 5th year option for 2021, which would have guaranteed him 15.68 million for injury, a big risk considering his inability to stay healthy thus far. Ross still has upside, not even 25 until November, and he could earn himself a lot of money with a big year in what is now a contract year, but he could also easily get hurt again or find himself on the bench behind Higgins by season’s end. Higgins’ arrival also likely means that Auden Tate and Alex Erickson will be stuck in reserve roles, despite faring alright in the first significant action of their careers in 2019. Tate, a 2018 7th round pick, in particular seems to have good long-term potential, even if he doesn’t see the field much this season.

The Bengals lost long-time tight end Tyler Eifert in free agency this off-season, as he took a 2-year, 9.5 million dollar deal in Jacksonville. Eifert was a former first round pick and had some moments of being among the top tight ends in the league earlier in his career, but he was limited to 43 games due to injury from 2013-2018 and, though he played in all 16 games for the first time in 2019, all of those injuries seemed to have taken their toll on him, as he was nothing more than a snap eater and had an underwhelming 43/436/3 slash line.

That line still led all Bengals tight ends, however, and the Bengals didn’t do anything to replace him. Instead, they’ll likely be expecting more out of Drew Sample, who played just 108 snaps and caught just 5 passes as a 2nd round rookie last year. Sample is primarily a blocking tight end, however, managing just 46 catches in his entire collegiate career. He may have some untapped upside as a receiver, but I wouldn’t expect him to ever be a big factor in the passing game, so it’s strange the Bengals drafted him where they did. 

Veteran CJ Uzomah will likely be the primary pass catching tight end. He had a decent 43/439/3 slash line in 2018, but was limited to 27/242/2 in 2019. Even his meager production in 2019 was the 2nd best year of his career and he’s earned mediocre grades from PFF throughout his career as well. He’ll have a bigger pass game role in 2020 with Eifert gone, but I don’t expect the tight end position to be used that much in this offense, given that they are way deeper at wide receiver.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Bengals also had injury problems on the offensive line, which made things even worse for a group that wasn’t very good to begin with. First round pick Jonah Williams, who was expected to start at one of the two tackle spots, got hurt early in the off-season and missed the whole season. Cordy Glenn, who became locked in at left tackle when Williams got hurt, was limited to 291 snaps in 6 games, unsurprisingly coinciding with the Bengals’ best offensive stretch of the year at the end of the season. Aside from Glenn, the other 9 offensive linemen who played a snap for the Bengals all earned a below average grade from Pro Football Focus.

Glenn was let go this off-season, owed 9.5 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season in 2020, after several injury plagued years, and the Bengals didn’t make any significant additions upfront either, so, while they get Jonah Williams back, this offensive line should still have a lot of problems this season. Williams himself is a question mark as well, expected to line up on the blindside at left tackle, despite having never played a snap in the NFL. Even if he has significant growing pains, he could be the Bengals’ best offensive lineman by default.

Center Trey Hopkins was probably their 2nd best offensive lineman, even though he finished just 24th out of 35 qualifying centers on PFF. Hopkins was given a 3-year, 20.4 million dollar extension last season, suggesting they view him as the starter long-term. Hopkins has just 37 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, with 16 of those coming last season, and he has been pretty underwhelming overall, but he should be locked in to his starting job going into 2020.

Billy Price was drafted 21st overall in 2018 to be the Bengals’ starting center long-term, but he was limited to 558 snaps by injury as a rookie, finished 35th out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF, and eventually lost his starting job to his former backup Hopkins after an injury plagued off-season last off-season. Price played both center and guard in college and ended up seeing 586 snaps at guard in 2019, but he fared even worse there than he did at center, finishing 86th out of 89 qualifying guards on PFF. Now going into his 3rd season in the league, Price may still have some untapped potential, but, with Hopkins locked in at center, he’ll have to compete for one of the starting jobs at guard and may find himself on the bench, at least to begin the season.

At left guard, Price’s primary competition will be 2019 4th round pick Michael Jordan. As a rookie last season, Jordan didn’t fare much better than Price did, finishing 84th out of 89 qualifying guards, but he got better as the season went on and the Bengals still like his long-term upside, still only going into his age 22 season. He’s not a lock to ever develop into a consistent starter and even if he does it might not be in 2020, but it would be hard for him to be worse than he and Price were at left guard last season.

At right guard, veteran Xavier Su’a-Filo is Price’s primary competition and I would guess Price’s best shot to get into the starting lineup would be at right guard, where veteran John Miller was underwhelming as the primary starter last season (13 games) and is no longer on the team. Su’a-Filo signed with the Bengals for 9 million over 3 years this off-season, more in line with being a backup than a starter, and, while he’s a former 2nd round pick (2014) who made 31 starts for the Texans from 2016-2017, he was pretty underwhelming in those starts and has been a reserve and spot starter in his other 4 seasons in the league (22 starts total). Regardless of who ends up starting, guard figures to be a significant position of weakness again in 2020.

