Cincinnati Bengals 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For most of the 2010s, the Bengals started Andy Dalton at quarterback and got largely middling starting quarterback play. When the Bengals were able to surround Dalton with talent, it led to five straight playoff appearances, but they were never able to get over the hump in the post-season, losing in their first playoff game all five times, and eventually they started losing a significant amount of talent, culminating in a 2-14 season in 2019. During that season, Dalton posted career worst numbers, was briefly benched before rookie backup Ryan Finley proved to be overmatched, and was ultimately released ahead of a 17.7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2020, with the Bengals having the opportunity to add a promising franchise quarterback prospect on a cheap rookie deal with the #1 overall pick, LSU’s Joe Burrow.

However, Burrow’s rookie year did not go as planned, as Burrow lasted just 10 games before a torn ACL ended his season, ending his rookie season with a 2-7-1 record. That poor record was not really Burrow’s fault though. The Bengals had one of the worst defenses in the league, ranking 31st in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.64%, and, while their offense wasn’t significantly better, ranking 23rd in first down rate over expected at -1.18%, Burrow was not the main problem, as the Bengals had a poor offensive line, struggled on the ground, and lacked a consistent third target in the passing game. Burrow, for his part, was PFF’s 19th ranked quarterback at the time he went down and he completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 6.65 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, despite minimal help from his offensive supporting cast and having to pass frequently for a team constantly trailing.

The Bengals predictably struggled mightily on offense in Burrow’s absence, finishing the season ranked 29th in first down rate over expected at -2.87% and ending up with a 4-11-1 record, despite the Bengals’ defense actually improving noticeably down the stretch, to finish a not totally terrible 22nd in first down rate allowed over expected at +0.93%. Even with that defensive improvement, however, the Bengals still ended up ranked 30th in schedule adjusted first down rate in 2020 at 3.80%, so, even though Burrow is expected to return healthy for week 1, the Bengals still have a lot of work to do to get back to being a competitive team.

One thing that would go a long way towards that goal would obviously be if Burrow not only returned to form after his injury, but also took a step forward in his second year in the league. Unfortunately, neither of those things are guaranteed, as quarterbacks tend to struggle in their first year back from an ACL tear and, even without the injury, Burrow wouldn’t necessarily be a lock to improve in his second season, as development of young players, especially at the quarterback position, is often not linear. Burrow gives this team a high variance and the upside to surprise teams this season, but that upside comes with downside and the rest of this roster is such that Burrow will probably need to be a top-10 quarterback for this team to even be in playoff contention, which doesn’t seem likely.

For what it’s worth, the Bengals aren’t concerned enough about Burrow to upgrade their backup quarterback situation, even though Brandon Allen and Ryan Finley are among the worst backup quarterback options in the league and both struggled mightily in Burrow’s absence last season. Finley is not even with the team anymore, leaving Allen, who has a 76.9 QB rating in 8 career starts since being selected in the 6th round in 2016, as the sole backup in case Burrow goes down again. It’s a shaky situation behind a high variance starter.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The most obvious issue on this offense last season was the offensive line. Their running game was an issue, averaging a 4.06 YPC average that ranked just 27th in the NFL, and I will get into that later, but their running game issues were mostly due to the absence of lead back Joe Mixon with injury and due to an offensive line that ranked 21st in run blocking grade on PFF. They were even worse than that in pass protection, ranking 27th in pass blocking grade. Burrow was only pressured on 32.2% of his dropbacks, 21st highest among 39 eligible quarterbacks, but that was mostly because he got the ball out under 2.5 seconds at the 9th highest rate in the league at 56.9%.

The injury that Burrow suffered is an obvious downside of offensive line issues and, given that, many expected the Bengals to use their 5th overall pick on Penei Sewell, the top offensive lineman in the draft, resulting in some criticism of the Bengals when they decided instead to upgrade their receiving corps with Burrow’s college teammate JaMarr Chase. I thought that decision made a lot of sense though and may have telegraphed by the Bengals’ decision to sign veteran offensive tackle Riley Reiff in free agency. 

Reiff is going into his age 33 season, only signed to a one-year deal, and could have moved to guard had Sewell been the selection, but he’s also a satisfactory short-term solution at right tackle opposite 2019 1st round pick Jonah Williams, a solid starter in his own right, leaving the interior of this offensive line as the most pressing need. Without an interior offensive lineman worth taking in the top-5, adding Chase, who I thought was a little bit better of a prospect than Sewell regardless of position, and focusing on their offensive line with later picks seemed like the Bengals’ best option.

I will get into JaMarr Chase later in the receiving corps section, but the Bengals’ offensive line selections were 2nd round pick Jackson Carmen and 4th round pick D’Ante Smith. Both players were primarily tackles in college and could play there if needed at the professional level, but they project best as guards, which also happens to be their easiest path to playing time. Their biggest competition for playing time is a trio of holdovers in Quinton Spain, Xavier Su’a-Filo and Michael Jordan, who all earned negative grades from PFF in 8 starts, 5 starts, and 10 starts respectively. 

Billy Price and Fred Johnson also saw some action at guard last season, but both were horrible in limited action and, if they make the team, they would likely slot in as a backup at center and tackle respectively rather than guard, as those are more natural positions for them. Spain is the most experienced guard option. He was a solid starter earlier in his career in Tennessee, making 48 starts in the first 4 seasons of his career from 2015-2018, but he has received below average grades from PFF in back-to-back seasons (26 starts) and, going into his age 30 season, his best days are likely behind him. 

