Andy Dalton doesn’t have to take the blame for the Bengals’ most recent first-round playoff exit, so he should be free to turn his full attention to duplicating the career year he had cut short by injury in 2015. It’s up to new offensive coordinator Ken Zampese to keep the status quo put in place by ex-OC Hue Jackson, who parlayed Dalton’s big year into the Browns’ head coaching job.
The youngsters will also be spared blame and left to develop in peace, which isn’t hard when the Bengals bring their new arrivals along so slowly. Cedric Ogbuehi is in line to take over the right tackle job vacated by Andre Smith, but fellow second-year tackle Jake Fisher, linebacker P.J. Dawson and cornerback Darqueze Dennard are all victims of how little year-to-year turnover there is in Cincinnati. They may turn heads in August only to be left to stew while last year’s holdovers get another shot.
The Rookie: Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu were casualties of free agency, and tight end Tyler Eifert is still coming back from the ankle injury he suffered in the Pro Bowl, so the passing attack’s supporting cast behind A.J. Green needs numbers. Enter Tyler Boyd, the second-round pick out of Pittsburgh who is lethal on underneath routes and can pick the ball out of the air in traffic. He’s polished enough to complement Green perfectly and get Dalton’s attention early.
Position Battle Spoiler: Who’s going to fill in for Vontaze Burfict while the fiery linebacker serves his three-game suspension to open the season? Vincent Rey shined on the weak side early in 2015 as Burfict completed his recovery from microfracture surgery, but the fact that Rey led the team in tackles despite starting only eight games shows that Cincy puts its linebacker depth to use. Keep an eye on third-round pick Zach Vigil and Marquis Flowers, who is returning from a lost year, but the promising Dawson appears best positioned to take on the bulk of the available snaps.
The Stat: 35.7%, the portion of the defense’s 28 forced turnovers last season that ended up in the hands of safety Reggie Nelson (eight interceptions, two fumble recoveries). With Nelson now in Oakland, the search is on for defenders who can fill that playmaking void.
Preseason Watchability Guide: The NFL will never put Bengals–Jaguars on primetime national television again, so cherish the Sunday night of Week 3 for what it is. Whichever Jacksonville receivers see extended playing time should provide a good measuring stick for first-round pick William Jackson III, who predictably has a long way to climb up the cornerback depth chart.