Tennessee Titans at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (5-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-5-1)

This is one of the toughest calls of the week. On one hand, while the Titans are 5-1, most of their wins have been close, with 4 of their 5 wins coming by 6 points or fewer, despite facing a relatively easy schedule and benefitting from a +9 turnover margin (+1.5 per game), which is unlikely to continue going forward. Their one win that wasn’t close was a surprisingly dominant effort against the Bills, winning 42-16 and winning the first down rate battle by 6.99, but the Titans still rank just 18th in the NFL in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +0.13%.

At first glance, the Bengals seem like the kind of team that can at least give the Titans a close game. Not only have the Titans struggled to put away inferior teams like the Broncos, Texans, and Jaguars, but the Bengals have played a lot of close games over the past two seasons. They haven’t won a lot of games, winning just 3 games total over 23 games between the two seasons, but the Bengals also have a tie and 12 losses by one score or fewer, as opposed to 7 losses by more than one score.

However, even though the Bengals’ only loss by more than one score this season came against the Ravens, the Bengals have been much worse than that suggests, as the Bengals’ close games with the Colts and the Browns came in games in which the Bengals lost the first down rate battle by 8.20% and 5.56% respectively. They lost to the Colts despite winning the turnover battle and they needed to go 5 for 5 on 4th down and get a last second garbage time touchdown to cut it to a single score against the Browns. In total, the Bengals rank just 28th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -2.77%, actually down from their 23rd ranked finish in 2019 (-1.98%). 

The Bengals offense is better this season with quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins making impacts as rookies and left tackle Jonah Williams and wide receiver AJ Green making an impact after missing all of 2019 with injury, but the Bengals’ defense is significantly worse, as their veteran leaders in 2019, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, have been traded and benched respectively, in favor of younger players playing. 

On top of that, the Bengals are extremely banged up on the offensive line this week, missing four of their regular starters from a group that isn’t good to begin with, including Jonah Williams, who is one of their top offensive players, which has pushed them down to 29th in my roster rankings. My numbers suggest the Bengals should still be the pick by the slightest of margins, but this is definitely a no confidence pick and a push might be the most likely outcome.

Tennessee Titans 23 Cincinnati Bengals 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +7

Confidence: None

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (4-2) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-4-1)

I expected the Bengals to be a competitive team this season. Though they went just 2-14 last season, they lost 8 of those games by one score or less and finished 24th in first down rate differential at -3.47%, primarily due to a capable defense that ranked 18th in first down rate allowed. This season, they looked likely to be improved on offense, with the addition of quarterback Joe Burrow and the return of left tackle Jonah Williams and wide receiver AJ Green from injuries that cost them all of 2019. 

Based on box scores, the Bengals seem like a competitive team, losing just once by more than one score, but they’ve been worse than that suggests, ranking 27th in first down rate differential at -4.23% and 29th in first down rate differential at -4.78% when you factor in the Bengals’ relatively easy schedule. The Bengals’ close games with the Colts and the Browns came in games in which the Bengals lost the first down rate battle by 10.78% and 10.75% respectively. They lost to the Colts despite winning the turnover battle and they needed to go 5 for 5 on 4th down and get a last second garbage time touchdown to cut it to a single score against the Browns, while their one win came by 8 points against a terrible Jaguars team. 

The Bengals’ offense has been marginally better, but AJ Green has not returned to form and this week they’ll be without lead running back Joe Mixon, while their defense has played worse this season than last season, in large part due to injuries. The Bengals’ injury situation on defense has changed since their last matchup with the Browns, but it hasn’t necessarily gotten better. The Bengals will have defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels this time around, but they won’t have fellow defensive tackle DJ Reader, defensive end Sam Hubbard, or top cornerback William Jackson. On top of that, Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who led this defense last season, are both over 30 and have taken a significant step back in 2020.

However, the Browns haven’t been that much better statistically than the Bengals this season and they have their own injury concerns on offense, missing right guard Wyatt Teller, running back Nick Chubb, and tight end Austin Hooper, while Baker Mayfield is dealing with a rib issue that seemed to limit him significantly against the Steelers last week. That 38-7 loss in Pittsburgh last week and their 38-6 loss in Baltimore week 1 are the reason why the Browns rank 24th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -2.07%, despite winning and playing pretty well in their other four games. 