Su’a-Filo also has some experience, with 58 career starts in 7 seasons in the league, but he’s never earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season, he’s going into his age 30 season as well, and he’s made just 17 starts combined over the past 3 seasons as a reserve and spot starter. Jordan, meanwhile, is a 2019 4th round pick who has made 19 starts in his two seasons in the league, but largely out of desperation, struggling even more as a rookie than he did in 2020. It’s a very underwhelming trio so one or both of the Bengals’ rookies could see significant action in a very unsettled position group.

The Bengals are in better shape at center, where holdover Trey Hopkins is likely to remain in his starting job, without any meaningful competition being added for him this off-season. Hopkins is an unspectacular player, but he wasn’t really the problem last season, ranking 22nd out of 38 eligible centers on PFF in 15 starts. He’s played around that level throughout the past four seasons, a stretch in which he’s made 52 starts, after never starting a game throughout his first three seasons in the league as a former undrafted free agent. Still in his late prime in his age 29 season, I would expect more of the same from him in 2021.

As alluded to earlier, offensive tackle is the relative strength of this group, with Williams remaining at left tackle and Reiff being added opposite him. Williams’ biggest concern is durability, as he missed his entire rookie year in 2019, before missing another 6 games in 2020. He was PFF’s 43rd ranked offensive tackle in 10 starts when he did play and he has the upside to be better than that going forward, but he’s still pretty inexperienced, so it’s tough to confidently project his ceiling, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he missed more time with injury.

Reiff, meanwhile, finished last season as PFF’s 40th ranked offensive tackle, his 9th above average grade from PFF for a season in as many seasons in the league. His age is becoming a concern, now going into his age 33 season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him decline and have one of the worst years, if not the worst year of his career, but, even still, he should be an upgrade on Bobby Hart, a departed free agent who Reiff replaces. The Bengals aren’t in bad shape at left tackle, right tackle, and center, but guard remains a position of concern and they don’t have any dominant blockers at any position, barring a big breakout year from Williams.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

JaMarr Chase joins a wide receiver group that already has a pair of talented starters in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and he’ll replace AJ Green, another former high draft pick (4th overall by the Bengals in 2011). The Bengals will be very happy if Chase can replicate Green’s career, but there’s no doubting Green had suffered a significant decline by the end of his tenure in Cincinnati, missing all of 2019 with injury and then returning in 2020 to average just 1.02 yards per route run and post just a 47/523/2 slash line on 104 targets. Even as a rookie, it won’t be hard for Chase to be an upgrade and he has the potential to make a big impact, even in year one, although that kind of thing is tough to depend on.

Tee Higgins was a rookie last year, but that didn’t stop him from leading this group with a 67/908/6 slash line. The first pick in the second round in 2020 (#33 overall), Higgins has a sky high upside and could take another step forward in his second season in the league. Development of young players is not always linear, but Higgins should see his production increase just from increased opportunity, after taking until a couple weeks to crack the starting lineup as a rookie, and the potential is there for him to have a big year. He averaged 1.82 yards per route run as a rookie, 25th among eligible wide receivers, and he earned PFF’s 36th highest grade among wide receivers for the season.

Tyler Boyd had a similar caliber season to Higgins, finishing with a 79/841/1 slash line on 110 targets, averaging 1.65 yards per route run, and finishing as PFF’s 37th ranked wide receiver on the season. That is slightly down from his 76/1028/7 and 90/1046/5 slash lines from 2018 and 2019 respectively, but the Bengals spread the ball evenly to Higgins, Boyd, and Green and, with Chase replacing Green this off-season, they will have three talented young wide receivers to spread the ball around to in 2021, which will likely limit any one of them from posting huge numbers. 

Higgins probably has the highest upside of the bunch, but Chase has the potential for a big rookie year impact and Boyd is a talented receiver who is still in his prime, in his age 27 season, coming off three straight above average seasons as a starter. The Bengals also have good wide receiver depth because projected #4 receiver Auden Tate is a 2018 7th round pick who has averaged 1.44 yards per route run over the past two seasons, including a 40/575/1 slash line when he saw the most action of his career as an injury replacement in 2019.

The tight end position is likely to remain a relative non-factor in this offense, but, after just 71 targets made their way to tight ends in 2020, that number could increase with the return of primary receiving tight end CJ Uzomah from an injury that ended his season after 96 snaps in 2 games. Uzomah had 8 catches in those two games before going down, but it was unlikely he would have sustained that pace, as he’s largely been an underwhelming receiving option throughout his career, averaging 1.02 yards per route run over 6 seasons in the league since being selected in the 5th round by the Bengals in 2015. Even after a major injury, he’s expected to retain his receiving tight end role, but only by default.

Drew Sample filled in as the primary receiving tight end in Uzomah’s absence, in addition to his normal role as a blocking specialist. Sample remained an above average blocker, but managed just a 40/349/1 slash line with an average of 0.85 yards per route run on the season. Sample was actually a second round pick in 2019, but he was a big reach because of his lack of receiving upside. With Uzomah set to return, Sample will go back to being a #2 tight end who focuses on blocking and doesn’t see any sort of significant target share. He’s part of an underwhelming tight end duo, but this group is obviously carried by a talented receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned earlier, the absence of featured running back Joe Mixon for most of last season was a big part of the problem for the Bengals on the ground. However, Mixon didn’t really produce at a high level either when healthy, averaging just 3.60 YPC and a 46% carry success rate (39th out of 47 eligible running backs). The offensive line was a big part of the problem and Mixon largely did his part by contributing 2.55 YPC, 70.8% of his yardage, after first contact, but overall Mixon finished last season with the lowest PFF grade of his career, after finishing in the top-17 among running backs in each of his first 3 seasons in the league.

