The Cincinnati Bengals have gotten their first big step to getting back to the ways of winning in the NFL correctly. Long the bottom-feeders of the AFC North, the orange and black are entering the 2020 NFL season on the backs of an upstart first-overall selection and a big-time need to create meaningful results on the gridiron.
Andy Dalton, whose his orange hair and turnover-prone lifestyles fit into the plans for the Bengals at the time of him being drafted, is no longer a member of this team’s quarterback room. He’s been replaced as the No. 1 option by LSU Tiger signal-caller Joe Burrow. The suave, cigar-smoking rookie is going from what can be looked at as the best collegiate football team last year to what can easily be looked at as the worst team in the NFL this year.
While a hard pill to swallow, Burrow genuinely seems like he is fully committed and willing to stick it out with the Bengals, through however long it takes for this rebuild to improve.
Alongside Burrow, incumbent running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard form a formidable combo to take some heat off of Burrow. Mixon especially looks to be in line for a boost in touches and overall offensive impact in 2020, seeing as how the best friend of a rookie quarterback is an established running threat who can help take some of the scoring responsibilities off of him.
The position of wide receiver was improved by drafting Clemson product Tee Higgins, as he will pair with A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd, with Auden Tate, John Ross III, and Alex Erickson rounding out the top six options on the depth chart. Tyler Kroft and Tyler Eifert both have left the roster, leaving C.J. Uzomah and Drew Sample as the top tight end options, which are not great. But with how many other pass-catching options are on this team, both Uzomah and Sample should not be expected to contribute in large ways.
The offensive line has been redone slightly, and with last year’s top pick, left tackle Jonah Williams, coming back from his injury that made him miss the entire 2019 season, the line looks to be capable of keeping Burrow upright. Left guard Michael Jordan, center Trey Hopkins, right guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and right tackle Bobby Hart are not the worst combination out there, although Hart has had issues justifying his starting opportunities in the past. Here’s to hoping that he puts together a better 2020 season.
Defensively is where this team is still lacking the firepower it needs to be a solid team on both sides of the ball, but their defensive line is not the area of concern here.
Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, D.J. Reader and Sam Hubbard round out the top defensive ends (Dunlap and Hubbard) and defensive tackles (Atkins and Reader) on this team, with Carl Lawson headlining the backups.
Concerning their linebackers, Germaine Pratt, Josh Bynes and Logan Wilson are the top three options for this defense, with Wilson being a third-round selection in the most recent draft out of Wyoming. Wilson looks to be the linebacker with the highest potential on the team, and his multi-dimensional abilities that he showcased as a Cowboy will make him a multi-use tool on this team for many seasons.
But the defensive backfield is the big area of concern for this team, and they tried to attack it this offseason through free agency.
Former members of the Minnesota Vikings secondary, Trae Waynes and Mackenzie Alexander, made the trip over to Mike Zimmer’s old squad in the AFC North division, and both look to have solid roles moving forward for this defense. Waynes slots in next to William Jackson III as a starting corner, with Alexander the best option off the bench and in multi-defensive back sets.
At safety, the underwhelming combination of New Orleans Saints castoff Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III are roaming the defensive backfield for this team and represent the last line of defense. Surprisingly, Bell only managed to intercept one pass in his four years with the Saints, which is a big reason why the Saints decided to move on from him.
Regardless, Bell is a high-pedigree option that was a high (second round) draft pick and fits into the rebuild outline that the Bengals are following. But he still is not the type of shutdown defender that this team so desperately needs.
Defensive backs have been an issue for the Bengals for some time now, and going into the 2020 season, that issue looks to be as prevalent as ever. Their defensive line is stout, and while their linebacker corps has no pieces that jump off the page, they have high upside that can easily outweigh the skepticism currently surrounding them.
If looking to make upgrades through free agency, the likes of Brandon Carr (34 years old), Ross Cockrell (29), Tramon Williams (37), Briean Boddy-Calhoun (27), Morris Claiborne (30), Aqib Talib (34), Trumaine Johnson (30), Logan Ryan (29) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (34) all are veterans who could immediately help bring some experience to this group of corners. Cockrell, Boddy-Calhoun, Claiborne and Ryan project like the best fits due to age and how they would fit into the dynamic of the ongoing rebuild.
For safeties, Tony Jefferson (28) highlights the list of free agency options, which also include Eric Reid (28) and Morgan Burnett (31), among others. Jefferson was a solid option for the Baltimore Ravens, making the Bengals very familiar with the type of player he is and what he is capable of.
The Bengals are very much within an important stage of their rebuild, as getting Burrow on track right away in his first season at the helm is going to be integral to his long-term development. While not having a solid option behind him to push him (looking at you, Ryan Finley), Burrow’s spot leading this team is far from warm. However, head coach Zac Taylor is going to need to kindle a solid relationship with his rookie right away, especially since he already struggled through one season at the helm for Cincinnati.
The defense is the biggest area of emphasis that needs to be improved for the Bengals, and if they go into the season with how their defensive backfield looks, then they are doomed from the start. The starting combo of Waynes-Bell-Bates III-Jackson III is a tough unit to take seriously, even if they do fit into the long-term plan for Cincinnati.