Right tackle Bobby Hart is also locked into a starting job, even though he’s not particularly good either. A 7th round pick in 2015, Hart has somehow made 53 career starts, including all 16 last season, but he’s finished below average on PFF in all 4 seasons as a starter, including 70th out of 89 qualifiers in 2019. Without any real competition for his job, Hart is locked in as a starter on what should be among the worst offensive lines in the league again this season.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

Despite poor blocking in front of him, lead back Joe Mixon had a solid season, rushing for 1,137 yards and 5 touchdowns on 278 carries (4.09 YPC). Mixon got most of those yards himself, rushing for 3.15 yards per carry after contact and the 6th most rushing yards after contact in the league with 877. That is more or less on par with how he’s fared in 3 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2017. Despite routinely underwhelming blocking in front of him, he’s rushed for 2,934 yards and 20 touchdowns on 692 carries (4.24 YPC) in his career, with 2.84 YPC coming after first contact. Overall, he’s been a top-17 running back on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons and, still only going into his age 24 season, he could keep getting better in 2020.

The one area where Mixon isn’t particularly useful is in the passing game, with 108 catches in 44 career games with an average of just 6.49 yards per target. It’s not that he’s a bad pass catcher, but given that he gets most of the Bengals’ carries and that he needs rest from time-to-time, Mixon frequently comes off the field in passing situations for veteran back Giovani Bernard. Bernard has 295 catches in 99 career games in 7 seasons in the league and has matched the 108 catches that Mixon has over the past three seasons. 

In the past, Bernard has been a useful pace of change back as well, averaging 4.19 YPC over his first 4 seasons, but he’s seen his carries per game drop from 10.6 to 4.9 since the addition of Mixon 3 years ago and he averaged a career worst 3.21 YPC on a career low 53 carries last season. Bernard may have a little left in the tank in his age 29 season, but he shouldn’t see more than a few carries and a few check downs per game. This is Mixon’s backfield, as he’s been consistently one of the better backs in his three years in the league, despite his young age.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

While the Bengals’ offense struggled last season, their defense was actually pretty solid overall, finishing 18th in first down rate allowed at 35.78%. It was really a tale of two seasons though, as they ranked 7th with a 32.03% first down rate allowed in the final 7 weeks of the season, after ranking 27th at 38.78% first down rate allowed through week 10. The biggest difference was the play of edge defender Carlos Dunlap. 

Dunlap got off to an underwhelming start in his first 5 games, was limited to 68 snaps due to injury in the next 4 games, but then finished the season on a tear, earning Pro Football Focus’ #1 edge defender grade in the final 7 games of the season. Over that stretch, he had 8 sacks, 10 hits, and a ridiculous 16.2% pressure rate, while also earning PFF’s highest run defense grade by an edge defender to boot. Despite his slow start, Dunlap still finished as PFF’s 4th ranked edge defender on the season thanks to his late season tear, and he finished with a 13.2% pressure rate and the position’s 2nd highest grade against the run.

Playing at a high level is nothing new for Dunlap, as he’s finished in the top-35 among edge defenders in 9 straight seasons on PFF. Over that stretch, he has totalled 72 sacks, 146 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate, while consistently playing above average against the run. His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, so he might not repeat one of the better years of his career again in 2020, but he has shown few signs of slowing down and he’s also been remarkably durable throughout his career. The 739 snaps he was “limited” to by injury last season still ranked 28th in the NFL among edge defenders, even though they were Dunlap’s fewest in a season since 2012. Last season was also the first time he had missed a game since 2012. Dunlap may slow down a little bit in 2020, but he should remain one of the better all-around edge defenders in the league, especially if he’s healthy all season.

With Dunlap a little banged up early in the season, fellow starting edge defender Sam Hubbard actually led Bengals edge defenders in snaps last season with 852. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Hubbard was solid on 508 rookie year snaps and carried that over to a larger role last season. He was mostly a snap eater, but he held up against the run, added 8.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 11.9% pressure rate, and still has room to get better, only going into his age 24 season. A breakout 3rd season in the league is not out of the question and he should remain at least a solid starter.

The Bengals’ depth was solid at the position too. Fourth defensive end Arthur Brown was pretty underwhelming in the first action of the 2018 5th round pick’s career last season, but he barely had a role, playing just 241 snaps, 110 of which came in the two games Dunlap missed, and he could be a little better in 2020. On top of that, third defensive end Carl Lawson is an effective situational edge rusher, even if he has a lot of trouble against the run. 

