Bengals 2020 Offseason and Future Outlook
“It’s a new day, yes, it is!” – Big E
Big E apparently moonlights as the Bengals social media manager because that was the tagline for the 2019 in the franchise’s first season under head coach Zac Taylor. Zac came from the Los Angeles Rams organization as a quarterback’s coach under Sean McVay and led the Bengals to the worst record in the league in 2019. With his lack of experience and the team’s poor performance, expectations are very low for the Cincinnati Bengals heading into the 2020 season. There is, however, hope for optimism from the coaching staff because the team performed better throughout the latter half of the season and players really seem to enjoy playing for coach Taylor and are buying into what he’s building in Cincinnati. This is the most active the Bengals have been in free agency as long as I can remember, and these players seem to be very excited to see what Zac Taylor has to offer moving forward. As important as the talent that the Bengals brought in, are the personalities. Six out of the seven draft picks had been a team captain in college. The first two selections were national champions. So, they’re bringing in winners and leaders to the organization to build more character.
How can you talk about the 2020 Bengals offseason without discussing Joe Burrow at length? The Bengals made Burrow the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft after he posted a historic and incredible Heisman campaign en route to delivering a National Championship to the bayou. With the release of Andy Dalton, Burrow comes to the Queen City as the expected starter with the pressure of fans who are hungry for the team to get back to its winning ways. Bengals fans have long placed the blame of the mediocrity of the franchise on the shoulders of Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton, and 2020 will be the first season without either of the two in the building since 2003 and Burrow is the new representation of hope for the Bengals.
The biggest piece to blame for the Bengals recent woes however has been their offensive line. In the offseason they addressed one of their biggest needs with *checks notes* Xavier Su’a-Filo and 6th round pick Hakeem Adeniji. Now this is alarming, however there are positives to the outlook of the offensive line believe it or not. The blocking got better over the second half of the year in both the passing and running game, which itself transitioned from the zone running scheme that the Rams utilized with Todd Gurley that Zac Taylor brought over, to a power scheme which helped Mixon tremendously. This late season success, coupled with the return of 1st round OT Jonah Williams from the 2019 draft who missed all season and will be the presumptive starter at LT for Burrow in 2020 should provide hope that the unit will not be as big of a problem as it has been since the team let Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler go in one offseason.
The strength of this offense comes in the skill position players. Running back Joe Mixon has amassed over 1,100 yards on the ground and just short of 300 receiving yards in back to back seasons and will look to build upon the success he had late last season where all 4 of his 100-yard games came in the last 8 games of the season. The WR room is full of a bunch of talent as well. AJ Green is AJ Green, he just needs to stay on the field. The franchise tag situation is alarming, especially since he hasn’t signed it yet. However, they are looking to extend the veteran who has said multiple times that he wants to play his entire career in Cincinnati. Tyler Boyd is the projected starter at slot WR, where he has eclipsed 1,000 yards in back to back seasons. Auden Tate came on last season as well after an expectedly quiet rookie season to make some splash catches as the big bodied option with AJ Green out. 2nd round selection Tee Higgins out of Clemson will get to compete for playing time on the perimeter with Tate. Joe Burrow has no shortage of weaponry in Cincinnati.
Moving on to the defensive side of the football, the strength of this unit is definitely the defensive line. Talent at the top with solid depth, this unit was the team’s best last year. Geno Atkins has been a staple of the unit for a decade now, and his pass rush ability from the interior is a force. Carlos Dunlap has been a rock-solid foundational piece on the edge as well for a long time. They have had a youth infusion of talent over the last few years as well, Carl Lawson was a force his rookie season in 2017 as a pass rush specialist before suffering a torn ACL in 2018 Speaking of 2018, what pass rusher has the most sacks through their first two seasons from the 2018 draft class? Sam Hubbard. Hubbard is the versatile piece who rushes from the inside and the outside and is productive in both alignments. The Bengals added Khalid Kareem out of Notre Dame in the 5th round who will further serve as depth for this unit.
The biggest overhaul the team has made in recent history has to be the flushing out of the linebacker room they performed. The names that left the building are Preston Brown (midseason), Hardy Nickerson, Nick Vigil, and LaRoy Reynolds. They used 3 draft picks on the position with Wyoming’s Logan Wilson, App State’s Akeem Davis-Gaither, and Purdue’s Markus Bailey. The theme here is athleticism. The linebacker position for the Bengals had been abysmal for a long time mostly due to a lack of athleticism there. You can’t be a liability in coverage in this day and age with all these great running backs who can catch and these mismatch tight ends, and for the last 5 years the Bengals consistently trotted out multiple liabilities a play! Not to mention the 3 best QBs in the AFC can all run, so you need to be able to catch them when they do so if you want to have a chance to compete. All three of these players bring that factor, and Davis-Gaither brings versatility to the position that the Bengals have never really valued at linebacker in the past. They also brought in veteran Josh Bynes who was very effective for the Ravens in his opportunities last season. The Bengals took swings with the bat, and that shows that they recognize that they had to make changes with the way they’ve been addressing the linebacker room.
This secondary is confusing as it has two franchise pieces maybe… In 2018 William Jackson III looked like the shutdown corner the Bengals had been looking for since Leon Hall lost a step and transitioned to the slot later in his Bengals career. Then he took a step back in 2019, looking like an effort problem at times. In 2018 Jessie Bates III looked like the 2nd best rookie safety behind Derwin James and a true rangy center fielder and looked to have addressed his tackling concerns he had when he was coming out of Wake Forest. Then he took a step back in 2019, regressing at tackling and in coverage ability. Then they brought in help from Coach Zimmer in free agency, signing former 1st round pick Trae Waynes and 2nd round pick Mack Alexander to come in and presumably start at outside CB2 and slot respectively. They also brought in safety Vonn Bell from New Orleans who, again, fits this versatile role as a part time box safety, slot corner, blitz specialist. This move might make them consider moving Shawn Williams down to linebacker in sub packages, moving more athleticism down closer to the line of scrimmage. Darius Phillips flashed at times at corner and will be on the roster as a return man so his development will be interesting to watch as well. A couple of important seasons for promising players, as well as the dynamics of 3 free agents to this secondary will make this an important unit to watch in 2020.
The Bengals lost a total of 7 games in 2019 by 7 or less points. Is adding two 1st round picks to their weakest units QB and OT, and a healthy return of AJ Green worth one more touchdown a game? Couple that question with additions on all three levels of the defense through the draft and free agency hitting the back 7 hard and adding the best nose tackle on the market to improve on the strength up front. Oh, and also Zac Taylor has a year under his belt and the coaching staff showed improvements in scheme and got inspired play out of a 1-14 team in his first year. I’m not saying they win all 7 of those games, but all signs are pointing up for the Bengals in 2020 and beyond, we’ll see how the organization continues to operate in the ‘New Dey’ era. *Plays the Legacy theme song*