If all 32 teams were in John Hughes‘s films, the Cincinnati Bengals would be the hopeless romantic, as their 2019 record speaks. Bengals fans are hoping to lose last season’s memories in the jungle, as they finished last in the AFC North at a whopping 2-14. To be fair, opening up your schedule with a heartbreaking loss to the Seattle Seahawks is a sign that things could get ugly later on. The Bengals’ lone wins came in Week 13 against the New York Jets (22-16) and Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns (33-23).
The silver lining is that they lost by under 10 points in nine games, which meant that they were unable to close games out. Their 2-14 record did gift them the No. 1 pick and a potential franchise quarterback.
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When the NFL initially announced the cancellation of the preseason, this meant that it would be harder to pinpoint which underdogs or young players will excel in live-action play if they make the roster. This is the case for the Bengals. Cincinnati’s main offseason highlight is drafting LSU quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow with the first pick. The Bengals have spent a decade under mediocrity at the quarterback position, so they may have found their Jake Ryan (look up the reference if not understood) and franchise player in Burrow.
As far as free agency, the Bengals typically do not spend a lot of money on new players. However, they opened their wallets in 2020 to strengthen their defense and offensive line. The signings of Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, and Vonn Bell bring veteran presence in the secondary, an area the Bengals have struggled in. The Bengals also franchise-tagged A.J. Green and re-signed tight end Cethan Carter to help Burrow’s transition into the NFL be more smooth than a traditional No. 1 pick.
Top picks typically lack solid supporting casts to work with since they are drafted to poor teams, but that’s not the Bengals’ case. Green missed all of 2019 and will be back as Burrow’s No. 1 weapon. His age may be a concern, but he is still a big boost compared to last season’s wide receiver depth. Burrow will be the starter, regardless of whether he is ready or not (you do not draft a quarterback with the first pick just to sit him). John Ross‘s speed will be a threat for secondaries and Burrow has shown glimpses of a solid connection with Auden Tate during training camp.
The Bengals also have a solid ground attack. Locking up Joe Mixon long-term was a smart decision as he is one of the more talented running backs in the league. In addition, he is improving his receiving skills, which means that he will be another solid option for Burrow (and fantasy teams).
However, the Bengals’ kryptonite remains the offensive line. They signed Xavier Su’a-Filo, but he is not enough to replace the retired Clint Boling at guard. Former first-rounder Billy Price has not lived up to his potential. However, the offensive line does block better in a run offense, so expect the running game to do some damage for Cincinnati.
Owner Mike Brown opened up his wallet to build the defense. Cincinnati signed defensive tackle D.J. Reader to a four-year, $53 million contract in the offseason; he will make a big impact in the interior of the Bengals’ front four as a solid run defender. Geno Atkins continues to excel at a high level each year. Edge rushers Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson return, with Dunlap having a solid 2019 season. Lawson struggled due to injuries but will be helpful if he stays healthy.
The Bengals also spent some money towards their secondary by signing cornerback Trae Waynes to a three-year, $42 million deal. Alexander will be an upgrade in the slot position and Bell’s signing will help with the run defense. They addressed the linebacker question by drafting Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither with hopes that they boost up their previously horrendous linebacking core, which is crucial in a 4-3 defense.
Predicting the 53 Man Roster
Burrow will easily be Week 1’s starter against the Los Angeles Chargers. Ryan Finley performed better in camp than Jake Dolegala and Brandon Allen’s veteran experience will easily give him the edge. The question is if the Bengals will keep three quarterbacks on their roster or cut one and add a fourth running back. However, due to COVID-19, it is more crucial to keep an extra quarterback, unless your team is stacked with running backs.
Mixon will see a majority of the carries and is now the top weapon in the Bengals’ offense. Giovani Bernard is a solid veteran who has some gas left to help Mixon when he is hurt or on a break. Trayveon Williams was on the team last year, but his injury has held him back during training camp and Samaje Perine’s size could be essential for third-and-short situations or red zone attempts.
Green is the No. 1 receiver and Tyler Boyd and John Ross return as solid options for Burrow. Boyd is the only target in two seasons to surpass 1,000 yards and with Ross entering a contract year, expect both players to play a bigger impact in the offense. Tee Higgins will back up and learn from the veterans and Tate and Alex Erickson had an excellent training camp. Mike Thomas will take the final spot as he performed enough to potentially make the roster.
With Tyler Eifert‘s departure, C.J. Uzomah will get the chance to fill in as a well-rounded tight end going forward. Drew Sample is a solid blocker who reportedly improved his receiving abilities during training camp. The final tight end spot could go either way as they did re-sign Carter, but he could realistically get cut if the Bengals decide to focus more on special teams with Mason Shreck.
Jonah Williams, Michael Jordan, Trey Hopkins, Bobby Hart, and Su’a-Filo are pretty much the starting line. Price will likely start as a backup but could work his way into the starting lineup. Fred Johnson could also take Hart’s spot in the lineup. Hakeem Adeniji has too much upside to cut, so Alex Redmond’s spot is questionable, but he will likely make it.
DL (3) – Geno Atkins, D.J. Reader, Mike Daniels
The Bengals carry more edge rushers due to their 4-3 defense. Atkins returns as a solid veteran presence and Reader’s solid rush defense skills will significantly boost the Bengals’ front line.
Dunlap finished 2019 with nine sacks while Lawson is looking to bounce back in a contract year. Khalid Kareem will serve as a solid rotational backup for Cincinnati and Amani Bledsoe has reportedly seen an increase in reps, which could give him the final spot.
Jordan Evans‘s hamstring injury could cause him to head to the IR, which gives Austin Calitro the final linebacking spot if the Bengals go with six linebackers. Josh Bynes’s veteran experience should give him the starting role in the beginning, but Logan Wilson could sneak into the rotation soon. Markus Bailey is also too valuable, so he will have a spot.
Trae Waynes’s injury opens up a roster spot as he likely heads to IR. Alexander will make a big impact in the secondary and Tony Brown nearly had two interceptions in the Bengals’ final scrimmage. Tory McTyer reportedly played in Alexander’s spot during the scrimmage, so there is a chance that he makes the final cut.
Bell and Jessie Bates III will start in the backfield for Week 1, but the question is who would take the fourth and final spot if Shawn Williams is not ready for the season opener. With Trayvon Henderson seeing lots of snaps in Williams’s place, there is a slim chance that the Bengals could go with five safeties. However, it is highly unlikely and Williams could even challenge Bell’s spot if he returns quickly.
This special teams unit is the same one as last season and if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Tristian Vizcaino’s season lasted shorter than last year, so Bullock will be on the roster for now.
The Bengals will certainly not have the worst record in the NFL this season. Burrow is a major upgrade behind center and Green’s return will certainly help. Green’s return means that opposing defenses will respect the pass, giving the backfield more opportunities to rush on the ground. The defensive line will be fun to watch, but the Bengals still lack talent in the linebacker and offensive line areas. They’re also inexperienced overall in a tough AFC North division. Expect some growing pains in the jungle, but they have a bright future ahead of them.
Season Prediction: 5-11, miss the playoffs
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