Bengals are a team in transition under new head coach Zac Taylor
With 36-year-old Zac Taylor in as the Bengals’ new head coach, it truly is — as the team’s marketing operation likes to tout — a “New Dey” in Cincinnati. But despite the new leadership, not much else changed after one of the most disappointing, frustrating and seemingly snake-bitten seasons in recent Bengals history.
Sure, Marvin Lewis, who was the league’s second-longest-tenured coach behind New England’s Bill Belichick, is no longer at the helm, but the roster hasn’t changed much. The Bengals maintained their conservative approach in free agency, using it to retain most of their own players and fill a few depth holes. The draft brought in a number of new faces and even a potential starter or two, but nothing that’s going to reshape the team’s identity.
Taylor brings a new, young voice to a team that’s mostly played well, but not well enough, over the past decade. He’s tasked with not just getting the Bengals back in contention in the AFC North after a last-place finish in 2018, but also over the hump in the playoffs, where the team hasn’t won a game since Jan. 6, 1991.
The Bengals are banking on a rebound, and they’ll need bounce-back performances from their familiar faces to accomplish it.
No one on Cincinnati’s roster is feeling the pressure more entering 2019 than veteran quarterback Andy Dalton. Two years remain on Dalton’s contract, and the Bengals are in the clear when it comes to the guaranteed money they owe him. There was a belief in some circles that Cincinnati might make a bold move in the first round of the NFL Draft and effectively move on from Dalton with the selection of a quarterback. Instead, the Bengals waited until the fourth, landing NC State’s Ryan Finley — a quarterback Taylor really likes but one who won’t be competing for the starting job this season.
Dalton is coming off an up-and-down 2018 campaign that was short-circuited at 11 games because of a season-ending thumb injury. He’s at his best when the support system around him is at full strength, too. That hasn’t been the case in recent seasons, but the Bengals are hoping to avoid the injury demon that’s haunted them of late.
Dalton’s favorite target, All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green, has been the most affected. In turn, his absences have severely debilitated Cincinnati’s passing attack. Green logged just nine games in 2018 because of a toe injury. He was putting up his typically great numbers — 46 receptions, 694 yards and six touchdowns — but it marked the second time in three seasons he played 10 or fewer games. If Green stays healthy in 2019, the Bengals, in the wake of Tyler Boyd’s emergence, may have the sneakiest one-two punch at wide receiver in the division. Boyd, in his third season, was already showing major signs of improvement while Green was healthy, and his production surged when Green went down, finishing with 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns. Boyd appears ready to provide the second option Dalton’s been missing ever since the Bengals let Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones Jr. walk in free agency four seasons ago.
At this point in Tyler Eifert’s career, any consistent production will be considered a bonus. But if he does return to full strength after suffering a gruesome ankle injury, the Bengals will have some serious options at tight end, a position Dalton loves to find in the red zone. Cincinnati re-signed the powerful C.J. Uzomah and used a second-round pick on Drew Sample, a similarly physical tight end the Bengals believe can do much more in the passing game than he did at the University of Washington.
Cincinnati’s offensive line was much better in 2018 after making significant moves at left tackle (Cordy Glenn) and center (Billy Price). It was hoping to get another piece in first-round pick (11th overall) Jonah Williams, but the former Alabama standout reportedly will miss the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. That means Glenn will stay at left tackle and puts even more pressure on right tackle Bobby Hart, who was re-signed to a three-year deal before the draft. Veteran John Jerry, who was with the Giants the past four seasons, was signed after the team learned about the extent of Williams' injury.
The Bengals do have a two-headed monster in their backfield in the form of Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard. Mixon embraced his expanded role, piling up nearly 1,200 yards in 14 games. Bernard is just as big of a threat as a pass catcher as he is a runner. The Bengals are at their best when everyone’s healthy and Bernard is utilized in a change-of-pace role.
The face of Cincinnati’s defense, Vontaze Burfict, is gone, and the frequent headaches that came along with him are, too. Burfict, even though he struggled to stay healthy and wasn’t producing at the same level he was earlier in his career, leaves a big void to fill, but it’s one of the few Cincinnati is looking to patch in 2019. The stability on this side of the ball makes it clear that the Bengals are chalking up some awful defensive performances to the injuries that decimated the group during the second half of 2018.
The defensive line, highlighted by Pro Bowlers Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, comes back mostly intact. Both Dunlap and Atkins are coming off solid-to-impressive seasons and aren’t players Cincinnati needs to worry about. The overall success of this unit will be determined by the emergence of some of the group’s younger players, such as second-year defensive end Sam Hubbard, who posted six sacks in an impressive rookie campaign, and third-year end Carl Lawson, who had a similarly promising rookie season but followed it with a disappointing 2018 that ended prematurely because of a torn ACL. Fourth-round pick Renell Wren could earn valuable snaps right away if he proves capable of spelling Atkins. Healthy or not, the Bengals simply have to be better against the run, especially in the AFC North, after allowing a whopping 137.8 rushing yards per game last season.
Cincinnati wasn’t very good at any of the linebacker spots even with Burfict. The Bengals still didn’t see the need to overhaul the group, making just one significant move at the position with the third-round selection of Germaine Pratt. The former NC State star began his college career as a safety before putting on more than 30 pounds during his transition to linebacker. Though he’s just a third-round pick, Pratt will have a clear path to obtaining starter-caliber snaps on a unit that returns veteran Preston Brown — another key player whose 2018 season was cut short by injury — Nick Vigil and Jordan Evans.
The secondary remains the strength of Cincinnati’s defense, and the Bengals fortified it when they re-signed nickel cornerback Darqueze Dennard and picked up the fifth-year option on cornerback William Jackson III shortly before the draft. Veteran Dre Kirkpatrick is set to man the side opposite from Jackson, while veteran Shawn Williams and promising second-year player Jessie Bates III are poised to fill the safety spots. This is a solid unit that can hold its own when the front seven is playing at an adequate level.
Veteran placekicker Randy Bullock is back for a third season with the Bengals. He was mostly reliable but came up empty on a couple of pivotal attempts. Three of his four misses on the season came from 50-plus yards, and he missed two extra points. Wide receiver Alex Erickson provides a reliable option at both punt and kick returner, and punter Kevin Huber, who enters his 11th season in Cincinnati, is equally reliable.
Bengals fans got their long-awaited change at head coach, but it’s too early to gauge whether it will change the team’s trajectory. It’s easy to forget that the Bengals were 4–1 to start the 2018 season before injuries began to take a toll. The margin for error in the AFC North is slim — with better health and improved play at some key spots, the Bengals can contend. But if injuries hit hard again and Dalton doesn’t bounce back, they could just as easily finish in last place once again.
Prediction: 4th in AFC North
(Top photo courtesy of www.bengals.com)