Mixon was also still noticeably better than backup Giovani Bernard, who averaged 3.35 YPC on 124 carries, 2.32 YPC after contact, and had a carry success rate of 48% as Mixon’s primary replacement. Mixon is also only going into his age 25 and averaged 4.23 YPC with 17 touchdowns on 693 carries in his first 3 seasons in the league, while adding a 36/290/1 slash line per season and just missing two games total due to injury, so he has obvious bounce back potential. The Bengals seem to agree, letting Bernard walk this off-season and not replacing him. Bernard had become an ineffective runner in recent years, but he had been the Bengals’ primary passing down back for years and, without another passing down specialist on this roster, expect Mixon to see his biggest passing game role yet (his career high is 55 targets in 2018).

Mixon was already on his way to putting up a massive touch total last year before getting hurt, averaging 23.3 touches per game in the 6 games he did play, up from an average of 18.2 per game in his first three seasons in the league, and, now without Bernard to steal passing down snaps, Mixon could exceed even last year’s per game touch total. His heavy workload may have contributed to his relatively inefficiency and his eventual injury, but the Bengals don’t have a choice but to use Mixon as a true three down feature back and he has the upside to be very productive in that role, especially if the Bengals can be improved on the rest of this offense and open up more running lanes. Expect Mixon to finish among the league leaders in touches, assuming he can avoid another injury.

With Bernard gone, it looks like Samaje Perine will be Mixon’s primary backup. He’ll be a true backup in that role and has shown little promise on passing downs throughout his career, so he’s not a candidate to be used like Bernard was. The good news is he has a lot more upside than Bernard as a runner. A 4th round pick in 2017, Perine’s career got off to a rough start as he averaged just 3.46 YPC across 188 carries while bouncing around three different teams in his first 3 seasons in the league, but he landed in Cincinnati for 2020 and showed some promise down the stretch, averaging 4.78 YPC on 63 carries. Still only going into his age 26 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Perine continue being a capable #2 runner, but he is very unproven.

Perine’s primary competition for the #2 job will be Trayveon Williams, who also flashed some potential as a backup last season, averaging 6.04 YPC on 26 carries. Williams is even less experienced and proven than Perine though, as those carries are the only carries of Williams’ brief career, after being selected by the Bengals in the 6th round in 2019. Both he and Perine would only be true backups if they won the job, with Mixon dominating this backfield. If Mixon were to suffer another injury, the Bengals would be in big trouble at this position, but his return should give them a boost.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

For years, the Bengals have been led upfront by edge defender Carlos Dunlap and interior defender Geno Atkins, who were consistently high level players throughout most of their tenure in Cincinnati, but last season was the beginning of the end for both. In his age 31 season in 2020, Dunlap played just 277 snaps in 7 games and, unhappy with his playing time, was sent to the Seahawks for a late round pick and instantly proved he had something left in the tank. Atkins, meanwhile, stayed on the roster all year, but played just 119 snaps in 8 games as the last place Bengals wanted to test out other options and made the 32-year-old Atkins a frequent healthy scratch down the stretch, before releasing him for financial reasons this off-season.

I will get into what the Bengals have done on the interior to try to replace Atkins in a little bit, but on the edge, Dunlap was replaced last season by 2017 4th round pick Carl Lawson and 2018 3rd round pick Sam Hubbard, who both earned above average grades from PFF in 2020, across 665 snaps and 723 snaps respectively. Lawson was the better of the two, finishing 16th among edge defenders on PFF, but he was a free agent this off-season and the Bengals opted to let him walk on a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal to the Jets to instead sign ex-Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson to a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal.

Hendrickson and Lawson got the same amount annually and Hendrickson had the significantly bigger sack total last season with 13.5, compared to 5.5 for Lawson, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. While Hendrickson played on one of the most talented overall defenses in the league in New Orleans and added 11 hits and a 13.3% pressure rate in addition to his sack total, Lawson surpassed those totals with 24 hits and a 14.6% pressure rate, despite seeing much more frequent double teams on a less talented overall defense. 

That is true of their career numbers too, as Hendrickson has totaled 20 sacks, 24 hits, and a 11.5% pressure rate in 45 career games, while Lawson has totaled 20 sacks, 60 hits, and a 14.3% pressure rate in 51 career games. The Bengals could have kept a better, more familiar player for the same price, but instead they opted to sign an inferior player who has never played in their scheme, which is a head scratching move if you look beyond just 2020 sack totals.

Hubbard remains as the other starter opposite Hendrickson. He’ss not a great pass rusher, but he has earned slightly above average grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league (28 starts in 44 games, an average of 46.0 snaps per game) because he is a good run stuffer who has also added 16.5 sacks, 18 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate in his career. Hubbard still may have untapped upside, now going into his age 25 season, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see him remain the player he has largely been throughout his entire career.

Depth was a big concern at the edge defender position last season, especially after Dunlap was traded, as top reserves Amani Bledsoe and Khalid Kareem struggled across 312 snaps and 259 snaps respectively, especially rushing the passer, combining for just 1 sack, 2 hits, and a 4.9% pressure rate. Both were seeing the first action of their careers, Bledsoe as a 2019 undrafted free agent and Kareem as a 2018 6th round pick, but neither is a guarantee to improve going forward, so the Bengals didn’t waste time in adding more youth to the group, using 3rd, 4th, and 7th round picks on edge defenders. 