A 4th round pick in 2017, Lawson has totalled 14.5 sacks, 35 hits, and a 14.1% pressure rate in 3 seasons in the league in a part-time role (33.1 snaps per game). A torn ACL ended his 2018 season after 7 games and he didn’t seem to be quite the same player while limited to 12 games in 2019, but, only going into his age 25 season, Lawson definitely has bounce back potential, now another year removed from the injury. He, Dunlap, and Hubbard should be able to effectively rush the passer consistently and Dunlap and Hubbard are good run stuffers in base packages as well.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Bengals have been notorious in recent years for not spending significant money on outside free agents, opting instead to build through the draft and use their cap space to re-sign their own guys. That can be a viable strategy if you are consistently nailing your drafts and need the financial flexibility to keep the guys you’ve developed, but the Bengals have not drafted particularly well in recent years and they consistently have barely spent over the league minimum, suggesting their decision to sit out free agency was more financial than an actual team building strategy.

That changed this off-season, as the Bengals handed out four significant contracts to outside free agents, all on the defensive side of the ball. The best addition was ex-Texans nose tackle DJ Reader, who comes over on a 4-year, 53 million dollar deal. Reader is primarily a big run stuffer at 6-3 347, but has rare three down ability for his size, with a 8.4% pressure rate for his career and an average of 40.7 snaps per game over the past 2 seasons. 

Reader is also still only going into his age 26 season and is coming off of the best season of his career, excelling against the run, totalling 2.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate, and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked interior defender overall. Reader might not be quite as good in 2020, but he has plenty of years of his prime yet and could remain one of the better players at his position for the duration of his 4-year deal. He was a smart addition for a team that needed to replace free agent departure Andrew Billings, who gave them solid play on 657 snaps last season. Reader should play a similar role and be an upgrade.

He’ll pair with long-time Bengal Geno Atkins to make one of the best defensive tackle duos in the NFL. Along with Dunlap, Atkins has played at a high level on this line for years, finishing in the top-5 among interior defenders on PFF in 5 of his 9 years as a starter (133 starts). His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 32 season, possibly part of why they made the big investment in Reader, and he’s finished “just” 22nd and 21st among interior defenders over the past 2 seasons respectively, but he should remain at least an above average starter for another couple seasons.

Josh Tupou was the top reserve defensive tackle last season with 465 snaps, but he’ll likely have to compete for that role with Ryan Glasgow, who returns after being limited to 118 snaps in 5 games by a thigh injury and a torn ACL. Glasgow also tore that same ACL in 2018, limiting him to 92 snaps in 3 games, so he’s a big question mark and will have to earn his way back into the rotation. A 4th round pick in 2017, Glasgow has flashed against the run in limited action thus far in his career (622 snaps), but he’s still highly unproven and coming off back-to-back serious injuries. Tupou, a 2017 undrafted free agent, flashed against the run in the first significant action of his career last season and earned an above average grade overall, so Glasgow isn’t a lock to get his job back even if healthy and may have to settle for deep reserve snaps. Glasgow and Tupou are solid depth behind one of the best defensive tackle duos in the NFL.

Grade: A

Linebackers

While the Bengals had a solid defensive line last season, one that gets significantly better with the addition of Reader, their linebackers were arguably the worst in the league. With Nick Vigil (985 snaps) and Preston Brown (410 snaps) hitting free agency this off-season, the Bengals had a great opportunity to upgrade this group, but they didn’t do much of significance, signing veteran journeyman Josh Bynes and using a 3rd round (Logan Wilson), a 4th round, (Akeem Davis-Gaither), and a 7th round pick Markus Bailey on linebackers. Bailey is unlikely to see a significant defensive role as a rookie, but the other three will compete for roles with holdovers Germaine Pratt and Jordan Evans.

Pratt probably has the best shot to secure a role and could play every down. He wasn’t particularly good on 437 rookie year snaps, finishing 77th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but he could be better in his 2nd season in the league and the Bengals are still high on his upside, so it’s hard to see him not being a significant contributor in a thin position group. Evans, meanwhile, was limited to 76 snaps last season and struggled mightily in the first 2 seasons of his career in 2017 and 2018 on a combined 822 snaps. A former 6th round pick, he’s far from a guarantee to ever develop into a capable starter, but he’ll still get a shot in this group.

Bynes may be a journeyman, now changing teams with the 4th time in 10 seasons in the league, and he only signed on a one-year, 1.65 million dollar deal, but he could prove to be a steal if he plays like he has in the past two seasons. In the first 7 seasons of his career, Bynes was primarily a special teamer and backup, making 29 total starts and exceeding 456 snaps in a season just once, but he always showed well against the run and he had a bit of a late breakout year in 2018 with the Cardinals after developing some coverage abilities as well, finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked off ball linebacker overall on 726 snaps. 

