To call the Cincinnati Bengals’ 2016 campaign disappointing would be a drastic understatement. After six straight playoff berths – every year that Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have been in the league – the Bengals floundered to a 6-9-1 finish last season.
For better or for worse, the team the Bengals will be fielding in 2017 has a much different look. In a unique position to reload after a losing year, Cincinnati parted ways with their aged veterans in favor of rookie talent. However, just like any team, it’s clear the Bengals have their strengths and weaknesses as they head into their week one matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.
LB Kevin Minter
WR John Ross
RB Joe Mixon
DE Jordan Willis
LB Carl Lawson
The Bengals have always drafted exceptionally well; it’s part of the team’s culture that, in recent years, has kept Cincinnati’s playoff window consistently open. Although John Ross will provide immediate speed opposite of A.J. Green, it’s perhaps the offensive depth at running back that can be a potential anchor for this team. A dangerous combination of Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill , and Joe Mixon gives this team endless backfield potential. All three backs can catch out of the backfield, but they also all bring different running styles to the offense. If used properly, it can be a three-headed monster. Hill and Bernard will likely head the ground attack in the first few weeks, but by the fifth or sixth game, expect Mixon to be fully splitting carries.
The receiving core is possibly the most obvious strength of this team – if they can stay heathy. A.J. Green and John Ross should be a fantastic combination, even if it takes some time for Ross to gel with Andy Dalton. Add veteran Brandon LaFell and the dynamic Tyler Eifert , and you have a special group. Dalton should never have an issue with finding open targets in a football game again. As long as he can hit them – and as long as this offensive line can keep him on his feet long enough, this will be an offense that scores a lot of points.
Finally, the teeth of the Bengals defense has been a focal point for the Bengals in the last five years. Though there have been mixed results, defensively, the defensive line has continued to consistently generate pressure. This is a line that can attack the quarterback from almost every position, and Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins , and Co. will look to keep that trend well and alive in 2017.
Depth. It’s a single word that means a lot to any football team, but depending on the position you ask about, it’s likely that the Bengals don’t have a great deal of it. Because of injuries in the last three years, it’s been difficult for the Bengals to maintain a strong core in the secondary. Shawn Williams is the latest injury that will force the team to rely on relatively untested players, and Cincinnati will hope that players like Darqueze Dennard – also hampered by injuries – will finally see extended playing time as they work them into game action. Underneath the secondary will be an interesting switch at linebacker, as newly-acquired Kevin Minter figures to play a significant role after being signed during the offseason. With Vontaze Burfict out on a (reduced) three-game suspension, Cincinnati will hope that a committee approach keeps the ship afloat in his absence. And once again, filling gaps is a tall task for this team to accomplish.
The offensive line is another issue. With veterans Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler finding new homes during the offseason, the Bengals turn to a group of players whose names NFL fans may not even recognize. Cedric Ogbuehi, Clint Boling, Russell Bodine, Andre Smith, and Jake Fisher will be the five-man line asked to protect Andy Dalton and create holes for their dynamic backfield. The good news is that the group looked decent in the preseason, but the biggest question will be consistency. And right now, there are many more questions than answers on that front.
The last weakness is debatable in Bengaldom, but in many opinions, the coaching staff has been an issue in recent years. Despite an offense loaded with weapons, Ken Zampese has failed to replicate the offense creativity that Hue Jackson brought to this team. In his wake, at times, the group has become stagnant and even predictable. On defense, Paul Guenther often leaves Bengals fans begging for the return of Mike Zimmer. The defensive issues on this team cannot always be pointed toward Guenther. Aforementioned injuries and overall lack of consistency cannot be wholly placed on a single coach, but an overuse of zone coverage and consistent big plays from opposing offenses certainly has fingers pointing to the sideline. And finally, we have the second-longest tenured head coach in today’s NFL: Marvin Lewis. Lewis deserves significant credit for turning this team around and spearheading this most recent Dalton-Green rebuild. But we’re entering the seventh year of that movement, and you still have to go back 26 years to find their last playoff win. Discipline – or rather, a lack thereof – cost them their last one against the Steelers, and that simply cannot continue to be a trend for this team.
Projected record: 9-7, Wildcard berth
Despite glaring weaknesses, this team still has enough talent to get back to their winning ways. A restocked offense will all but guarantee points on the board, but Bengals fans should also expect some growing pains from rookie play and an inexperienced offensive line. The playoffs certainly aren’t out of the question, but this is a team that’s looking up at the Steelers in the AFC North for now.