With the NFL season just a few weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Cincinnati Bengals, who finished 7–9 in 2017.
1. If second-year pro Joe Mixon becomes more decisive at the point of attack, he’ll be one of the NFL’s five best running backs by season’s end. The most important physical trait for an NFL running back is lateral agility—more particularly, the ability to move east and west within confined areas. That’s how a runner sets up blocks, makes defenders miss and creates his own space. Mixon’s lateral agility is in the same class as Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson. Few noticed last year because it was muted by Cincinnati’s erratic run-blocking.
Cincinnati’s offensive line improved a bit in the second half of last season, but not nearly enough to discourage management from making major changes. Left tackle Cordy Glenn was acquired from the Bills in a swap of first-round picks that moved the Bengals down from slot 12 to slot 21. Glenn’s arrival allows shaky fourth-year pros Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi to battle at right tackle—the job will fall to Fisher as long as he remains healthy after his 2017 season ended in November with a heart condition. At center, Russell Bodine was dismissed and Ohio State’s Billy Price was drafted with that No. 21 pick. On the sidelines, 23-year offensive line coach Paul Alexander and his unique teaching methods were let go, and Cowboys three-year O-line coach Frank Pollack was brought in. (Coincidentally, the Cowboys filled Pollack’s place by hiring Alexander four days later.)
The only standing concern is the guard position. Starters Clint Boling and Trey Hopkins are coming off miserable seasons, and backups Alex Redmon and Christian Westerman are limited. The Bengals already know how difficult it is to hide weak guards in pass protection, especially when you have a 6' 2" QB against whom defenses like to blitz and stunt inside. More concerning though is this interior O-line in the ground game. If Mixon’s talent can’t shine through, this offense will find itself in the same third-and-long situations it routinely failed to convert last season.
2. To help that ground game, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor should consider getting Ryan Hewitt on the field more frequently. The H-back’s snap counts have dropped by about 10 percentage points each year since his 2014 rookie season, when he played 43.8% of the snaps. Last year he played just 11%. Tellingly, Cincinnati’s rushing numbers have also dropped each year since 2014. Hewitt is a tremendous lead-blocker and movable chess piece.
3. After this season, the Bengals can dump Dalton with no salary cap repercussions. It’s surprising they didn’t this past spring, when he could have been released for just a $2.4 million dead money cap hit. It might be 10 years before another offseason presents as many starting caliber rookie and free agent QB choices as 2018 had. Dalton’s problem is he doesn’t always move well within the pocket. That creates glitches in mechanics and downfield vision, which he lacks the physical tools to overcome. The Bengals reached the playoffs in Dalton’s first five seasons, but the consecutive nine-loss campaigns are more indicative of this franchise’s—and its quarterback’s—current state.
4. One thing Dalton does well is throw seam balls, which are a staple in Cincinnati’s scheme. So are slant patterns, especially as part of a two-route combination. Dalton is decent but inconsistent on slants.
5. A.J. Green remains a true No. 1 receiver, but he’s involved in far too many negative plays. Seven years in, his chemistry with Dalton still wavers. Counting playoffs, a league-high 41 passes to Green since 2011 have been intercepted. Green certainly isn’t responsible for all—or even many—of these, but this offense can’t stabilize without targets to its top player becoming more secure. Last year’s first-round selection of John Ross was made in part to help here. The thinking was Ross’s speed would lift safeties deep, creating fewer double teams on Green. But Ross’s rookie development was submarined by a shoulder injury. Now, he’s just trying to beat out fellow second-year man Josh Malone. Just as important as what happens at WR spot No. 2 is what happens in the slot. Tyler Boyd’s second half surge as a rookie was followed by a sophomore season spent mostly on the bench. He simply must mature, on and off the field. Cincy’s passing game, which is predicated on field balance, requiring a viable inside presence.
6. Even more critical to that inside passing game is tight end Tyler Eifert, who has missed 41 of 80 contests in his five-year career, including 14 last season. Eifert’s athletic presence lends critical versatility to Lazor’s system, particularly in the red zone. If Eifert is unavailable, this offense is notably reduced.
7. The Bengals defense gave up just one run of 30 yards or more last season but still allowed 128 yards rushing a game—third most in the NFL. They particularly struggled against heavier man-blocking designs. This, plus the fact that this mostly straightforward zone-based D produced just 14 turnovers (tied for second fewest in the league), betrays a defensive line that doesn’t penetrate. Explosive, low-leveraged defensive tackle Geno Atkins is a stud, but the rest of Cincinnati’s deep front four rotation must jolt awake.
8. Right corner William Jackson is on the cusp of stardom. He has a keen sense for reading a receiver’s route, especially at the intermediate range and beyond. Jackson, underrated and long-armed Dre Kirkpatrick, and fifth-year slot man Darqueze Dennard give Cincy a solid trio of former first-round corners.
9. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin gives his safeties the freedom to subtly disguise their looks. It’s important that lanky seventh-year pro George Iloka fulfill his playmaking potential. Iloka has spent most of his career at free safety but is better suited for strong safety, where he could soon play, pending the development of second-round rookie Jessie Bates.
10. For the third straight year, linebacker Vontaze Burfict opens a season under suspension—this year is four games for a positive PED test. Like always, a spot will be open for Burfict upon return. He’s a stout first-and second-down thumper who, thanks to spatial awareness and efficient fundamentals, can stay in on third downs despite his subpar openfield speed. The Bengals don’t have enough linebacking talent to replace someone like that. Newly signed ex-Bill Preston Brown is average in all facets, 2016 third-rounder Nick Vigil has burst but is prone to coverage blunders and Vincent Rey is a high-level backup. There’s third-rounder Malik Jefferson, though historically, rookie linebackers have learned from the bench under Marvin Lewis.