Joe Mixon and the Bengals welcome No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow into the fold
In the NFL, bad records aren’t created equally. One team’s 2-14 may not be as damaging as another’s 5-11 because of the underlying circumstances or bad luck that cropped up along the way.
The 2019 Bengals likely fell into this category. Were they the worst team in football last year? The record says so, but the eye test says otherwise. Under first-year head coach Zac Taylor, Cincinnati was a competitive, feisty team throughout the second half of the season, especially when it received competent quarterback play. There were Pro Bowl-caliber players on both sides of the ball. There just weren’t many wins.
That’s likely to change sooner rather than later because the NFL doesn’t look beyond the record when it doles out its draft picks. The Bengals got the first pick, and now they have their franchise quarterback in LSU’s Joe Burrow. Tack on the expected return of All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green, a reshaped defense and offseason spending unlike any in recent Bengals history, and there are plenty of reasons to ignore the 2019 record when assessing Cincinnati’s prospects heading into 2020 and beyond.
Banners with Burrow’s name hung at Paul Brown Stadium before the 2019 season came to an end. Now that he’s officially theirs, the Bengals are hoping to go from good enough to great at the quarterback position with the No. 1 pick at the helm.
Since 2011, Andy Dalton had been the steady, adequate leader at the position who was rarely a game-changer but also rarely the reason why Cincinnati lost in a given week. That changed when Dalton was benched in favor of an overmatched Ryan Finley, who struggled mightily during the Bengals’ worst stretch of 2019. Now, the belief is Burrow can elevate the Bengals in the opposite direction that only true franchise quarterbacks can — the way he orchestrated LSU’s electric offense throughout one of the best seasons in college football history. He reportedly dove deep into the Bengals’ offense weeks before he was even selected, helping make up for some of the lost on-field time due to the coronavirus outbreak. The Bengals expect him to be ready because his track record indicates he’ll be more than prepared for the rigors behind the scenes and the bright lights on the main stage in the NFL. “I was waiting to see the flaw, waiting to see the hole,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan told Bengals.com. “The reality is, he only got better as the season went on. Against the best teams, he played his best.”
Burrow doesn’t quite have the supporting cast he had on an all-time loaded LSU offense, but the Bengals certainly aren’t lacking at the skill positions. Whether or not the reports are true about Burrow’s role in the decision, Cincinnati brought back Green on the franchise tag and hopes he can put together his first full season since 2017. Even if he can’t, the Bengals are in much better shape than some of their rivals thanks to the return of Tyler Boyd, who will gun for his third straight 1,000-yard season, and addition of Tee Higgins, a 6'4", 215-pound second-round pick out of Clemson who drew pre-draft comparisons to Green. Speedster John Ross III faces a make-or-break season after showing signs of life in 2019, but he could become even more valuable in a receiving corps with so many different skill sets.
The running back stable of Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard remains unchanged for a third consecutive year. If the Bengals get the Mixon who averaged more than 100 yards in the Bengals’ final eight games of 2019, Burrow won’t have to win games on his own — a luxury in the world of No. 1-pick quarterbacks who typically walk into terrible situations.
Former first-round left tackle Jonah Williams will get a second shot at his rookie season after missing all of 2019 with a shoulder injury and will be in charge of protecting Burrow’s blind side. The Bengals bring back most of an offensive line that wasn’t great by any means in 2019 but was significantly improved over a disastrous 2018. Xavier Su’a-Filo fills the void left by John Miller, who was released at the start of the league year, and should provide an upgrade to the middle of Cincinnati’s offensive line.
Though it’s a new era for a young, new-look Bengals defense, two familiar figures remain on the front line. DE Carlos Dunlap has been as consistent as any player at his position over the past decade, and he hasn’t lost much from his game as he enters his 11th season. DT Geno Atkins is coming off his sixth straight trip to the Pro Bowl and, until further notice, should be considered one of the best in the league. The veterans should get some significant help from D.J. Reader, a rare, big-time Bengals free-agent acquisition who should be an upgrade from Andrew Billings, who left for Cleveland in free agency. The Bengals have high hopes for Reader, who became the highest-paid nose tackle in the league with a four-year, $53 million deal. He and the rest of the defensive line can start by forgetting 2019 ever happened when it came to run defense, as the Bengals can only improve after ranking dead last with an average of 148.9 yards allowed per game.
The transformation of Cincinnati’s linebacking corps continued with more moves throughout the offseason, perhaps none bigger — oddly — than its third-round selection of Logan Wilson. The former Wyoming star, who racked up a whopping 421 tackles during his college career, could be counted upon right away because the Bengals, simply put, need to find someone who can tackle well in the middle of their defense. Veteran free-agent signing Josh Bynes should bring some toughness, too, while Germaine Pratt enters his second season as the likely starter at Will after a promising finish to his rookie year.
Did we mention this is a new-look defense? It’s no more apparent than in the secondary, where longtime Bengals Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard no longer roam. Both were essentially replaced by two former Vikings, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, who were salary cap casualties in Minnesota. Neither Waynes nor Alexander was elite by any means in Minnesota, but they were steady and will likely take on major roles in the Bengals secondary. Waynes was another uncharacteristic big-money signing for the Bengals (three years, $42 million), and he’ll be asked to earn it by working on the opposite side of William Jackson III, another former first-round pick. Alexander, meanwhile, should help the Bengals in the slot while trying to maximize his personal standing in the league while he plays on a one-year “prove it” deal. Another free agent signing, Vonn Bell, is coming off four seasons as a strong safety in New Orleans, but he could be asked to play both safety spots in Cincinnati and won’t be guaranteed a starting role. Veteran Shawn Williams has manned the strong safety spot for the past four seasons, while third-year free safety Jessie Bates III has started every game since the Bengals drafted him in 2018.
Randy Bullock put together another solid season in 2019 and likely won’t face much competition to be Cincinnati’s kicker for a fourth straight year. Same goes for Kevin Huber, who enters his 12th season as the team’s reliable punter. Both, though, are in the final years of their respective contracts. WR Alex Erickson hasn’t been a game-breaker on punts but isn’t a liability by any means, while Brandon Wilson returns after proving to be one of the NFL’s best on kick returns in 2019, averaging 31.3 yards a pop before suffering a season-ending injury.
The Bengals were never as bad as their record indicated last season, but they attacked the offseason as if they were. With a new franchise quarterback at the helm and a defense that can’t be much worse, the Bengals are poised to be competitive again in the AFC North, which could be a gauntlet for years to come.