Third round pick Joseph Ossai would seem to have the clearest path to a rotational role as a rookie, but fourth round pick Cameron Sample is one to watch as well at a position that significantly lacked depth in 2020. Neither Hubbard nor Hendrickson are high level starters (despite Hendrickson’s sack total last season) and their depth, while likely improved, still consists of unproven young players, but this isn’t a bad position group overall.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Bengals’ decision to move on from Geno Atkins in the near future was likely made when the Bengals made their biggest free agent addition in years last off-season and signed ex-Texan DJ Reader to a contract worth 53 million over 4 years. Reader’s season was ended after 259 snaps across 5 games, but even Reader’s injury did not get Atkins significant playing time, as the Bengals instead opted to give significant snap counts to underwhelming veterans Mike Daniels (356 snaps), Christian Covington (559 snaps), Xavier Williams (311 snaps), and Margus Hunt (293 snaps). All four earned below average grades and none are promising young players, so the Bengals didn’t even get any long-term clarity at the position from benching one of the best defensive players in franchise history. At least on the edge, Dunlap had been benched for significantly younger options.

Atkins is gone, as are all of the aforementioned players aside from Mike Daniels, who was retained in free agency. The Bengals also signed Larry Ogunjobi from the Browns to a 1-year, 6.2 million dollar deal, who figures to start opposite Reader, who is set to return from injury. Ogunjobi got decent money, but it’s unclear how much of an upgrade he’ll be for the Bengals. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Ogunjobi flashed a lot of potential across 300 rookie year snaps, but he hasn’t been able to translate that into a larger role. 

Ogunjobi has averaged 784 snaps per game over the past 3 seasons, but has never earned more than an average grade from PFF, including back-to-back seasons in which he has finished 104th among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF and 103rd among 123 eligible respectively. Now in his age 27 season, it’s unlikely he has further significant untapped upside, so he will likely remain a middling snap eater at best for this unit.

Reader’s return is what gives this group the potential to be a lot better in 2021. Reader didn’t quite show his best form before the injury, but he’s only in his age 27 season and he has plenty of bounce back potential. A 5th round pick by the Texans in 2016, Reader earned an average or better grade from PFF in all four seasons in Houston and improved in every season, culminating in a 2019 season in which he ranked 7th among interior defenders on PFF across 622 snaps, not only dominating against the run at 6-3 347, but adding 2.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate. All in all, he has a 7.8% pressure rate for his career, including last season. Reader might not be quite as good in 2021 as he was in 2019, but he figures to be an above average starter at the least for the Bengals at a position that was a significant problem without him in 2020.

Daniels returns as a backup and, while he did struggle last season, he at least has a history of success. Daniels was one of the best interior defenders in the league in his prime and finished 20th among interior defenders on PFF as recently as 2017, but injuries have limited him to 30 total games and a max of 419 snaps in a season in the past three seasons since and they seem to have sapped his abilities as well, leading last year’s career worst rank, finishing 108th among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF. Now going into his age 32 season, it’s safe to say his best days are behind him, but if he can manage to stay relatively healthy he might not be a bad rotational option. There’s also a possibility he completely falls off though, which the Bengals seem to have prepared for by using a 4th round pick on LSU’s Tyler Shelvin to give them added depth.

The Bengals also get run stuffing specialist Josh Tupou back from opting out of the 2020 season. Tupou finished the 2019 season as PFF’s 22nd ranked interior defender against the run, while totaling 465 snaps, but he’s not a pass rush threat, without a sack or a hit in his career and, aside from that 2019 season, the 2017 undrafted free agent has otherwise played just 173 snaps. It’s possible he picks up right where he left off as a valuable run stuffer, even after a year off, but that’s far from a guarantee and he’s highly unlikely he has untapped pass rush upside. This is a deeper group than a year ago, but they’ll need Reader to play at a high level in his return from injury because this is an otherwise underwhelming group.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Bengals linebacking corps was arguably their worst defensive group in 2020, with every linebacker who played more than 100 snaps for this defense earning a below average grade from PFF. Despite that, the Bengals didn’t make any notable additions to this group this off-season. Instead, they let go of veteran Josh Bynes, who led this group with 761 snaps, and will be hoping their young linebackers can step up in larger roles. 

Behind Bynes, 2019 3rd round pick Germaine Pratt was 2nd in this group with 686 snaps, but he struggled mightily, ranking 90th among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF. He still has theoretical upside, only in his age 25 season, but he struggled on 437 snaps as a rookie as well and, even if he’s better in 2021 than he was in 2020, it’s likely to only be by default. Meanwhile, 2020 3rd and 4th round picks Logan Wilson and Akeem Gaither-Davis will be relied on for larger roles in their second season in the league, despite struggling across 343 and 314 snaps respectively as rookies.

Jordan Evans has only played 139 snaps over the past two seasons and, in the only seasons in his career in which he has seen significant action, the 2017 6th round pick struggled mightily as a rookie across 312 snaps and then again across 510 snaps in 2018, but he could still be forced into somewhat significant action in a thin group. The Bengals will be counting on underwhelming young players in a group that will almost definitely struggle again in 2021.

Grade: C-

Secondary

Cornerback wasn’t really a weakness in 2020 for the Bengals, but they had a lot of free agents at the position this off-season and, in fact, lost their top-3 cornerbacks in terms of snaps played this off-season, with William Jackson, Mackenzie Alexander, and LeShaun Sims all no longer with the team, so it was a position of need this off-season. To address this need, they handed out contracts worth 21.75 million over 3 years and 24 million over 4 years to Chidobe Awuzie from the Cowboys and Mike Hilton from the Steelers respectively. Awuzie will start opposite Trae Waynes, a free agent addition from last off-season who missed all of 2020 with injury, with slot specialist Hilton on the slot in sub packages.

