As NFL fanatics go to bed tonight, we dream of the picks our team will make. We dream that they will make an immediate impact and will be the next Kareem Hunt. The next Cam Newton. The next Odell Beckham Jr.
We dream that our team is going to make the pick that changes the direction of our franchise. But before commissioner Goodell walks to the podium on Thursday night in Dallas to announce the first rounders, let’s take a look at where the Bengals stand before they add their new brothers in stripes.
On offense, let’s start with the most pressing position group, the offensive line. The left side looks to be locked up and solid. Clint Boling returns for his eighth season at guard after another solid season. Cordy Glenn joins the team in a trade from Buffalo. He hopes to return to his 2016 pre-injury form which saw him as one of the top left tackles in the league.
On the right side, Trey Hopkins played well at left guard, and started 12 games. After an illness affected and shortened Jake Fisher’s season, look for him to be the top choice at right tackle, especially after Andre Smith moved on in free agency.
But don’t be surprised if the right name falls to them at 21 and they use that on a top rookie tackle. At center, a new face will be taking over, as the Bengals will almost certainly use an early round draft pick to fill the hole left by four year starter Russell Bodine heading to Buffalo.
Anyone who pays any small bit of attention to the Bengals knows that, barring catastrophe, Andy Dalton will be taking the snaps in 2018. Entering his eighth season with the franchise since being picked in the 2nd round of the 2011 draft, Dalton ranks first in winning percentage.
He ranks second in wins (62, 12th among active quarterbacks), passing yards, completions and completion percentage. He ranks third in TD passes. He has been a solid quarterback, but one that has not been able to take them to the next level, going 0-4 as a starter in playoff games.
After losing AJ McCarron to Buffalo this offseason, former USC quarterback Matt Barkley has been brought on to battle Jeff Driskel for the backup spot. Since being taken by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, Barkley has had minimal playing time.
In 18 games, he has thrown 8 touchdown passes against 18 interceptions. While Driskel showed some promise in the 2017 preseason, he has yet to appear in a regular season NFL game. He is also coming off of an off season injury. The Bengals have had the luxury of McCarron the last few seasons.
With that gone, if Dalton goes down. the Bengals are left with very little experience, and little hope for success. Looking at the depth at the QB position, I, and most, anticipate the Bengals to pick up a QB in the draft for the future.
Running back is one of the positions that the Bengals seem to look pretty good. Though they did lose Jeremy Hill, they return Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon, a two headed monster of speed and strength.
Gio’s presence has spoken for itself. In his four seasons with the Bengals, he has averaged over 4 yards a carry and has averaged almost 50 catches a season out of the backfield.
All you need to do is watch his play on Halloween night in Miami in 2013 to know what he brings to this team. And while Mixon got off to a slow start in his rookie 2017 season, he finished strong as the workhorse and looks to build on that this season.
Behind Bernard and Mixon is a whopping 11 2017 carries from Brian Hill. Expect the Bengals to look to add some depth at the position on day 3.
At wide receiver, I would not expect the Bengals to be overly active, though a late round pick wouldn’t shock me. Currently, and for the forseeable future, the #1 spot belongs to perennial baller AJ Green.
On the other side, Brandon Lafell would seem to be the early front runner, though his 2017 season consisted of only 548 yards and 3 touchdowns. A healthy John Ross will undoubtedly be a difference maker in 2018, and I would expect will overtake Lafell as Dalton’s second choice on the outside.
After a solid final two games, including the dagger to the Ravens playoff hopes, Tyler Boyd will hope to slide into the slot and give the Bengals another speedy option of the middle. But after a down sophomore year that saw his receiving yard total drop by almost 400 yards, 2nd year receiver Josh Malone will most certainly challenge Boyd for playing time.
At tight end, Tyler Eifert is back for another year after signing a new deal. Eifert is a top tight end in the league when healthy, and if he stays that way, I expect the Bengals passing attack to be much improved. Tyler Kroft stepped up big time in Eifert’s absence.
He logged 404 yards and 7 touchdowns, and had a catch in all but one game in 2017. He proved effective and reliable, and the two should help make Dalton’s life easier on third down, and in the red zone.
Add CJ Uzomah into the mix, and you have a solid trio of tight ends.
Moving on to the defense, there is room for upgrade at every position, but let’s look at the secondary first. At corner, it appears the top three are set. Dre Kirkpatrick looks to have a comeback year after a down 2017. William Jackson stormed onto the scene and ranked as one of the top corners in the league, yielding a 31.1 quarterback rating when throwing his way.
After early career injuries, Darqueze Dennard is healthy and making a difference, and will certainly battle for playing time along with the other two. Beyond the three former 1st round draft picks, depth is needed. After a subpar season by Josh Shaw and Adam Jones being released, expect them to use a day two or three pick to add another young, talented body to the mix.
