The Bengals’ recent struggles in the postseason overshadowed the fact that this was one of the NFL’s most consistent franchises from 2011-15. The team reached the playoffs in each of those seasons and won at least 10 games four times.
That run of success came to a sudden end in 2016 as the Bengals suffered their first losing season (6–9–1) since Andy Dalton arrived as an unheralded rookie. Now, after a second consecutive offseason filled with quality veteran departures, pressure is mounting on the draft classes of the past three seasons to lead this club back to the playoffs. This includes the influx of 11 rookies in 2016 and three picks from the first four rounds over the previous two years who have yet to see the field due to injury.
The offense will still be built around Dalton and standout wide receiver A.J. Green, but this team’s success will be determined by an offensive line filled with question marks.
The talented defense will hope to continue its momentum after the unit ranked among the best in the league in the second half after struggling early in the season.
Dalton has never been regarded as a top-tier NFL quarterback, but the former second-round pick out of TCU continues to put up quality numbers. In 2016, he threw for 4,206 yards (87 shy of his career high) and completed 64.7 percent of his passes. His best quality might be his durability; in six seasons, he has missed only three starts.
Green missed out on his sixth straight 1,000-yard season due a hamstring injury that forced him to miss six games. He still caught 66 passes for 964 yards — but had only four touchdowns, the fewest of his career.
The Bengals added to their outstanding group of skill position players in the draft, selecting wide receiver John Ross, who ran the fastest 40-yard dash time ever at the Scouting Combine, and controversial but talented running back Joe Mixon.
Dalton expects to have a healthy Tyler Eifert, who has dominated in the red zone when healthy but hasn’t been able to stay on the field. Tyler Boyd enters his second season after making significant strides in route running and aggressive play in the slot over the final half of 2016. Toss in veteran backs Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill as part of a rotation, and there will be no shortage of weapons.
But none of it will matter if the offensive line experiment blows up. Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth left for the Los Angeles Rams, and Kevin Zeitler bolted for Cleveland, where he signed a $60 million deal. Left in their wake is Cedric Ogbuehi, who will start at left tackle coming off a season in which he bombed as the starting right tackle and was benched midseason. The Bengals drafted Ogbuehi in the first round in 2015 and have to trust he can improve enough to protect Dalton’s blind side. Jake Fisher, the second-round pick in 2015, will start at right tackle for the first full season. He showed a flash of promise taking over the position at the end of last season but now must prove he can get the job done over the course of the entire campaign. The Bengals are asking former first-round pick Andre Smith — who re-signed with the team after a one-year stint in Minnesota — to shift inside to guard, a position he’s never played. He must prove he can remain healthy after missing 21 games the last three years. Russell Bodine is back at center after progressing from liability to mediocrity. Veteran Clint Boling returns at left guard.
This group figures to open the season with a ton of confidence. They finished third in the NFL in points against in the second half of the season and have All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins still in his prime as well as two-time Pro Bowler Carlos Dunlap on the edge.
But the Bengals still need more from their pass rush. They finished in the bottom half of the league in sacks per pass play for the fourth straight season. They’ll turn to a rotation that includes two 2017 draft picks on the edge (Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson) as well as a competition of previously injured draft picks (Marcus Hardison, Andrew Billings) next to Atkins on the interior.
Right end Michael Johnson showed very little pass-rush production and needs his snaps curtailed in 2016; he played 77 percent a year ago. That’s where the Bengals hope third-round pick Willis and fourth-rounder Lawson can help. Both specialized in rushing the QB in college, and they’ll battle to join a rotation on passing downs.
More pressure sets up opportunity for the bevy of playmakers in the secondary, which still — to the surprise of many — includes Adam Jones. Team owner Mike Brown elected to keep his troubled 33-year-old corner despite an arrest in January that included a video in which he told a Cincinnati police officer: “I hope you die tomorrow.”
The Bengals go four deep with first-rounders at the cornerback position. Dre Kirkpatrick, a 2012 first-rounder, returns after inking a $52 million deal as the top Bengals free-agent priority. Also, the team exercised the fifth-year option of 2014 first-round pick Darqueze Dennard. Then there’s 2016 first-rounder William Jackson. He never saw the field last year after a pectoral injury ended his rookie campaign before it started. The competition for snaps will be intense.
There is also an element of a youth movement, as longtime Bengals starters Domata Peko and Rey Maualuga were let go, along with 35-year-old linebacker Karlos Dansby. Coordinator Paul Guenther acknowledges that the team looked old and slow at times last year. Free-agent signee Kevin Minter, 26, will add some youth after coming over from Arizona. He’ll start next to a focused Vontaze Burfict, who is ready for the best year of his career. The polarizing linebacker has adhered to a strict weight-training program and enters his contract year with a focus lacking in recent seasons. If he can play at his top level — and stay off the suspended list — Burfict brings an All-Pro talent to the middle of the defense and changes the playmaking dynamic of the whole group.
There will be a competition in training camp for the placekicking position. Mike Nugent held the spot for years, but he was cut in December after a run of missed field goals. Veteran Randy Bullock returns after taking over for Nugent the final three games. He’ll battle fifth-round pick Jake Elliott, hand-picked as the top kicker in the draft by Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. Elliott showed efficiency from deep at Memphis, connecting on 3-of-4 from 50-plus the last two years. The club would prefer Elliott win the battle — that’s why you invest a fifth-round pick — but it will come down to who looks best in preseason. Longtime punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris both return.
The Bengals took a step back last year, failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010. But those five consecutive playoff berths didn’t provide a single playoff victory, and the Bengals still hold the longest drought without a postseason victory in the NFL. The last win came on Jan. 6, 1991.
Too many players who played key roles in the run of success departed for bigger contracts elsewhere in recent years, and not enough of the team’s draft picks stepped in and played well enough. The team is still looking for the next Marvin Jones or Mohamed Sanu. Or the next Kevin Zeitler or Andrew Whitworth.
In recent years, the path for the next generation of players to prove themselves was blocked by a loaded roster. That’s no longer the case. The path is now clear for some of the team’s unproven players to step into prominent roles. If they succeed, the Bengals could play their way back in the postseason. If not, they might find themselves in a fight to hold off the Browns to stay out of the cellar in the AFC North.