That wasn’t enough to land him a starting job going into the 2019 season, but the Ravens signed him as a situational run stuffer and he excelled in that role, finishing as PFF’s 9th ranked off ball linebacker overall on 391 snaps. His arrival also coincided with a drastic improvement in play on defense by the Ravens, though there were other reasons for the improvement beyond Bynes’ addition. Now going into his age 31 season, Bynes might not be able to keep this level of play up, but he could easily be a valuable base package player, though he’d likely be overmatched in an every down role. With mid round rookies legitimately competing for roles, this is a very underwhelming group.

Grade: C

Secondary

The biggest investments the Bengals made this off-season were all in the secondary, signing ex-Vikings cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander to deals worth 42 million over 3 years and 4 million over 1 year respectively and signing ex-Saint Vonn Bell to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Waynes replaces starting outside cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, while Alexander replaces slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Kirkpatrick and Dennard were limited to 334 snaps and 495 snaps respectively last season due to injury, forcing underwhelming backup BW Webb into 834 snaps. This off-season, the Bengals have cleaned house, including Webb, and will start Waynes and Alexander in 3 cornerback sets with William Jackson.

Jackson had injury problems of his own last season, only missing the final 2 games of the season, but playing through a shoulder injury all season that clearly affected his play. A first round pick in 2016, Jackson missed his whole rookie year with a torn pectoral, but finished in the top-28 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2017 and 2018, allowing 47.3% completion over that stretch. In 2019, he fell all the way to 111st out of 135 qualifiers and allowed 60.9% completion on the season. Injuries have consistently been a problem throughout his career, and, since he was an older rookie, he’s already going into his age 28 season, so he’ll have a shorter prime than most, but he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2020.

Outside opposite Jackson, Waynes will start, as he did 44 times over the past 3 seasons with the Vikings. A first round pick in 2015, Waynes didn’t quite live up to expectations, barely playing in his first 2 seasons (776 snaps) and then putting up consistently middling grades in 3 seasons as a starter. The Bengals are paying him like he’s more than that, giving him the 7th highest annual salary of any cornerback in football, but, already going into his age 28 season, he’s unlikely to get much better at this point. He should remain a capable starter, but I wouldn’t expect more.

Alexander also comes over from the Vikings, where he was also a high pick, going 54th overall in 2016. Like Waynes, Alexander hardly played early in his career, playing 391 snaps total in 2016 and 2017, but he’s played 564 snaps and 534 snaps over the past 2 seasons as the Vikings’ primary slot receiver and he has earned above average grades from PFF in both seasons. Alexander will likely be a pure slot cornerback in Cincinnati, but he has the ability to play outside in a pinch if needed as well.

At safety, Vonn Bell is likely a replacement for incumbent Shawn Williams. Williams has started 57 games over the past 4 seasons and was generally a solid starter, but he fell to 89th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF last season, prompting the Bengals to search for an upgrade in free agency this off-season. Bell is definitely an upgrade against the run, as he’s finished in the top-5 among safeties on PFF in run stopping grade in 3 of his 4 seasons in the league (45 career starts), but he’s also consistently struggled in coverage. Bell is only going into his age 26 season and the former 2nd round pick may still have some untapped potential in coverage, but he’s definitely a box safety first and foremost, which is why he’s likely replacing Williams rather than the other incumbent starter Jessie Bates, who is a deep coverage safety.

Bates finished just 76th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF last season, but the 2018 2nd round pick was much better as a rookie (12th among safeties) and most of his issues last season were against the run, as he held up in deep coverage, but missed a league leading 23 tackles. As a rookie, he still wasn’t great against the run, but he only missed a modest 14 tackles and allowed just a 59.9 QB rating into his coverage, allowing 19 completions for 2 touchdowns and picking off 3 passes with another 4 broken up. Bates also got a lot better as his 2019 season went on, with PFF’s 19th highest grade among safeties in week 10 and later, part of why this defense turned around down the stretch. Only going into his age 23 season, Bates still has a ton of long-term upside and could easily have a strong third season in the league.

With BW Webb no longer on the team, after ranking 102nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on 834 snaps as an injury replacement last season, third year cornerback Darius Phillips is expected to take over as the fourth corner. A 5th round selection in 2018, Phillips has primarily played on special teams thus far in his career and he was underwhelming on 232 rookie year snaps, but he showed a lot more promise on 108 snaps last season. Despite his limited playing time, he intercepted 4 passes, including 2 in the season finale against the Browns, and broke up another 3 passes. 

Phillips is still very inexperienced and he’s a projection to a larger role, but he has a lot of upside from the #4 cornerback spot and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Bengals had to turn to him in case of an injury to one of their top guys. The Bengals also have good depth at safety with Shawn Williams as the 3rd safety. They could frequently use 3 safety sets in sub packages to mask their lack of depth at linebacker with both Bell (5-11 205) and Shawn Williams (6-0 212) capable of playing linebacker in passing situations. This is a deep secondary and one with a lot of upside if William Jackson and Jessie Bates can have bounce back years after down 2019 seasons.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Bengals had the worst record in the league last season, but they have more talent than most teams coming off of a 2-14 season, as most of their losses were close, especially down the stretch when their defense played at a high level. That defense now adds DJ Reader in free agency and should get bounce back years from defensive backs William Jackson and Jessie Bates. Outside of a terrible linebacking corps, they have as much talent as some of the best defenses in the league.