Big plays were also missing from the corner position, as they totaled only five interceptions all of 2017.
The safety position is another one that will most certainly be addressed in the draft. After Eric Reid came and left without a deal, the Bengals continue to have famili ar faces at the position.
After a solid 2016 season after signing a new deal, George Iloka was underwhelming in 2017 at strong safety, and always seemed to be a step behind a big play. At free safety, the story was similar with Shawn Williams, as he played in 11 games and totaled only 49 tackles.
Clayton Fejedelem played some useful snaps as well, and totaled 8 more tackles than Williams on the season. But a depth and talent upgrade is necessary.
The front seven will also need to see some improvement if they are to have more success in 2018. With Geno Atkins coming off another dominant season at defensive tackle that had him rack up nine sacks, there is no reason to think that he would fall of in 2018.
With veteran Pat Sims returning, along with youngsters Andrew Billings and Ryan Glasgow, they look to be in pretty good shape on the line. This looks to be an important season for Billings, as he missed his rookie season with an injury and had an average 2017. I would expect them to address the position on the 2nd or 3rd day.
On the ends, Carlos Dunlap still looks like he can be a top end in the league, though his numbers have been down the last few years. After recording 13.5 sacks in 2015, his numbers has dropped to 8 and 7.5 the last two seasons.
Michael Johnson is far from the player that earned him a big contract from Tampa Bay in 2014. He did contribute 5 sacks last season, but I would anticipate that second year player Jordan Willis will push Johnson for the starting spot.
After losing Chris Smith to the Browns in free agency, and missing at this position in some previous drafts, this is a position that badly needs depth, which will be addressed this weekend.
At linebacker, there are some holes that will have to be filled if the group is to improve upon a season that saw tight ends wide open over the middle in 2017 all too frequently.
Vontaze Burfict is out for the first four games due to a PED suspension, so the Bengals will again start the season with their field general on the sideline. Until he returns, newly converted DE Carl Lawson and Jordan Evans look to have the leg up on the outside linebacker spots to start the season.
And while Vinny Rey has been a reliable mainstay for the last eight seasons, his issues in coverage are glaring and were a big problem last year. A big upgrade has arrived at middle linebacker with the signing of Cincinnati native Preston Brown in free agency.
In his four seasons in Buffalo, he never had less than 109 tackles, and led the NFL in tackles in 2017. Hardy Nickerson should also contribute, but this is another position that will be tackled early, and don’t be surprised if the Bengals use the 21st pick on it, if the right player is there.
As has been evidenced by the past two seasons, the Bengals have some holes that have to be filled. While they improved the line by trading for Glenn and improved the linebacker corps by signing Brown, the Bengals can not afford another mediocre draft, and my cautious optimism leads me to believe that will not happen this weekend in Dallas.
After the dust has settled, I will be back to reassess where the Bengals stand, and hope to do so with great excitement for the 2018 season to begin.
The AFC North Power Vacuum
The AB shoe has dropped.
After a drama-filled start to the offseason, Antonio Brown got his wish: A new home and contract in the Bay Area. The Pittsburgh Steelers shipped their disgruntled star to the Oakland Raiders for a pair of third and sixth round picks in this year’s draft.
The Killer-B Era in the Steel City is over.
Le’veon Bell called the organizations bluff last year and sat the entire season after he was offered $14.5 million on another franchise tag. That decision left the Steelers with the fifth most unused cap space in the NFL last season and now the loss of Brown hamstrings them even more. The Steelers must now eat $21 million in dead cap money with Brown in the Silver and Black, ostensibly the largest hit of its kind in league history.
Sweet, sweet music for the rest of the AFC North.
While Pittsburgh holds on to a fading era the other three teams in the division have kickstarted themselves with new coaches, quarterbacks, and in the Cleveland Browns case, both.
Baker Mayfield‘s talents are now fully paired with Freddie Kitchens, the duo led Cleveland to a 5-2 record down the stretch and has injected a breadth of confidence the franchise hasn’t felt since returning to the shores of Lake Erie in 1999. The Lamar Jackson Era is in full swing after the Baltimore Ravens shipped Joe Flacco to Denver for a fourth-round pick. Jackson is a dynamic playmaker but struggled as a passer in year one, despite aerial issues the former Heisman winner notched six wins in seven starts with a 27-24 loss to Kansas City mixed in.
In Cincinnati all of the eggs now lie in the Zac Taylor basket, The entire coaching staff has been overhauled outside of special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons and after 16 seasons of Marvin Lewis, there is tepid optimism surrounding this young coaching staff.