Waynes is probably the shakiest of the trio because of the injury and the missed season, but he was a capable starter throughout the previous 4 seasons prior to last season (52 starts in 59 games) and is still relatively young in his age 29 season, so he should be able to remain a capable, if unspectacular starter. Awuzie is also coming off of an injury plagued year, struggling across 452 snaps in 8 games, but he was a solid starter in 2018 and 2019 (30 starts), especially playing well in 2019 when he ranked 27th among cornerbacks on PFF, and he’s still young in his age 26 season, so he has a lot of bounce back potential, now healthier and away from Dallas’ terrible scheme.

Hilton, meanwhile, is one of the better slot specialists in the league, ranking in the top-15 among cornerbacks in slot coverage snaps per game over the past four seasons with the Steelers and averaging just 1.17 yards per route run allowed on those slot coverage snaps. He’s not just a good coverage cornerback though, as he’s also a solid run defender and as good of a blitzer off the edge as any slot cornerback in the league, totaling 9.5 sacks, 13 hits, and a 16.0% pressure rate in 59 career games. 

Assuming the Bengals don’t misuse him by playing him outside frequently, which they likely won’t need to, Hilton should continue being the same player in his new city, still only in his age 27 season. The Bengals also have holdover Darius Phillips, who showed a lot of promise across 593 snaps last season, after doing the same across 108 snaps in 2019. The 2018 5th round pick is still pretty inexperienced, but he’s good insurance to have as a 4th cornerback. 

At safety, the Bengals return starters Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell and they were probably the biggest strength on an otherwise underwhelming defensive unit. Bates in particular was dominant, finishing the season as PFF’s top ranked safety overall. He might not be the biggest name, but he allowed just two catches of 20+ yards and no catches of 40+ yards, despite playing as a deep coverage safety on about 75% of his snaps and despite having minimal support from his supporting cast. On top of that, Bates also batted away 12 passes, 3 more than any other safety.

Bates is a one year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played last season, most recently finishing 73rd among 98 eligible safeties on PFF in 2019, and, even last season he left something to be desired against the run, but the 2018 2nd round pick also ranked 12th among safeties on and, only in his age 24 season, he has the upside to continue playing at a high level for years to come. He’s also very experienced and durable, starting from week one of his rookie year and not missing a game due to injury en route to making 48 of a possible 48 starts in his career. Even if he’s somewhat unpredictable and even if last year ends up being the best year of his career, Bates could still be one of the better safeties in the league in 2021 and beyond.

Bell, meanwhile, is primarily a box safety, making him a good complement to Bates. Bell leaves something to be desired in coverage, but even with that taken into account, he’s still earned an average or better overall grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, making up for his deficiencies in coverage by finishing in the top-9 among safeties in run defense grade 4 times in 5 seasons in the league since the Saints selected him in the 2nd round in 2016. 

Signed to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal by the Bengals last off-season, Bell proved to be a solid addition in year one and, only in his age 27 season with just 3 career games missed due to injury in 5 seasons in the league, I see no reason to expect anything different from him in 2021. The Bengals also have good safety depth because they signed veteran Ricardo Allen, who is in his age 30 season and probably isn’t quite good enough to be a starter anywhere any more, but who also has 76 career starts in 6 seasons in the league and can provide above average veteran depth. With a talented safety duo and a retooled cornerback group that looks at least respectable, the Bengals’ secondary is the strength of their defense.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Bengals will get Joe Burrow back from injury this season and he gives them a relatively high upside, but this team had a lot of problems outside of the quarterback position last season and didn’t really do enough to address them. They should be better on the offensive line and in the receiving corps and they’ll get a key player back on each side of the ball in Joe Mixon and DJ Reader, but the Bengals didn’t have an unusual amount of injuries last season, so they can’t necessarily depend on better health overall, and their big splash move on defense Trey Hendrickson is probably a downgrade over the player he’s replacing. The Bengals should be reasonably competitive, but I think they’re at least a year away from being a playoff team unless they can get a borderline MVP caliber year from their young quarterback in his first season back from knee surgery. I will have a final prediction for the Bengals at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (10-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (4-10-1)

The primary stat I use to handicap games is schedule adjusted first down rate differential, which tends to be more predictive than other stats because it minimizes the impact of stats that tend to be less predictable on a week-to-week basis, like turnover margins, return touchdowns, missed field goals, big plays, and third and fourth down conversion rates. It also takes into account level of competition. One thing that stands out when looking at this stat is the Ravens, who lead the league with a +130 point differential, but rank just 26th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.81%. 

Part of that is because the Ravens have played a significantly below average schedule, but beyond that a deeper dive into the numbers is needed. The Ravens had a stretch earlier this season where they lost 4 of 5 games, but one of those games was a game in which the Ravens were missing seemingly half their team due to COVID protocols and the Ravens have won 4 straight games since. Upon closer look into those 4 games, the reasons why the Ravens rank so much lower in first down rate than points start to show.

In their first win, they played the Cowboys and actually lost the first down rate battle by 2.63%, despite winning the game by 17. The Cowboys picked up 29 first downs in that game, but had one play over 20 yards and missed 3 field goals, so their first downs didn’t translate to many points against the Ravens. In their second win, it was a close game down to the wire against the Browns and the Ravens won the first down rate battle by just 0.93%. In their third win, they won the first down rate battle by 9.57%, but against Jacksonville, who ranks dead last in the NFL.

Last week, they beat the Giants by 14, but lost the first down rate battle by 0.21%. The Giants had trouble sustaining drives because they went just 1 for 10 on third down and 1 for 3 on fourth down, while the Ravens went 8 for 11 on third down and didn’t have to attempt a fourth down, but third and fourth down performance tends to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and it’s very concerning to see that the Giants got 22 of their 24 first downs on first and second down, as performance on those downs tends to be more predictive. 