The addition of Joe Burrow atop the draft is also huge for them long-term, even if he isn’t necessarily going to be a huge upgrade on Dalton right away. Burrow will likely be under siege frequently behind a horrible offensive line that will hold the whole offense back, but the Bengals have plenty of skill position talent and should be better on offense than they were last season, at the very least. The Bengals are unlikely to compete for a playoff spot, but they were competitive in most of their games last season and should be able to at least win a few more of the close ones this season. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 69.81

Defensive Score: 75.20

Total Score: 72.51 (4th in AFC North)

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (6-9) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-14)

The Bengals have just one win this season, but they’ve been much more competitive than their record suggests. Of their losses, 8 of them have come by one score or less and they rank 26th in the NFL in first down rate differential at -3.98%, which obviously isn’t great, but far from the worst in the league. They’ve been killed by turnovers, tied with the Chargers for the worst turnover margin in the league at -16, but turnovers are highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so the Bengals aren’t necessarily going to lose the turnover battle in this matchup just because they’ve struggled with them all season.

The Bengals have also played better in recent weeks since getting left tackle Cordy Glenn back from injury and switching back to veteran quarterback Andy Dalton, rather than hapless rookie Ryan Finley. Over the past 4 weeks, the Bengals actually have a positive first down rate differential at +1.19%. The Browns, meanwhile, have gone in the opposite direction, as their defense has completely fallen off since losing stud defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Myles Garrett. Over the past 4 games, the Browns rank 29th in the NFL with a -7.76% first down rate differential, primarily due to a defense that ranks dead last in the NFL with a 44.36% first down rate allowed over that stretch.  

Even though the Bengals have been the better team in recent weeks, this line still favors the Browns by a field goal on the road. The Browns won their matchup against the Bengals a few weeks ago, but that Bengals actually won the first down rate in that game by 2.35%, with the 8-point game largely swinging on a long interception return touchdown by the Browns. That first matchup was in Cleveland and, now back home Cincinnati, the Bengals have a great chance to win outright. Getting field goal protection is just a bonus. This is my Pick of the Week.

Cincinnati Bengals 24 Cleveland Browns 20 Upset Pick +135

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Cincinnati Bengals at Miami Dolphins: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (1-13) at Miami Dolphins (3-11)

Both of these teams have had miserable seasons, with a combined 4 wins between the two teams. The Bengals only have one win, but they’ve been a more competitive team than the Dolphins, with just 6 double digit losses, compared to 9 for the Dolphins, and a point differential of -148, compared to -194 for the Dolphins. In terms of first down rate differential, the Bengals hold the edge at -3.91% to -7.19%. That’s despite the fact that the Bengals have faced a significantly tougher schedule, with a 57% opponents combined winning percentage, as compared to 47% for the Dolphins. 

The Dolphins have been better in games started by veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, rather than young quarterback Josh Rosen, with a 4.47% better first down rate in Fitzpatrick’s 11 starts as compared to Rosen’s 3 starts, but the Bengals have also been better in games started by veteran Andy Dalton, rather than young quarterback Ryan Finley, with a 4.41% better first down rate in Dalton’s 11 starts as compared to Finley’s 3 starts. The Bengals have also benefited from the return of left tackle Cordy Glenn in recent weeks and overall actually rank 24th in my roster rankings, while the Dolphins rank dead last. 

With that in mind, we’re getting good line value with the Bengals as just 1-point road favorites, as I have this line calculated at Cincinnati -4. The Bengals are also in a better spot. This isn’t a particularly meaningful game for either team other than being a relatively easy opportunity to pick up a rare win, but the Dolphins could completely look past the Bengals with a trip to New England on deck, while the Bengals have a much easier game on deck at home against the Browns. The Dolphins will almost definitely be double digit underdogs next week and teams are are just 33-64 ATS since 2008 before being double digit divisional underdogs. I thought about making this my Pick of the Week, but couldn’t bring myself to make arguably the most meaningless game of the week my top pick. I do like the Bengals a lot this week though.

Cincinnati Bengals 24 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati -1

Confidence: High

New England Patriots at Cincinnati Bengals: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (10-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-12)

The Patriots have typically been a good bet to bounce back after a loss, going 51-28 ATS off of a loss in the Bill Belichick era and not losing three in a row since 2002. They enter this game on a two-game losing streak, after losing to the Texans and Chiefs, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a good bet this week as 10-point road favorites in Cincinnati. They’re actually just 8-14 ATS off of a loss in the Belichick era when favored by 7 points or more and they’ve had some struggles on the road in general in the past couple years.

