CINCINNATI — The Bengals are hoping to take a big step forward this season after aggressively addressing their weaknesses in free agency and in the draft.
From Ja'Marr Chase to Riley Reiff and Trey Hendrickson, there are plenty of new faces on Cincinnati's roster.
They're also expecting Joe Burrow to take a step forward this season, even though the star quarterback only appeared in 10 games in 2020. Burrow suffered a torn ACL and MCL in November. He's fully cleared and will start the season under center for the Bengals.
Head coach Zac Taylor has a lot to prove as he enters his third season with the club. He's posted a 6-25-1 record in his first two years in Cincinnati. He's very much on the hot seat and needs to rack up some wins early in the season to build some equity with ownership and the fan base.
"We've got a team that is three-quarters his players, new players that have come since he came. It's his team now," Bengals owner Mike Brown said in July. "My hope is the same as his hope, which is to have a winning team."
After winning just four games in 2020, expectations are high in Cincinnati this season.
The Bengals' offense flashed their potential last year, but they never reached their full potential because of an awful offensive line.
Cincinnati arguably had the worst guard play in the NFL. Bobby Hart started 13 games at right tackle and he couldn't make the Bills' 53-man roster.
The Bengals replaced Hart with Reiff and added three linemen—Jackson Carman, D'Ante Smith and Trey Hill in the draft. They're better in the trenches, but did they do enough to maximize Burrow's ability?
That's a question that will be answered early in the season with dynamic pass rushers like Myles Garrett, Khalil Mack and T.J. Watt on the schedule.
The Bengals also took Chase with the fifth overall pick in the draft. The LSU product has flashed his potential in training camp, but he's also had some drop issues.
Despite those struggles, expect to see the Bengals go to Chase early and often this season. With Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd also on the roster, Burrow will be throwing to one of the best wide receiver trios in the NFL.
Joe Mixon is hoping to have a career year after playing just six games in 2020. The star running back topped the 1,000-yard mark in 2018 and 2019, but his streak was broken after he suffered a foot injury in Week 6 against the Colts.
Mixon looks fast, explosive and is fully recovered from the foot injury that kept him on the sidelines. He was also ecstatic about the Bengals bringing back offensive line coach Frank Pollack. Mixon led the AFC in rushing yards (1,168) in 2018 with Pollack on the Bengals' staff.
This offense should be one of the most explosive units in the NFL, but they need to keep Burrow upright to reach their full potential.
The Bengals' defense is full of new faces. They signed Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, Larry Ogunjobi and Hendrickson in free agency.
They also added multiple rookies that are expected to contribute, including Cam Sample and Tyler Shelvin.
Cincinnati desperately needs to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They finished with just 17 sacks last season, which was last in the NFL. They moved on from veterans like Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels in hopes of finding younger, more productive defensive linemen.
DJ Reader is going to play a big part in turning this defense around. He only appeared in five games last season due to a quad injury, but there's a reason the Bengals signed him to a four-year, $53 million contract last offseason.
A quartet of Reader, Ogunjobi, B.J. Hill and Josh Tupou should be much improved from what they had in 2020, when injuries decimated their defensive line.
Much like Taylor, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has his guys. The Bengals essentially replaced William Jackson, Carl Lawson and Carlos Dunlap with guys that should fit Anarumo's 3-4 system.
Star safety Jessie Bates is going to make life much easier on a new-look secondary. The 24-year-old is looking to build on a breakout 2020 campaign where he finished with 109 tackles, 15 passes defensed and three interceptions.
The Bengals' linebackers are young, but they like how Logan Wilson has developed going into his second year. The Bengals are expected to use three safeties at times this season, which would alleviate the pressure on the linebacker room.
Vonn Bell finished the 2020 season strong and veteran safety Ricardo Allen will man the third safety spot.
The Bengals don't need this defense to be a top-10 unit, but they need to be much better than they've been in recent seasons if Cincinnati is going to accomplish their goals.
From Burrow's health to the offensive line and an unproven defense, there are plenty of legitimate questions about the Bengals going into the 2021 season.
If they can protect their star quarterback, then the offense should excel. They have a great group of skill players around him. Is that going to be enough to overcome a tough schedule and arguably the best division in the NFL?
The Bengals need to take a leap, which is going to be difficult to do in the AFC North. They'll flash their potential at times this season, but they're one year away from being a legitimate playoff contender.
2021 Record: 7-10
Expected Depth Chart
Quarterback (2) — Joe Burrow, Brandon Allen
Running Back (3) — Joe Mixon, Semaje Perine, Chris Evans
Wide Receiver (6) — Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, Ja'Marr Chase, Auden Tate, Mike Thomas, Stanley Morgan Jr.
Tight End (3) — C.J. Uzomah, Drew Sample, Mitch Wilcox
Offensive Tackle (4) — Jonah Williams, Riley Reiff, Fred Johnson, Isaiah Prince
Left Guard (2) — Quinton Spain, D'Ante Smith
Right Guard (2) — Xavier Su'a-Filo, Jackson Carman
Center (2) — Trey Hopkins, Trey Hill
Defensive End (5) — Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Cam Sample, Darius Hodge and Wyatt Ray
Defensive Tackle (5) — DJ Reader, Larry Ogunjobi, B.J. Hill, Josh Tupou and Tyler Shelvin
Linebacker (5) — Germaine Pratt, Logan Wilson, Jordan Evans, Akeem Davis-Gaither, and Markus Bailey
Cornerback (7) — Trae Waynes, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, Eli Apple, Darius Phillips, Jalen Davis and Nick McCloud
Safety (4) — Vonn Bell, Jessie Bates, Ricardo Allen and Brandon Wilson
Specialists (3) — Evan McPherson, Kevin Huber and Clark Harris