For the first time since Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season, the Steelers don’t seem like the go-to favorite to win the AFC North and stomp on another Marvin Lewis team. Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan are bringing fresh eyes and concepts to this roster and ideally Bengals fans will experience the 2018 LA Rams Offense: Midwest Edition when they roll into Paul Brown Stadium this Fall.
On the defensive side things can’t get much worse than last season with new coordinator Lou Anarumo taking the reins of a unit that ranked 32nd in total defense (413.6 yards allowed per game), 32nd against the pass (275.9 per game), 30th in points allowed (28.4 per game) and 29th against the run (137.8 yards per game).
Meanwhile, many of the draft experts have the Bengals selecting do-it-all LSU linebacker Devin White with the 11th pick. A massive value at that spot, White is as durable a player you’ll find at the linebacker position and is graded by Scouts Inc. as the fourth best prospect available in April. He would be a welcome addition to a defense that was the worst in the NFL defending tight ends last season.
A New Dey has arrived not only in Cincinnati but throughout the rest of the AFC North and with the Killer-B’s done in Pittsburgh the Bengals have their chance to fill the power void.
The Bengals fans guide to Super Bowl LIII
It’s been 30 years since the Cincinnati Bengals last played in a Super Bowl. A heartbreaking 20-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers was the Bengals most recent shot at glory, and while Sunday’s matchup between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams showcases how far Cincinnati is to breaking that drought, there are plenty of things for Bengals fans to focus on inside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Keep an Eye on the Incoming Head Coach
Zac Taylor is taking the reins from Marvin Lewis in what will be the first head coaching change since I started watching Bengals games during that magical 2005 season. The 35-year old Rams QB coach joins six other “young, offensive-minded” hires from this years coaching carousel. For Bengals fans, they are hoping he’s a cut above the rest, despite being the last to ink a deal. Bengals faithful should pay close attention any and every time the CBS production crew decides to show him in action on Sunday.
This is the biggest game Taylor has been a part of since entering the NFL coaching ranks with the Dolphins back in 2012 and it will be really interesting to see him handle a moment all Bengals fans hope he can relive sooner rather than later in Cincinnati. No one on the outside of the Rams organization really knows how involved Taylor is with setting up the gameplan, but he has clearly had a very positive effect on Jared Goff since taking over his tutelage in 2017.
How he interacts with Goff in between plays and coaches him through mistakes could go a long way in determining how he will help Andy Dalton (or Ryan Tannehill?) return to his 2015 form. Zac Taylor might not be the most experienced coach getting a chance this year but the results with Goff prove he deserves this opportunity.
Pre-snap and Play-Action
There are still questions as to who will call plays and control the 2019 Bengals offense, but in saying that fans should expect a lot of carryover from this Rams system that has willed their way to Atlanta with pre-snap communication and play-action passing. It’s no secret that Goff and Rams head coach Sean McVay communicate right up to the 15-second cutoff during every play.
McVay can read the defense, then call something to match their formation and he often times uses motion to accomplish that. Former Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was allergic to this kind of communication and the offense ranked 32nd and 26th in his two seasons because of it. Expect Taylor to have his voice in the Red Rifle’s ear plenty on Sundays.
In terms of play-action passing the Rams used these plays as the cornerstone of their offense, calling them 34 percent of the time with devastating effect. LA’s 9.0 yards per play on these calls ranked third in the NFL and they averaged 1.9 yards per play more than regular calls. On the flip side, Cincinnati ranked 13th in the league calling play-action on 24 percent for 1.5 yards per play more than all other calls. It’s not rocket science, play-action works wonders in today’s NFL and Taylor is expected to bring that mindset with him to the Queen City.
Todd Gurley: The Receiver
Player A: 55 targets, 43 receptions, 296 yards, 6.9 yards per catch, 1 TD
Player B: 81 targets, 59 receptions, 580 yards, 9.8 yards per catch, 4 TD
Yes, I know Joe Mixon had a stellar year running the ball (1,168 yards, 4.9 yards per carry) but he was totally mismanaged in the passing game and his Player A numbers reflect that. Player B, well I’d say he was used correctly and will continue to be used that way on Sunday. Despite his two costly drops in the NFC Championship Game, Todd Gurley is still one of the best receiving backs in the NFL.
A big reason why he’s so productive is the way LA puts him in an ideal position to make big plays, whether it’s a wheel route down the sideline or a throwback screen off of…. play action, this coaching staff does all they can to help him gash defenses. So far in Mixon’s career, I’ve barely seen any of that, it’s similar to putting a governor on a 66′ Cobra. Keep an eye on how the Rams use Gurley’s receiving skills to their advantage and imagine Mixon on the other end of those throws.