It’s possible the Browns would have been much more competitive if Mayfield was healthy, but it’s also possible Mayfield is still not healthy, in which case the Bengals would have a decent chance to pull the home upset this week. There’s too much uncertainty with Mayfield for either side to be worth betting and my calculated line, factoring in Mayfield being less than 100%, is Cleveland -3 anyway, so we’re not getting any line value in either direction. I’m taking the Bengals for pick ‘em purposes, but this is essentially a coin flip and a push is very likely.

Update: The Bengals seem to have internal issues going on with their defense and the defensive coordinator. I still don’t have a strong lean on this game, but that’s enough for me to flip this to Cleveland.

Cleveland Browns 30 Cincinnati Bengals 27

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -3

Confidence: None

Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts: 2020 Week 6 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (1-3-1) at Indianapolis Colts (3-2)

Going into the season, I had the Colts as a top-5 team and even after their loss to a good Browns team in Cleveland last week, the Colts still rank 5th in the league in first down rate differential at +4.64%, but this team is clearly not the same without linebacker Darius Leonard. Not only is Leonard arguably the top off ball linebacker in the league and arguably the best defensive player on a defense that was ranked #1 in the league before Leonard’s absence, but he’s also so much better than all of the Colts’ other linebackers, as they have a very mediocre linebacking corps without him. 

The Colts get an easier opponent this week, hosting the Bengals in Indianapolis, and they’re in a good spot as home favorites of more than a touchdown going into a bye, a spot in which teams are 62-26 ATS since 2002, but the Bengals have played a lot of close games over the past couple years, even if they haven’t done much winning. Last year, 8 of their 14 losses came by one score or less and this year, with a more talented roster, 2 of their 3 losses have come by one score or less. They rank 24th in first down rate differential at -2.38%, which isn’t great, but it suggests they can be competitive and they’ve played a tougher schedule than the Colts. I’m still taking the Colts because of the spot they’re in, but we’re not getting any line value with them and I can’t be confident in them with Leonard out.

Indianapolis Colts 23 Cincinnati Bengals 13

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -7.5

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (1-2-1) at Baltimore Ravens (3-1)

The Bengals picked up their first win of the season last week and I think they’re an underrated team going forward. They were better than their 2-14 record last season, ranking 24th in first down rate differential, and I expected them to be noticeably better than that this season, with the Bengals adding quarterback Joe Burrow atop the draft and getting their left tackle Jonah Williams and top wide receiver AJ Green back from injuries than cost them all of 2019. So far, the Bengals rank 18th at -0.25%. They have just one win, but they’ve been competitive in all four games and they should be better going forward, with stud defensive tackle Geno Atkins set to make his season debut after missing 4 games due to injury.

Unfortunately, that probably won’t translate to the win column right away, as Atkins’ first game back is probably the toughest game of the Bengals’ season, in Baltimore against the Ravens. In addition to the Ravens being a really tough opponent, this is also a really tough spot for the Bengals. While the Ravens have an easy game in Philadelphia on deck, the Bengals have another tough game in Indianapolis next week. Favorites of 6+ are 124-75 ATS since 2014 before being favorites of 6+ again, while underdogs of 6+ are 74-107 ATS since 2014 before being underdogs of 6+ again.

Combining the two, favorites of 6+ are 39-11 ATS since 2014 before being favorites of 6+ again when their opponent will be underdogs of 6+ again the following week. Good teams tend to take care of business against bad teams without upcoming distractions on their schedule, while bad teams tend to struggle to keep it close against good teams with another tough game on deck. All of those conditions should be true this week, which hurts the Bengals’ chances of keeping this competitive. I’m still taking the Bengals for pick ‘em purposes as 13-point underdogs because they typically keep their games close and my calculated line is just 8.5, so we’re getting significantly line value with the visitor, but I wouldn’t recommend putting money on this one.

Baltimore Ravens 28 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +13

Confidence: Low

Jacksonville Jaguars at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 4 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-2-1)

The Bengals haven’t done a lot of winning in the past couple years, finishing with the worst record in the league at 2-14 in 2019 and getting off to an 0-2-1 start in 2020, but they’ve generally been pretty competitive. Of their 14 losses last season, 8 of those came by 8 points or fewer, while their two losses this season have come by a combined 8 points. They finished last season 24th in first down rate differential at -3.47%, not great, but better than their league worst record suggested, and this year they should be better with the addition of quarterback Joe Burrow and the return of top receiver AJ Green and left tackle Jonah Williams from injuries that cost them all of 2019. So far, the Bengals have been decent in first down rate differential, despite their lack of a win, ranking 18th in the NFL in this early season with a -0.70% first down rate differential. 