Looking back even further reveals a similar pattern. Their one win during the stretch in which they lost four of five came against the Colts by 14 points, but the Ravens lost the first down rate battle by 0.26%. The Colts primarily lost because they went 2 of 12 on third down, 2 of 4 on 4th down, and gave up a return touchdown. The Ravens’ last win before that rough stretch came by 2 against the Eagles in a game in which the Eagles won the first down rate battle by 2.99%, but went 3 for 12 on 3rd down, 1 for 3 on 4th down, and lost the turnover battle by 1. 

In total, the Ravens are just +3 in turnover margin and +1 in return touchdown margin on the season, but they lead the league in opponent’s field goal percentage allowed at 65.22% and have played significantly better on third and fourth down than first and second down, which are both metrics that have less predictive value. The Ravens pick up 3rd downs at a 47.37% rate and 4th downs at a 64.71% rate, while allowing 35.16% and 45.71% respectively. 

This is actually an overall improvement over last season, when they picked up 3rd downs at a 48.29% rate and 4th downs at a 60.71% rate, while allowing 38.16% and 33.33% respectively, and they were a much better team overall last season, particularly on offense, before they lost Ronnie Stanley, Marshal Yanda, and Nick Boyle and before the league started figuring out how to defend this offense better. Last year, they were far and away the top team in the league in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, but it has been much more of a struggle this season, leading to them ranking 26th. 

The Ravens are much more talented than the 26th best team in the league on paper, as they rank 11th in my roster rankings, but any way you look at it, they’re not nearly as good as they were last season. They’re totally overvalued as 14-point road favorites in Cincinnati, against a Bengals team that has played better on both sides of the ball in recent weeks and has slightly moved out of the league’s cellar, ranking 28th in my roster rankings. The Bengals also will have at least some homefield advantage with fans in the stands.

My calculated line is Baltimore -7, so we’re getting great line value with the Bengals, who are also in a good spot, as teams typically tend to underperform in must win games against sub-500 opponents. Teams with a winning percentage between 50% and 67% cover at just a 40.8% rate as favorites against teams with a sub-.500 winning percentage in weeks 16 or 17. Between that and the line value, there is a lot to like about Cincinnati this week, who should be able to keep this relatively close even if they can’t pull the upset. I’m making this a high confidence pick and even considering it for Pick of the Week, which I will announce Sunday morning.

Update: The Bengals will be my Pick of the Week. This is in part because the Ravens will be without some key questionable players (cornerback Jimmy Smith, edge defender Yannick Ngakoue, center Patrick Mekari, and wide receiver Willie Snead), but also because the other pick I was considering (Washington) saw significant late line movement. Both Cincinnati and Washington are strong picks if you locked in Washington when I did, but Cincinnati will officially be my Pick of the Week.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +14

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (3-12-1) at Houston Texans (4-10)

Neither side is particularly appealing in this matchup. The Bengals pulled a massive upset over the Steelers last week as 14.5-point underdogs, but big upset wins like that tend to be flukes that don’t lead to further success down the line. Teams cover at a 40.9% rate after a win as underdogs of 10 points or more, including 4-13 ATS over the past 30 seasons after a win as underdogs of 14 points or more. The Bengals’ win last week was the equivalent of their Super Bowl, so there will almost definitely be some hangover effect this week. On the other hand, the Texans are coming off of a crushing last second loss to the Colts and have a much tougher game against the Titans next week, so they may overlook the last place Bengals. 

Favorites cover at just a 45.2% rate when their opponents have a winning percentage that is worse than their next opponent’s winning percentage by over 40%. Despite the Bengals’ upset win, this line hasn’t really shifted much from the early line last week (-8.5 to -7.5) and I think we’re still getting a little bit of line value with the Bengals, as the Texans are slightly overrated, now missing several key players (Will Fuller, Bradley Roby, Justin Reid, among others) that they weren’t missing earlier this season. For that reason, I’m taking the Bengals for pick ‘em purposes, but it’s hard to be confident in one of the worst teams in the league, following a massive upset win in their Super Bowl.

Houston Texans 27 Cincinnati Bengals 21

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +7.5

Confidence: Low

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) at Cincinnati Bengals (2-10-1)

The Steelers started 11-0, but they’ve been exposed over the past two weeks, losing to Washington and Buffalo in back-to-back games. They have a very good chance at getting back into the win column this week against the lowly Bengals, but whether or not they’ll cover this 13-point spread is the question. The Steelers are a defensive led team (2nd in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.97%) that struggles on offense (29th in first down rate over expected at -2.92%), so they’re not built to blow teams out. Even when they were winning, just 3 of their 11 wins would have covered this 13-point spread, including 10-point or fewer wins over the Giants, Broncos, Texans, Cowboys, and the COVID depleted Ravens. The Bengals are arguably the worst team in the league, but I still have this line calculated at Pittsburgh -11, so we’re getting some line value with Cincinnati.

This is also a tough spot for the Steelers, in between last week’s tough game against the Bills and another big game against the Colts next week. The Bengals, meanwhile, only have the lowly Texans on deck. Favorites cover at just a 43.4% rate against opponents with a 35% winning percentage or worse when they next play an opponent with a winning percentage higher than 70% and when their opponent next plays an opponent with a winning percentage or 35% or less. 

On top of that, favorites cover at a 46.3% rate when their next opponent has a winning percentage 35%+ higher than their current opponent. I know the Steelers are coming off back-to-back losses and will want to end their losing streak, but I doubt anyone on this team really believes they can lose to the Bengals, so this might not be their best effort, in between two much tougher games. They can obviously still win without their best effort, but covering this spread is another thing.