The Bengals are also a much more competitive team than their 1-12 record suggests. They’re a significantly better offense with Andy Dalton under center rather than Ryan Finley, with a 32.67% first down rate in Dalton’s 10 starts and a 28.18% first down rate in Finley’s 3 starts. The return of Cordy Glenn from injury 3 weeks ago also helped this offense. Meanwhile on defense, they actually rank 14th in first down rate allowed on the season at 35.66% and 7th since week 7 at 32.80%, as they’ve gotten healthier in recent weeks.

Seven of their 12 losses have come by 8 points or fewer, despite playing the 5th toughest schedule in the NFL, so I wouldn’t assume the Patriots are just going to come into Cincinnati and blow them out. It’s pretty unlikely that the Bengals will give the Patriots their first 3-game losing streak in nearly two decades, but this game could be closer than expected. I wouldn’t recommend betting on it, but the Bengals seem like the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Final Update: Cornerback Jason McCourty is out for the Patriots despite practicing throughout the week, while Darqueze Dennard is playing for the Bengals despite missing Friday’s practice with injury. Despite that, this line has moved up to 10.5 in most places. I wouldn’t recommend a bet on the Bengals, but this should be a closer game than most expect.

New England Patriots 24 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +10.5

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (1-11) at Cleveland Browns (5-7)

The Browns’ season might have ended last week, with their loss in Pittsburgh dropping them to 5-7 on the year. A tough schedule has been part of the problem, as they have the highest opponents winning percentage in the NFL at 62%, but this team has also been overrated from the start because they lack depth on the roster beyond their stars. Running back Nick Chubb, wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, left guard Joel Bitonio, center JC Tretter, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, defensive ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, linebacker Joe Schobert, and cornerback Denzel Ward are all among the best in the league at their respective positions, but this is a very top heavy roster.

With linebacker Christian Kirksey out for the season, the Browns have gotten horrible play from their linebackers other than Schobert. Their defensive line depth is horrendous and now with Myles Garrett suspended and Olivier Vernon hurt they arguably have the worst defensive line in the NFL. Things aren’t much better on the offensive line, where they’ve had problems everywhere except left guard and center. Kareem Hunt has given them a third weapon in the passing game since returning from suspension and they’re expected to get tight end David Njoku back from injury this week as well, but they’re also without starting safety Morgan Burnett for the season on the other side of the ball, which is a big loss. All in all, I have the Browns ranked just 23rd in my roster rankings without Garrett, Vernon, or Burnett. 

Despite their loss last week, the Browns remain overrated, favored by a touchdown at home against a Bengals team that is better than their record suggests. Of the Bengals’ 11 losses, 6 of them have come by a touchdown or less and that’s despite the fact that they’ve had the 3rd toughest schedule in the NFL (57% opponents winning percentage) and despite the fact that they’ve benched quarterback Andy Dalton for overmatched 4th round rookie Ryan Finley for 3 games. 

On the season, the Bengals rank 27th in first down rate differential at -4.59%, led by a defense that is actually middle of the pack, ranking 16th with a 35.60% first down rate allowed. Their defense has been even better in recent weeks, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed since week 7. Their offense has been a problem, but they’ve been about 3% better in first down rate with Dalton under center vs. Finley and they got left tackle Cordy Glenn back from injury a few weeks ago as well, which is a big help.

I have the Bengals 27th in my roster rankings about a point and a half behind the Browns. My calculated line is Cleveland -4, so we’re getting enough line value with Cincinnati +7 to justify betting on that, even with the Bengals in a tough spot before a home game against the Patriots (teams are 30-58 ATS since 2014 before being 7+ point home underdogs). Even in a tough spot, this should be another close game for the Bengals, who should be focused for a division rival.

Cleveland Browns 20 Cincinnati Bengals 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +7

Confidence: Medium

New York Jets at Cincinnati Bengals: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

New York Jets (4-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-11)

The Bengals still have yet to win a game, but that actually makes them a good bet, as winless teams tend to be undervalued, overlooked, and desperate for their first win. In the past 30 years, winless teams are 57-32 ATS in week 9 or later. The Bengals have been in good some betting spots in recent weeks, facing a Ravens team that was in a sandwich game between matchups with the Patriots and Texans, then facing a Raiders team that was favored by 13 despite not winning a game by more than 8 all season, and then facing a Steelers team that was sandwiched between two emotional rivalry games with the Browns and that was missing its top running back and its top wide receiver. 

Despite those good spots, it’s been hard to be excited about betting on them with backup quarterback Ryan Finley under center, so I only made a small wager on them against the Raiders and then stayed off of them against the Ravens and Steelers. A fourth round rookie, Finley’s insertion into the starting lineup was not made to help this team to win games, but to evaluate the rookie in a lost season, before deciding whether or not to use their upcoming high draft pick on another quarterback. Incumbent quarterback Andy Dalton was having the worst statistical season of his career before being benched, but he also had easily the worst supporting cast of his career and was not the reason this team wasn’t winning games. 