The Jaguars have exceeded expectations after being expected to be one of the worst teams in the league, but they still only rank 23rd in first down rate differential at -2.47% and their 30th ranked defense is the kind of unit that could land this team among the worst in the league overall when all is said and done if their offense can’t continue playing at a high level (9th in first down rate). I don’t have the Jaguars as the worst team in the league and quarterback Gardiner Minshew can lead them to a few wins this season that they shouldn’t have otherwise had, like Ryan Fitzpatrick did for the expected league worst Dolphins in 2019, but the Jaguars rank just 29th in my roster rankings, so the 21st ranked Bengals have a significant edge in that as well. Despite that, this line suggests these two teams are about even, favoring the Bengals by just 2.5 points at home.

My calculated line is Cincinnati -5.5, even with minimal homefield advantage this year, so we’re getting good line value with the Bengals in a game where they have to win by only a field goal at home to cover. Unfortunately, the Bengals are in a couple of bad spots. Not only are they likely to be tired after last week’s tie, a spot in which teams are 9-17 ATS over the past 30 seasons, but they also have a big look ahead game on deck, going to Baltimore to face the Ravens, a game in which they are 16.5 point underdogs on the early line. Teams are 40-74 ATS since 2016 before being underdogs of 10 points or more, as that tends to serve as a big upcoming distraction. I’m still taking the Bengals for pick ‘em purposes, but I wouldn’t recommend betting on them.

Cincinnati Bengals 20 Jacksonville Jaguars 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati -2.5

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Philadelphia Eagles: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (0-2)

The Eagles’ season has gotten off to a terrible start, as not only are they 0-2, but they’re also tied with the Jets with the 2nd lowest first down rate differential in the league at -28. The Eagles were injury ravaged in week 1, missing right tackle Lane Johnson and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, among others, but they still lost by double digits to a Washington team that is one of the worst in the league and then they got blown out at home by the Rams in week 2, even though Johnson and Hargrave had returned. Part of the problem has been their league worst -5 turnover margin, which is a metric that tends to be inconsistent week-to-week, but they also rank 26th in first down rate differential at -5.58%, so their issues go far beyond the turnover margin.

The Eagles should be better going forward, if only because Carson Wentz is unlikely to be one of the worst quarterbacks in the league all season, but even if he bounces back, this team has real weaknesses on both sides of the ball, as Wentz’s growing cap hit has made it tougher to them to keep talent at positions like linebacker, safety, and running back, while their offensive line is missing both starting guards due to injury and their receiving corps is banged up as well.

The Eagles face another 0-2 team this week, a less surprising 0-2 team as the Bengals are coming off a season in which they finished 2-14 and had the worst record in the league. The Bengals were better than that record suggested, with 8 of their losses coming by 8 points or fewer in 2019, primarily due to a defense that is better than you’d think, and their offense should be better this season with #1 overall pick Joe Burrow taking over under center and getting back top wide receiver AJ Green and left tackle Jonah Williams, who both missed all of 2019 with injury, but the Bengals are still unlikely to win many games and their defense has struggled early in the season, likely in large part due to the continued absence of defensive tackle Geno Atkins.

If the Eagles play like they have, the Bengals could steal this one in Philadelphia, especially with the Eagles having limited homefield advantage, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if the Eagles bounced back this week, with Carson Wentz likely to work through his issues at some point. I have this line calculated at Philadelphia -3, so we’re getting line value with the Bengals at +4.5, but not enough for them to be worth betting against a desperate Eagles team that is used to making playoff appearances.

Philadelphia Eagles 23 Cincinnati Bengals 20

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +4.5

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-1) at Cleveland Browns (0-1)

Both of these teams lost their season opener. For the Bengals, it was their 22nd loss in their last 25 games, dating back to their week 9 bye in the middle of the 2018 season, including a league worst 2-14 in 2019. The Bengals were better than last season’s record suggests though. 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.

