Major change appeared imminent as the losses piled up during a disappointing 2017 campaign. Instead, Cincinnati is banking on the same key figures who led it to five consecutive playoff appearances and two AFC North crowns during the first half of the decade.
Embattled coach Marvin Lewis, rumored to be on his way out during Cincinnati’s 7-9 season, is back for a 16th season. Oft-criticized quarterback Andy Dalton will be back under center for an eighth straight season. All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green will be the No. 1 target for an eighth consecutive year. And Vontaze Burfict, although he’ll be suspended for the first four games, will be at the center of Cincinnati’s defense for a seventh straight year.
The Bengals certainly have stability -- rivaled by few in the NFL --; but they’ll need production from some notable new additions and from some of the team’s youngest players if they want to get back to the postseason for the first time in three seasons.
There’s no way around it: Through the first two games of 2017, the Bengals offense was lost. Cincinnati didn’t score a touchdown, and coordinator Ken Zampese was fired. After Bill Lazor made the switch from quarterbacks coach to play caller, the unit improved, but it lacked the same kind of bite, especially near the end zone, it had featured in the past. It’s a large reason why Lazor has completely re-worked the playbook in hopes of jump-starting an offense that still boasts one of the NFL’s top playmakers and a reworked offensive line that shouldn’t be as much of a liability.
Dalton hasn’t come close to matching the production and consistency he showed in 2015, but he hasn’t been bad enough, at any point, for the Bengals to consider a change under center. In April, Cincinnati silently reaffirmed its confidence in Dalton by waiting until the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft to address the position. Now, it’s on Dalton to be crisper inside the red zone and simply more consistent, especially against the league’s top defenses. The Bengals had five losses in 2017 in which they failed to score more than one offensive touchdown, and Dalton never had a quarterback rating better than 80 in those contests. If Dalton tightens up his accuracy (his completion percentage dipped below 60 percent in 2017 for just the second time in his career) and maintains the same kind of ball control (he’s averaging nine interceptions over the past three seasons), the Bengals’ new-look offense will be in capable hands.
With Jeremy Hill gone to New England, Joe Mixon is poised to be the bell cow running back. Running behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, Mixon had to fight for every single one of his 626 yards in 2017, but he still flashed plenty of moments to remind the Bengals why they coveted him so much out of Oklahoma. Giovani Bernard handled most of the pass-catching opportunities out of the backfield, but Mixon isn’t a slouch in this area. Reported to be more than 10 pounds slimmer than he was last year, Mixon was a double threat in his final season at Oklahoma (538 receiving yards, five TDs) and provided one of the Bengals’ biggest offensive plays of the 2017 season as a receiver when he took a pass 67 yards in a win over the Colts.
The Bengals bring back almost all of their receivers from 2017. The most important, obviously, is Green, who hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and remains one of the league’s biggest threats to disarm a defense with a big play. Brandon LaFell is a solid No. 2 option (52 catches for 548 yards last season), and Cincinnati will hope to get something, anything, out of last year’s first-round pick, speedster John Ross. Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert played in just two games last year, giving Tyler Kroft the opportunity to assert himself as a reliable option. If Eifert can stay healthy, the Bengals suddenly have a dynamic one-two punch at the position.
There’s nowhere to go but up for an offensive line that struggled last year to replace two big losses (left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler) in free agency. The Bengals made a big move to fix their problem on the blind side, acquiring Buffalo’s Cordy Glenn when they swapped first-round selections with the Bills. They used that later spot in the draft to fix the void at center by picking Ohio State’s Billy Price. Jake Fisher and Bobby Hart will battle for the start at right tackle.
Typically, when a team loses a defensive coordinator, it can mean one of two things: The defense was so good it got its leader hired elsewhere as a head coach, or it was bad enough to get him fired. In the Bengals’ case, though, it’s neither, as Paul Guenther left to join Jon Gruden in Oakland after a so-so, middle-of-the-pack kind of season in Cincinnati. Lewis sought out accomplished coordinator Teryl Austin, who spent the previous four seasons in Detroit, because his beliefs, schemes and tendencies are similar to Guenther’s. That means the Bengals won’t look much different at all on this side of the ball; they’re just hoping to be a little bit better than 18th and 16th, respectively, in total defense and scoring defense.
Nothing’s changed up front, where the Bengals feature two elite players in their respective primes -- end Carlos Dunlap and tackle Geno Atkins -- and solid core players who help make this one of the overall unit’s strengths. Third-round selection Sam Hubbard figures to be a key player in the rotation, especially after the loss of Chris Smith in free agency. Fifth-round nose tackle Andrew Brown could be called upon to play more than expected considering his draft status (fifth-round pick), as the Bengals look to get more production out of the spot next to Atkins, who is coming off his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance and sixth overall.
The Bengals are better when Burfict is on the field, but they’ve learned plenty how to live without him. He’ll be gone the first four games because of a league suspension, and the Bengals have a few more options to utilize in his absence. Third-round pick Malik Jefferson brings all sorts of athleticism to Cincinnati’s linebacking corps while Jordan Evans, a sixth-round pick last year, had an ascending finish to his rookie season. Preston Brown, one of the Bengals’ biggest free-agent signings, will man the middle, while Nick Vigil is slated to start at Sam after missing the final five games of 2017 with an ankle injury.
The five players slated to play the most in Cincinnati’s secondary -- Dre Kirkpatrick, William Jackson, Darqueze Dennard, George Iloka and Shawn Williams -- were all drafted and developed by the Bengals. The unit has been one of the most stable in the league and is poised again to be the backbone for one of the best pass defenses. Still, there’s no complacency in Cincinnati, as the Bengals hammered away at the secondary with the addition of three new players. The one set to have the biggest immediate impact is second-rounder Jessie Bates, a ball-hawking safety out of Wake Forest.
Kicker Randy Bullock bounced between five teams over five seasons, landing with the Bengals in late 2016. He’s coming off his most accurate year as a pro -- 18-of-20 on field goals, 31-of-33 on extra points -- and will be the frontrunner for the job in 2018. Kevin Huber has been steady for the Bengals at punter since he joined his hometown team in 2009. Alex Erickson enters his third season as Cincinnati’s full-time return man, handling both punts and kickoffs. He’s extremely reliable.
The Bengals didn’t make many changes after a disappointing season, underscoring a sense of confidence that they have the right coach and right players to get the team back to where it expects to be. If a few close games break their way, the Bengals could easily turn 7-9 into 9-7 and put themselves back in the mix as a Wild Card contender.