Finley, who looked overmatched in the pre-season, continued that into the regular season, completing 47.1% of his passes for an average of 5.45 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, giving him a QB rating 17 points lower than Dalton. Finley also led this offense to a 3.73% lower first down rate than Dalton. After three starts, it seems the Bengals have seen all they need to see from Finley, as they’ve announced they’re going back to Dalton. 

With Dalton back under center, the Bengals become much more bettable. Despite their record and Finley’s horrendous play for 3 games, the Bengals don’t have the worst first down rate in the league, ranking 30th in the NFL at -6.01%. Of their 11 losses, 6 of them have come by 7 points or fewer, even including two of their three games with Finley under center (the exception was the Ravens, who haven’t played a close game against anyone in a couple months). That’s despite the fact that the Bengals have faced the toughest schedule in the NFL by DVOA. 

The Bengals are also relatively healthier now than they were earlier this season, with left tackle Cordy Glenn, defensive end Carlos Dunlap, defensive end Carl Lawson, and cornerback Darqueze Dennard all having missed significant time with injury earlier in the year. Even with Dalton re-inserted back into the starting lineup, this line has stayed put at Jets -3.5, the same line as last week on the early line. Part of that could be because the Jets blew out the Raiders last week, but even after that blowout victory this line opened at -4 before it was announced that Dalton would be starting, after which this line shifted just a half point. With Dalton under center, I have this line calculated at even, so we’re getting good line value with the Bengals as 3.5 point underdogs.

The Jets had an impressive performance last week against the Raiders, but that actually doesn’t bode well for their chances of covering this week, as teams tend to struggle after a blowout home victory as underdogs. Teams are just 27-52 ATS since 2002 after 17+ point win as home underdogs. After such a huge home victory, the Jets might not be totally focused for a winless opponent. If that happens, the Bengals could definitely pull the upset and get their first win of the season. The Bengals are my Pick of the Week at +3.5 (which I locked in earlier this week) and are still worth a bet at +3.

Cincinnati Bengals 19 New York Jets 17 Upset Pick +155

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +3.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-10)

The Bengals are six games away from becoming the third team all-time to lose every game in a 16-game season. Ordinarily, winless teams tend to be good bets this late in the season, going 56-32 ATS in week 9 or later in the past 30 seasons, as they tend to be overlooked, undervalued, and hungry for a win. The Bengals have faced the toughest schedule in the league by DVOA and 5 of their 10 losses have come by 7 points or fewer. That being said, it’s hard to get excited about betting on the Bengals with fourth round rookie Ryan Finley under center.

When the Bengals benched Andy Dalton for Finley, it was not a move the Bengals made to give themselves a better chance of winning in 2019. In a lost season, it was all about giving Finley a chance before deciding whether or not to use their upcoming high draft pick on another quarterback. Dalton had the worst quarterback rating of his career before being benched, but he also had by far the worst supporting cast of his career. Even in a down statistical year for Dalton, his QB rating is 26.4 points higher than Finley’s and his YPA is 2.1 yards higher.

Even still, we’re getting some line value with the Bengals, as the Steelers are missing their top-2 offensive skill position players, running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers have a solid defense, ranking 10th in first down rate allowed, but they haven’t been as good as they’ve appeared, as they’ve been overly reliant on takeaways (26, 2nd in the NFL), which are unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. The Steelers are also in a tough spot, with this game sandwiched between last week’s emotional rivalry game against the Browns and next week’s rematch. They might not bring their best effort for a 0-10 Bengals team. I wouldn’t bet on the Bengals, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Pittsburgh Steelers 22 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +6.5

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Oakland Raiders: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-9) at Oakland Raiders (5-4)

The Raiders are 5-4, but they haven’t played as well as that suggests. While their 5 wins have come by a combined 27 points, their 4 losses have come by a combined 59 points, giving them a -32 point differential that ranks 24th in the NFL. Their offense has played pretty well, ranking 12th in the NFL in first down rate at 37.43%, but their have the worst first down rate allowed at 41.81% and rank just 27th in first down rate differential at -4.38%. They rank a little higher in my roster rankings, coming in 20th, and they’ve faced a tough schedule (3rd in opponents DVOA), but any way you look at it the Raiders haven’t been as good as their record suggests.

The Bengals have also faced a tough schedule (1st in opponents DVOA) and, while they haven’t won a game, they haven’t necessarily been the worst team in the league this season. Despite their tough schedule, four of their nine losses have come by 6 points or fewer and they rank 29th in first down rate differential at -7.03%, obviously not good, but not the worst in the league. Winless teams tend to be good bets this late in the season anyway, going 55-32 ATS since 1989 in week 9 or later, as they tend to be overlooked and undervalued.