The Bengals were blown out at home by the Cowboys last week, but teams typically fare better in their second straight game as home underdogs as compared to the first one, especially if they lost the first one. Home underdogs cover at a 54.1% rate after a loss as home underdogs, including 58.9% rate after a loss by 20 points or more. Overall, home underdogs of a touchdown or more are 22-9 ATS after a loss by 20 points or more as home underdogs over the past 30 seasons. The Bengals are always a risky bet and there isn’t enough here for them to be worth betting confidently, but they should be the right side.

Update: This line has increased to 14 in most places. I’m more confident at that number, so this is worth a small bet.

Pittsburgh Steelers 20 Cincinnati Bengals 10

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +14

Confidence: Medium

Dallas Cowboys at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (3-9) at Cincinnati Bengals (2-9-1)

This is one of the least appealing games of the week, on a number of levels. The Cowboys have had a very disappointing year and are one of the worst teams in the league due primarily to the amount of key players they have unavailable due to injury, but it doesn’t compare to the Bengals, who were one of the worst teams in the league even before losing quarterback Joe Burrow to injury and replacing him with a bottom of the roster caliber talent in Brandon Allen. The Bengals are also without left tackle Jonah Williams and running back Joe Mixon, two of their best offensive players, among others on defense. As much as the Jets and Jaguars have struggled this season, the Bengals ranked noticeably behind both teams in my roster rankings.

The Cowboys offense actually ranks 8th in first down rate over expected at +1.55% and, while a lot of that is from when they had Dak Prescott healthy, they have shown some ability to move the ball in small chunks consistently with Dalton under center. The big plays haven’t been there, but their lack of pass protection has been the biggest issue, which won’t be nearly as big of an issue against the Bengals and their underwhelming defensive front. That should allow the Cowboys to set up more big plays downfield for their talented receiving corps. 

Unfortunately, this line takes into account the big talent gap between these two teams, favoring the Cowboys by 3.5 points on the road, despite the Bengals having some limited fans in attendance. In fact, this is my exact calculated line, so we’re not getting line value in any direction. The Cowboys should have the motivational edge though as, not only is this Andy Dalton’s return to Cincinnati, but the Cowboys are actually still in the NFC East race technically, while the Bengals have been eliminated. 

The Cowboys may overlook the Bengals a little bit, with a tougher home game on deck against the 49ers (road favorites are just 52-83 ATS since 2008 before being home underdogs), but this is also a must win game, while the Bengals could be looking forward to next week’s big home game against the Steelers. Teams are 50-102 ATS since 2008 before being home underdogs of 7.5 points or more, which the Bengals almost certainly will be next week. I’m taking the Cowboys for pick ‘em purposes, but I have no confidence in them, especially since the Bengals could easily get a backdoor cover and cut the final margin to 3 points or fewer, as 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer.

Update: This line has dropped to 3 in most places. I’m more confident in the Cowboys at that number, but not enough to bet them.

Dallas Cowboys 24 Cincinnati Bengals 20

Pick against the spread: Dallas -3

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Miami Dolphins: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (2-8-1) at Miami Dolphins (7-4)

The Dolphins are 7-4, but they haven’t been as good as their record. They have faced an easy schedule, including three wins over the Jaguars and Jets (twice), and they have benefited significantly from things like a +6 turnover margin, a +3 return touchdown margin, and a 61.54% opponent’s field goal percentage (best in the NFL by a wide margin ahead of the 2nd ranked team at 75.00%), three things that tend to be totally unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Dolphins rank 20th at -0.54% and even that is outplaying their talent level, as they rank 24th in my roster rankings.

On top of that, the Dolphins are also in a terrible spot, facing an easy Bengals team before a much tougher game against the Chiefs. Favorites of 8 or more are 15-31 ATS since 1989 before being home underdogs, including 9-20 ATS before being home underdogs of 3 or more (the early line is Kansas City -7.5). Hosting the defending Super Bowl Champions next week, it’s hard to see the Dolphins getting up for the last place Bengals enough to cover this 10.5-point spread. My calculated line is Miami -7.5, even before considering the bad schedule spot, so we’re getting good value with the visitor.

That being said, it’s hard to be excited about a Bengals team that has struggled this season and now is starting a bottom of the roster caliber quarterback in Brandon Allen, with talented starting quarterback Joe Burrow out for the season with injury. Along with the Jets and Jaguars, the Bengals are one of the worst teams in the league and I don’t like to bet on teams this bad unless there are really good reasons, but there are this week. This is much more of a fade of an overrated Dolphins team in a bad spot than a bet on the Bengals, but they’re worth a small play this week.

Miami Dolphins 17 Cincinnati Bengals 10

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +10.5

Confidence: Medium

New York Giants at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

New York Giants (3-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (2-7-1)

Coming out of their week 11 bye, the Giants are an underrated team, especially on offense. The Giants are generally considered to be a weak offense and in terms of first down rate they rank just 28th at 31.76%, but they’ve also faced a brutal schedule, somehow facing top-10 defenses in terms of first down rate allowed over expected in nine of their ten games, facing Pittsburgh (1st), Tampa Bay (2nd), the LA Rams (4th), Washington twice (5th), Chicago (6th), San Francisco (9th), and Philadelphia twice (10th). The Giants first down rate is 2.22% below average, but their schedule suggests they should be 2.96% below average right now, so the Giants actually rank 15th in first down rate over expected at +0.74%. 

That’s despite the fact that the Giants have had some absences on offense and are now mostly healthy, most importantly top wide receiver Sterling Shepard, who they have been noticeably better with on the field this season. The Giants haven’t been as good on defense, ranking 27th in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.09%, but defensive play tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offense, so their defensive concerns aren’t as much of a problem as you’d think, especially since my roster rankings suggest they’re more talented on that side of the ball than they’ve played.

