NFL Power Rankings | 26. Cincinnati Bengals
Prediction: 5-11, 4th in AFC North.
IN the worst kept secret of the NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals got their man.
The Tiger King now reigns supreme in The Queen City.
Joe Burrow had a season for the ages at LSU in 2019, throwing for 5669 yards, 60 touchdowns and a miserly 6 interceptions. In doing so, Burrow won the Heisman Trophy to add polish to a burgeoning resume that enabled Cincinnati to make a no brainer pick at number one overall and crown Burrow as the new face the franchise.
Burrow will have an instant opportunity to succeed in Cincy thanks to the plethora of weapons at his disposal. The Bengals boast one of the most talented and deepest group of wide receivers in the league; a corps that is also remarkably complimentary of one another.
A.J. Green will return from an injury plagued few years and should form a dominating tandem with Tyler Boyd. Boyd will gobble the majority of his targets in the slot and continue his ascent to elite status, relieving some of the pressure on Green’s return. Newly drafted Tee Higgins has had lofty comparisons to Green but will have plenty of time to learn under the legendary receiver without the need to deliver elite production at this stage of his career. This is thanks to the presence of the underrated and sure handed Auden Tate, alongside burner John Ross. Ross’ speed and improved nous will allow the opportunity for Cincy’s new QB to go off script when necessary; something that he may have to become well versed in thanks to a somewhat patchwork offensive line.
This need on O-line includes decisions on who will start at right tackle and left guard. Michael Jordan and Billy Price will battle for the chance to man the left guard position next to 2019 first round pick, Jonah Williams.
Jordan will probably win that competition and will return as a bright spot on an O-line that was poor last season. Williams missed his entire rookie season but should bring stability to Burrow’s blind side and is the reason for a renewed sense of optimism. Off season acquisition, Xavier Su’a-Filo will start at right guard and newly drafted Hakeem Adeniji (who could fill in on the blind side) will likely compete with Bobby Hart and Fred Johnson for the aforementioned right tackle spot. Trey Hopkins will return at center, although the versatile Price will offer an experienced alternative across the interior if necessary. It remains a patchwork group, but it is less of a concern moving into the new season.
A cause for concern does however surround the tight end group. C.J. Uzomah has never surpassed 500 yards in his career and Drew Sample is a second-year end who is better known for his blocking than receiving skills. Sample is however thought highly of by the coaching staff, so could be in for a sophomore leap.
If Sample takes a leap, this offensive unit could become a truly potent group. It is a group rounded out by a running back crew headed up by the impressive Joe Mixon. Mixon is on an elite trajectory that should see him nationally recognised as a top 5 NFL back in the not too distant future. He is a back that can do it all and will explode for a true breakout year in 2020.
Mixon was 9th in the league for rushing yardage in 2019 with 1137 yards and will be looking to improve on this, as well as his 5 rushing touchdowns behind the overhauled O-line and the decision making of Burrow. The experienced Giovani Bernard returns for pass catching duties and Trayveon Williams will also afford Mixon a breather now and again.
Defensively, the Bengals could be in for a fun ride. Especially for the neutral observer. The team has spent a significant amount in free agency and it will be interesting to see how it all comes together, but it feels as though the Bengals are still two or three players short of returning to the excellent Cincy Ds of the early 2010s.
The defensive unit ranked within the bottom five for overall yardage per game and was dead last defending the run. The addition of the imposing D.J. Reader addresses this somewhat, but the linebacking crew is thin, especially in the middle. Josh Bynes has been recruited from Baltimore and will bring experience in this area but Bynes is little more than a replacement level player. The returning second-year pro Germaine Pratt is the only other ‘backer that Cincinnati can rely on for meaningful snaps thanks to the loss of Nick Vigil.
The worry here could be alleviated if both draft picks of Akeem Davis-Gaither and Logan Wilson pay instant dividends. Wilson in particular, is an exciting prospect who projects to start on the strong side and brings with him an abundance of speed and great range that is sorely needed to move this D up a notch.
Back on the D-line, Reader will be joined with the aging, but still effective pair of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, with Sam Hubbard maturing into the team’s primary pass rusher. Hubbard will work as part of a rotation including Carl Lawson and 2020 fifth rounder Khalid Kareem. Atkins and Dunlap are stars of the league but at this stage of their careers, are not true difference makers on a so-so line.
The secondary is vastly changed from last year. The Bengals had a middling pass defense in 2019 that seriously lacked playmakers, evidenced by an uninspiring 11 picks.
Minnesota has been raided with both Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander coming in to compete to play opposite the excellentWilliam Jackson III, whilst Vonn Bell arrives and will probably get the first crack over Shawn Williams in partnering Jessie Bates III at safety. Bates III is one of the best kept secrets in football and due to the added depth and quality within the secondary, opposing QBs may think twice about throwing on what is a tangibly improved unit.
Overall, Joe Burrow will bring a couple of wins to Ohio by himself and games at Cleveland, Washington and Miami will prove to be yardsticks of progress. This new-look offense, coupled with incremental improvement to a defense that was ranked comfortably in the bottom third of the league could bring some early returns.
The Bengals are on the right path and will be nipping at the heels of the Cleveland Browns soon enough but too many glaring holes on both sides of the ball render them merely also-rans in an crowded AFC playoff race.
A good, solid season should however be expected with 5 to 7 wins for Cincinnati in what would be positive progress and an excellent start to life for Joe Burrow in the NFL.
Current 2021 NFL Mock Draft Prediction: WR Ja'Marr Chase, LSU.