If Andy Dalton was still starting for the Bengals, they’d be an obvious bet as 11.5-point underdogs against a Raiders team that hasn’t won by more than 8 points all season, but we’re not getting enough line value to bet them confidently with fourth round rookie Ryan Finley under center. Dalton’s statistical production had been the worst of his career, but he also had the worst supporting cast of his career around him. Benching him was more about the Bengals wanting to evaluate Finley in an otherwise lost season than it was about Dalton’s performance and, while that may be the right move long-term, with the opportunity to draft a franchise quarterback atop the draft in reach, it doesn’t help them cover this spread, as Finley is an unprepared backup caliber talent with a horrendous supporting cast. I have this line calculated at Cincinnati +10, so the Bengals are still the pick for pick ‘em purposes, but there’s not enough here to bet the Bengals confidently. 

Sunday Update: This line has moved all the way up to 13, a massive jump from the early line last week, which had Oakland favored by 8. The Raiders haven’t won more by more than a touchdown all season and winless teams like the Bengals tend to be good bets this late in the season, so the Bengals are worth a small bet at +13.

Oakland Raiders 27 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +13

Confidence: Medium

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals: 2019 Week 10 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (6-2) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-8)

If the Bengals hadn’t benched Andy Dalton, I would have been excited about betting them this week as double digit home underdogs against the Ravens. The Ravens got a huge win at home over the Patriots last week, but that actually works against their chances of covering this week, as teams are just 27-52 ATS since 2002 after 17+ point win as home underdogs. The last instance was the Titans falling flat 38-10 in Indianapolis a week after pulling a huge home upset over the Patriots. The Ravens played last week like it was their Super Bowl and will likely have a tough time getting up for a winless Bengals team, especially with another big game on deck against the Texans. Winless teams tend to be good bets this late in the season anyway, going 55-31 ATS in week 9 or later over the past 30 seasons, as winless teams tend to be undervalued and highly motivated to get their first win.

On top of that, as impressive as their win last week was, the Ravens have also won 3 games by a combined 15 points against 3 teams who are now a combined 7-17 (including a mere 6-point home victory over these Bengals) and they lost at home by 15 to a now 2-6 Browns team. If the Ravens don’t bring their a-game, this could easily be a close matchup. The Bengals are still missing AJ Green, but are healthier coming out of their bye than they’ve been for most of the season, with players like left tackle Cordy Glenn, defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson, and cornerbacks William Jackson and Darqueze Dennard all expected to play after missing varying amounts of time in the first half of the season.

Unfortunately, I can’t recommend a bet now that Dalton has been benched. Dalton’s statistical production has been arguably the worst of his career this season, but he’s also had the worst supporting cast he’s ever had around him. He was far from the problem for this winless team and benching him for 4th round rookie Ryan Finley is not a move the Bengals made to give themselves a better chance to win games this season. In a lost season, this is all about evaluating for the future, with the chance at drafting a franchise quarterback atop the draft very much in reach. The Bengals are still the pick for pick ‘em purposes, but I have this line calculated at Baltimore -10 with Finley under center, so we’re not getting enough points to bet the Bengals confidently.

Update: Glenn is still out for the Bengals despite practicing in full all week. That doesn’t change my pick, however, as I still like the Bengals chances of keeping this relatively close with the Ravens in a bad spot, but not enough to bet on it.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Cincinnati Bengals 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +10.5

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals vs. Los Angeles Rams: 2019 Week 8 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-7) vs. Los Angeles Rams (4-3) in London

Typically the rule of thumb in these international games is to pick the favorite, as they are 24-11 ATS all-time and it makes that sense better teams would be better prepared for playing under unusual circumstances. In this matchup, the Rams are clearly the better team, facing off against the winless Bengals, but unfortunately we’ve lost a lot of line value with the Rams in the past week. They were favored by 9.5 on the early line last week, but are now 12.5-point favorites and it’s not really clear why. 

The Bengals lost at home to the Jaguars last week, but that game was close throughout and they get their top cornerback William Jackson and top defensive end Carlos Dunlap back from injury this week. Meanwhile, the Rams won in Atlanta convincingly last week, but they still rank just 12th in first down rate differential on the season at +2.00%, as their offense has not nearly been the same this season with a rebuilt offensive line. 

The Rams obviously have the talent edge, but this line is the equivalent of Los Angeles -15.5 if this game were played in Los Angeles and -9.5 if it were played in Cincinnati, which I think is too high. I still have this line calculated at Rams -9, so I’m taking the Bengals for pick ‘em purposes, though this is a no confidence pick because they could easily get blown out or quit in the second half in a bad spot. 

Los Angeles Rams 24 Cincinnati Bengals 13

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +12.5

Confidence: None