Turnover margins and close game records tend to be unpredictable on a year-to-year basis and, in terms of first down rate differential, the Bengals ranked 24th at -3.47%, certainly not good, but not at the worst in the league either. They also should have better quarterback play with rookie #1 overall pick Joe Burrow coming in and they should have better health in the receiving corps and on the offensive line, particularly with top receiver AJ Green and left tackle Jonah Williams returning after missing all of 2019.

The Bengals’ opener was more of the same though, losing the turnover battle by two and the game by three, despite winning the first down rate battle by 1.68%. That doesn’t necessarily mean that will continue though. Case in point, the Bengals’ week 1 opponents, the Chargers, had a 2-9 record in games decided by 8 points or fewer and a league worst -17 turnover margin in 2019, leading to them going just 5-11 despite ranking 7th in first down rate differential, but in week one they managed to win a close game and win the turnover battle. 

This week the Bengals go to Cleveland and are 6-point underdogs even though it’s a short trip and the Browns will be limited to 6,000 fans in the stadium. That suggests the Bengals are a little underrated because of all of their recent close losses. The Bengals are missing key defensive tackle Geno Atkins with injury and fellow starter Mike Daniels as well, but the Browns, while they aren’t missing anyone of Atkins’ caliber, are very thin at cornerback and linebacker, where they are missing multiple expected contributors at each position. I have this line calculated at Cleveland -4.5, so we’re not getting a ton of line value, but the Bengals should be the choice for pick ‘em purposes. They might not win, but they should at least keep it competitive like they have most of their recent games. 

Update: The Browns will be without defensive end Olivier Vernon as well, while right tackle Jack Conklin is reportedly only going to be available in emergency situations. Both got limited practice in this week, but it wasn’t enough for them to be cleared to start on a short week. Those are two significant absences, but this line hasn’t moved in most places. If you can still get +6, this is worth a bet. The Browns are very banged up and the Bengals have enough talent to be at least competitive in most of their games.

Cleveland Browns 26 Cincinnati Bengals 23

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +6

Confidence: Medium

Los Angeles Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (0-0) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-0)

The Chargers won just five games a year ago, but they actually finished the season 7th in first down rate differential at +3.84%. How is that possible? Well, the Chargers went just 2-9 in games decided by 8 points or fewer and they also had a league worst -17 turnover margin. Turnover margins and a team’s record in close games tend to be highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Case in point, the Chargers went 6-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer in 2018 and had a +1 turnover margin, with a very similar roster. The Chargers’ impressive first down rate differential from last year should be much more predictive than their turnover margin or record in close games.

The Chargers first down rate differential is even more impressive when you consider that they frequently played in front of visiting crowds at home, if they played in front of any crowd at all, and that they had terrible injury luck. They had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury in the league and those injuries disproportionately affected their top level players, so you could argue they were the most injury affected team in the league last season. 

Safety Derwin James (11 games), center Mike Pouncey (11 games), left tackle Russell Okung (10 games), safety Adrian Phillips (9 games), edge defender Melvin Ingram (3 games), and tight end Hunter Henry (4 games) all missed significant time with injury and all were big absences. This year, the Chargers won’t have to play in front of fans at home at all (or possibly even on the road) and they should have better injury luck as well, as adjusted games lost to injury tends to be a highly inconsistent statistic year-to-year as well. Even though the Chargers are downgrading from Philip Rivers to Tyrod Taylor under center, I still liked the Chargers’ chances of being a playoff contender this off-season.

It’s not off to a good start for the Chargers injury wise though, as Derwin James is out for the season, Mike Pouncey will miss this week, and new offensive linemen Trai Turner and Bryan Bulaga could join him on the sideline as well, which would leave the Chargers very thin upfront. Wide receiver Mike Williams could be out as well, after topping 1000 yards receiving in 2019. The Bengals won’t have stud interior defender Geno Atkins, but it’ll be hard to pick the Chargers as three point road favorites here if they’re missing multiple offensive line starters and their #2 receiver. I’m taking the Chargers for now, but I’ll need to check injury reports before deciding on this one.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Cincinnati Bengals 20

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -3

Confidence: None

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.

Final Update: The Bengals might not win many games in a tough division, but they should be competitive in most of their games and they’re capable of pulling some surprise upsets as well. It would take a huge rookie year from Joe Burrow to elevate this offense to the point where this could be a playoff team, but the defense is very capable, even with expected starting cornerback Trae Waynes set to miss significant time.

Projection: 6-10 (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