This One’s For Whit
Every Bengals fan should be rooting for the new head coach to bring a Super Bowl winning pedigree with him to his new digs in Cincinnati, but if that wasn’t enough, we should all be rooting for Andrew Whitworth.
Likely on his way to back-to-back All-Pro selections Whitworth is one of the best players to ever play the tackle position and was a consummate professional during his 11-year stint in a Bengals uniform. He notched his first playoff win 13 years into his career and why not knock down all of the playoff milestones in one run. I know who I’m rooting for come Super Bowl Sunday.
Enjoy the holiday.
An Open Letter to Marvin Lewis
Dear Mr. Lewis,
I have been contemplating sending you this letter for quite some time, and I hope it finds you well. You don’t know me, but I am a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Bengals. The second Super Bowl loss to the San Francisco 49ers remains as the first time I can remember experiencing heartbreak. I have, quite literally, hated Joe Montana for what he did to my then 12 year old self, for 30 years now. That said, my fandom has endured. Admittedly, as I was in college in the late 90’s, I was not as honed in on every move my Bengals made. So many losses, so little time. Sure, I loved Jeff Blake, Corey Dillon, and Takeo Spikes, but I had finals to take and parties from which to recover. But then something happened. Something unexpected. Mike Brown hired you as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003. Marvin Lewis – the legendary architect of one of the greatest defenses in the history of the league – was coming to be our coach! The excitement was palpable, and you were brimming with confidence. It was a swagger not seen around here since the days of Sam Wyche.
As the years passed, you began to place your stamp on the team and the city. The Marvin Lewis community fund is an outstanding work of art, and a tribute to your dedication to the people of Cincinnati. Kudos. On the field, the likes of Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson, Willie Anderson, and TJ Houshmandzadeh, made being a Bengals’ fan fun again. They became must see TV, if not in person appointment viewing. Cleveland was a guaranteed two wins. Baltimore was almost two. Pittsburgh was likely a couple of losses, but the wins were sweet, and the losses were respectable. I’d look forward to your post-game interviews, and your Monday press conferences. There was useful information to be gleaned from them. Things that the average fan would miss as they had long turned off the broadcast and moved on with their lives. Not me. I am a loyal fan, remember? I don’t break down tape or have some hot draft take, but I love my Bengals, and I follow them closely – you included.
I need to take a moment to give you some props on the transition from the Palmer-era to the Dalton-era. That entire thing was a mess, what with Carson forcing his way out, you hiring an unproven offensive coordinator in Jay Gruden, and then drafting/starting a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton. And all during an NFL lockout. I still remember predictions of the team going 0-16 that year. Somehow, some way, you guided this team, not only to a winning record, but to the playoffs. I am not sure if I have ever been more impressed by an NFL coach. You completely rebooted the franchise, and had a whole new cast of characters for us to get to know. Dalton, AJ Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Clint Boling, and Andrew Whitworth. Young talent, ready to take on the AFC North. Two wins versus Cleveland – check. Almost two wins versus Baltimore – check. Still two losses to Pittsburgh – yeah, most of the time, but division titles weren’t out of reach. The playoffs became an annual event. This is where I need to touch on the obvious…
I do not understand your philosophy when it comes to playoff games, and for that matter, night games, games against Pittsburgh, Monday Night Football games, and any other game not at 1 pm eastern. You seem to have think and preach that these games are just the same as any other. No need for extra emphasis. No need for extra hype. No need to bring an extra chin strap because it’s just another game. After watching 16 years of this approach from you, I humbly disagree. Your teams are consistently outplayed, out-coached, and seemingly unprepared for the spotlight of these match-ups. At some point, would it not make sense to try a different approach? Maybe call it Pittsburgh week? Maybe say this Sunday night game is going to be huge for us? Maybe say that your team is chomping at the bit to play on Monday Night Football? It’s got to be better than just another game – just another loss.
I know you love this city and this franchise. I genuinely believe you want to win – for Mike Brown, and for the fans. That said, I think that it is time to move on with your life’s work. You gave it your all. You got more out of Mr. Brown than anyone ever thought possible. You raised this franchise to a level of respectability that no one could have predicted. You have done good work. It’s just not enough. There is no shame in that. And if I am being honest, you just do not seem to enjoy this anymore. Your press conferences, that I used to look forward to hearing, are all the same. Short, full of disdain for the people asking questions, and random giggles that make no sense. The fire and energy after 16 years of being an NFL head coach have faded. Why not let someone else give it a shot? We both know Mike Brown isn’t going to fire you, so why not walk away? Do what’s best for the franchise, and make them look for a coach. Last time, it brought us you!
Thank you for reading, and I wish you all the best in your next adventure.
P. S. Please take Hue Jackson with you. Thanks