Given that they’re underrated compared to their 3-7 record, I was expecting to bet the Giants frequently over the rest of the season, but we’re not getting quite the line value I was expecting with them in their first game out of their bye, as they have ballooned to 6-point favorites in Cincinnati in the wake of Joe Burrow’s season ending injury, a massive swing from being 2.5-point underdogs on the early line last week. The Bengals have one of the worst backup quarterback situations in the league with Ryan Finley and presumed starter Brandon Allen both being borderline NFL quarterbacks, but an 8.5-point swing like that is normally reserved for an MVP caliber quarterback getting hurt, so this line isn’t that attractive.

That’s not to say I’m going to be taking the Bengals though, as not only are the Giants underrated, but the Bengals are truly dreadful without Burrow. Even with Burrow in the lineup for most of the season, the Bengals rank just 30th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -3.82%, including a defense that ranks 31st in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.64%. Without Burrow, the Bengals rank on the same level as the Jaguars and Jets in my roster rankings, so, even if I disagree with a 8.5 point swing, I actually think this line is about right, as the Bengals would have been very overvalued as 2.5-point favorites with Burrow. 

The Giants are also in a great spot as big road favorites off of a bye, as teams are 61-33 ATS as road favorites of 3.5 or more off of a bye since 1989, including an 8-4 ATS record by teams with a sub-.500 record like the Giants. There’s not enough here for the Giants to be worth betting, but I would probably bet on them if this line drops back down to 5.5. Either way, the Giants should be the pick for pick ‘em purposes, as they should win this game pretty easily.

Update: This line has dropped to 5.5 in some places, so this is worth a play.

New York Giants 26 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: NY Giants -5.5

Confidence: Medium

Cincinnati Bengals at Washington Football Team: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (2-6-1) at Washington Football Team (2-7)

Neither of these teams have impressive records, but Washington has been clearly the better of these two teams this season. Washington has the slightly better point differential at -38 vs. -46, but the difference is more pronounced than that. Washington has faced a much tougher schedule and has struggled more in metrics that are inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and could improve going forward, like turnover margin (-3 vs. -7, in large part due to Washington’s league worst 32.14% fumble recovery rate) and net field goal percentage (+9.53% vs -23.85%). 

In terms of first down rate differential, which minimizes the impact of outlier plays that are inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, Washington has a massive edge at +1.64% vs. -3.65%. The Bengals have played a lot of close games, with four of their six losses coming by one score or less, but they are worse than their box scores suggest, as their close losses to 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. The Bengals 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. 

Offense is the more consistent side of the ball and, as a result, it’s the more important side of the ball for projections and the Bengals have the edge on that side of the ball, with Washington being led by their defense, but it’s a slight edge for Cincinnati, as they rank 23rd in first down rate over expected at -1.17%, while Washington ranks -2.34% at 27th, and that slight edge may be made up for by the fact that, with Alex Smith resembling his old form at quarterback, Washington has their most competent quarterback under center right now, for his 3rd start of the season. 

Washington also has a massive edge on defense, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed over expected at -3.98%, while the Bengals rank 28th at +2.49%, which can’t be ignored, even if defense tends to be inconsistent week-to-week and even if Washington has some injuries on that side of the ball. Washington holds the slight edge in my roster rankings as well and, even without any fans in the stadium, they should be favored by at least a field goal in this home game against the Bengals, if not more. Given that, we’re getting decent line value with Washington as mere 1-point favorites. This isn’t a big play, but Washington is worth a bet this week.

Washington Football Team 17 Cincinnati Bengals 13

Pick against the spread: Washington -1

Confidence: Medium

Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2020 Week 10 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (2-5-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-0)

The Bengals are 2-5-1, while the Steelers are the league’s last remaining unbeaten team at 8-0, but the Bengals have been competitive in most of their games, losing just once by more than a touchdown, while the Steelers haven’t been blowing people out, with just one win by more than 10 points and five wins by one score or less. That’s despite the fact that the Steelers haven’t faced that tough of a schedule, including close contests with the Texans, the Jeff Driskel led Broncos, and the Garrett Gilbert led Cowboys. 

Given that both of these teams play a lot of games and that this line is 7, you might think I’m leaning strongly towards the Bengals, but the Bengals are worse than their box scores suggest, as their close losses to 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. The Bengals 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. They’ve also faced a relatively easy schedule and, in total, rank just 29th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -3.10%.

The Steelers, meanwhile, rank 6th in schedule adjusted first down rate at +2.22%. They’ve been carried by a defense that ranks 3rd in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.21%, while their offense ranks 28th in first down rate over expected at -1.99%, and typically defensive led teams are not as good of bets as offensive led teams because defensive performance is much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance, but the Steelers have been one of the best defenses in the league for a year and a half now and, even if they have some regression from their defense going forward, they should be able to more than compensate for it with improved offensive play, as my roster rankings suggest they’ve significantly underperformed their offensive talent this season. 

My calculated line is Pittsburgh -9, so we’re getting some line value with the Steelers at -7, and Pittsburgh is also in a good spot, with only an easy game against the Jaguars on deck. Since 2014, favorites of a touchdown or more are 56-31 ATS before being favorites of a touchdown or more again the following week, which the Steelers almost definitely will be again next week. It’s very tough for inferior teams to keep it close with superior teams when the superior team is focused without any upcoming distractions on the schedule. In a normal week, I might consider a bet on Pittsburgh, but with Ben Roethlisberger and others missing practice this week due to control tracing protocols, I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick.

Pittsburgh Steelers 26 Cincinnati Bengals 16

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -7

Confidence: Low

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