The Bengals' offseason is in full swing. They are retaining head coach Zac Taylor for a third year, even though he's posted a 6-25-1 mark in two seasons with the team.
Team President Mike Brown said they are ‘bullish’ on the foundation that Taylor is building.
Joe Burrow voiced his praise for the return of Taylor.
"Couldn’t be more excited about the future of our organization," Burrow tweeted. "We have a great foundation and great people at the top. Look forward to giving the fans what they deserve. Also hopefully that’s the last time I ever have to watch a game on tv."
The quarterback made his first public appearance in months on The Herd with Colin Cowherd on Thursday backing his statement and the team’s decision to retain Taylor.
"I think Zac is going to be a great coach for a long time," Burrow said. "I'm happy to be in the position that I'm in and to help build this organization, but it's going to be on Zac's back. He's the leader of what we're trying to do."
The Bengals are entering one of the most important offseasons in its franchise’s history. The team is facing major turnover with 27 players and 11 starters set to hit free agency.
Cincinnati will have a lot of holes to fill, but here are two things they must prioritize on the offensive side of the ball in order to put this team on the right trajectory.
Protect Joe Burrow
No question here. Protecting Burrow should be the number one priority of the offseason.
Burrow rarely had a clean pocket before his season-ending knee injury in Week 11. He often lined up in shotgun formation to give himself more time, but only had an average of 2.3 seconds to throw.
Pressured in nearly 21% of his dropbacks, Burrow was taken to the ground for 32 sacks (2nd most) and took 42 quarterback hits (5th most) in the first 11 weeks of the season he played in.
Pro Football Focus ranked the Bengals 30th in their final offensive line rankings.
The 2021 salary cap isn't set due to COVID-19, but it's expected to be anywhere from $175-195 million. People around the league believe it will be greater than the minimum of $175 million, but potentially less than the 2020 cap ($198 million).
The Bengals should focus a large sum of their free agency money on signing a top offensive lineman to help bolster a depleted line.
Players like Brandon Scherff, Joe Thuney, and Russell Okung are going to ask for top dollar, but the Bengals are going to have to be aggressive in order to get the right personnel on the team.
Cincinnati will also need to look at upgrading the position through the draft. The team secured the fifth overall pick, but may miss out on top tackle Penei Sewell.
Sewell is considered a generational talent. He opted out of his 2020 season at Oregon due to COVID-19. During his sophomore season in 2019, Sewell posted the highest grade ever given to a tackle at 95.8 according to Pro Football Focus. He only allowed one sack in 1,376 snaps as a Duck.
If Sewell is gone before the Bengals are on the clock, they could address another need like receiver, edge rusher, or defensive back. They could also trade back for more picks and take a lineman like Rashawn Slater (Northwestern) or Samuel Cosmi (Texas) later in the first round.
The two most reliable players along the offensive line will be coming back from injury in Jonah Williams and Trey Hopkins. Williams was the lone Bengals’ lineman to finish the season with a pass-blocking grade of 70 or higher (75.8) according to PFF.
The timetable for Hopkins' return from ACL surgery is still uncertain. He was injured in Sunday's season finale against the Ravens.
Burrow completed 65.3% of his passes for 2,688 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league. He was on pace to break multiple records.
Keeping him upright would do wonders for his development and the ceiling of the Bengals' offense.
Speed kills. Cincinnati lacked speed at the receiver position this past season.
No doubt the Bengals have talent at the wide receiver position headlined by Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, but A.J. Green, John Ross III, Alex Erickson, and Mike Thomas are set to be free agents.
Auden Tate and Stanley Morgan are the only other receivers under contract besides prospects like Trenton Irwin and Scotty Washington, who signed future deals.
There’s a need at receiver even if the Bengals and Green continue their marriage. Most believe the two parties will move on after 10 seasons.
The Bengals need to target a speedster that can create separation from a defender and be playmaker in space.
Ross had the expectation to be that explosive threat for Cincinnati when the team drafted him with the ninth overall pick in 2017.
Despite his career miscues, the Chargers gave Ross an eight-yard cushion, the average distance between the receiver and closest defender, in the Week 1 matchup according to Next Gen Stats.
Green (5.3), Boyd (5.9), and Higgins (6.4) all had significantly lower average cushions.
Green averaged the worst separation between defenders in the NFL with 1.7 yards. Higgins followed with 2.5 yards of separation and Boyd tallied 2.7 yards.
Deebo Samuel, the 49ers speedy threat receiver, averaged a league best of 4.6 yards separation.
The Bengals should look to add a wide receiver in free agency, but not at top price.
Chris Godwin and Kenny Golladay headline the free agent receiver class, but players like Curtis Samuel and T.Y. Hilton could be better fits for the Bengals.
Their best bet to add their speedy playmaker could be in the draft. If Sewell doesn’t fall to the team at five, they should consider drafting Ja’Marr Chase or Devonta Smith.
Chase had 84 receptions for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns last season at LSU with Burrow under center. He opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19.
Smith has 105 receptions for 1,641 yards and 20 touchdowns for Alabama. The Heisman Trophy winner will lace them up one more time with a National Championship on the line against Ohio State.
There are day-two options that could pique the Bengals' interest like Florida speedster Kadarius Toney or Houston's Marquez Stevenson.
Toney from Florida is listed at 6-feet tall. He doesn’t have the size of Higgins or Tate, but his speed and athleticism allowed for a breakout season of 70 receptions for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Stevenson is also listed at 6-feet. He finished with 147 reception and averaged 15.4 yards-per-catch in 32 career games. Stevenson wouldn’t be a premium pick, but could be exactly what they are looking for on day three.
This offseason is a chance for Taylor to prove why he deserved a third season with the Bengals.
If this team gives Burrow the protection he needs up front and continues to put weapons around him, then this offense is going to be scary for years to come.
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