The hard part is over. The Bengals have their franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow, who more than looked the part in the first 10 games of his career. Now, Cincinnati is in the early stages of the next step in the process: building a team around Burrow that can compete with the rest of an absolutely stacked AFC North. The work to do just that has been significant, as Cincinnati was uncharacteristically active in free agency and supplemented the roster with 10 more picks in the 2021 NFL Draft. But will it be enough to expedite the process? Burrow’s ability to bounce back from a serious knee injury and the productivity of the new faces around him will dictate whether the Bengals are ready today or are another offseason away from capitalizing on the window they have with their franchise quarterback playing on a rookie contract.
Burrow looked the part from his very first snap in the NFL and played with an uncanny savvy throughout his rookie season. What he did behind one of the worst offensive lines in football — maintaining his cool amid constant pressure, going through his reads and rarely making the kind of mistakes (just five interceptions) rookies so often make — provides plenty of reason to believe he’ll only be better in 2021, provided he makes a full recovery from his knee injury. It’s rare to see such poise and swagger from a young player, but Burrow oozes it.
The improved supporting cast should help, too. Given the choice to improve the offensive line with the draft’s top tackle (Penei Sewell) or reunite Burrow with an old teammate who can add some significant juice to the Bengals’ passing game, Cincinnati went with the latter and added the dynamic Ja’Marr Chase with the No. 5 overall pick. Chase, who set an SEC record with 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns during LSU’s 2019 undefeated season, didn’t play in 2020, but it didn’t matter. Despite a number of other talented wide receivers proving to be first-round-worthy, Chase was still viewed as the best, and his insertion into Cincinnati’s offense suddenly gives the Bengals one of the league’s best young corps of pass-catchers. Burrow now has three legitimate weapons in Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. It’s a trio that should more than soften the blow of losing one of the best players in Bengals history, A.J. Green, to free agency. Boyd has proven to be most effective when he’s not the one and only option in the passing game, and he’ll likely continue to be a go-to target on third downs. The Bengals didn’t do much of anything at tight end during the offseason to give Burrow the kind of safety valve young quarterbacks love to have. Drew Sample was better in his second season, but he’ll need to take another big step.
The offensive line can’t be worse than it was last year, and there are still question marks. By selecting Chase over Sewell, the Bengals gave former first-round pick Jonah Williams a vote of confidence at left tackle. That shouldn’t come as a surprise from the typically conservative franchise considering 2020 was essentially Williams’ rookie year. Second-round rookie Jackson Carman likely will be called upon at one of the guard spots, while Riley Reiff, the former Viking, gives the Bengals a significant upgrade at right tackle. There’s still work to do, but Burrow likely won’t be as battered and bruised as he was in 2020.
Joe Mixon was the bell cow running back in the six games he played last year, averaging better than 23 touches in each contest, and all indications are the Bengals will feed it to him even more in 2021. The Bengals didn’t add much competition to the room, signaling Cincinnati is ready to ride Mixon as he hits his prime.
Some of the faces have changed on the defensive line and in the secondary, but the jury’s out on whether or not it will lead to much improvement.
One of the Bengals’ biggest offseason moves was a bit of a double-edged sword. In is Trey Hendrickson, the former Saints DE who broke out with 13.5 sacks in 2020. He was one of the biggest free agents to hit the market, and it was a boon for the Bengals to land him. It just came at the cost of saying goodbye to Carl Lawson, a similarly dangerous, powerful pass rusher who opted to sign with the New York Jets. The Bengals rarely walk this path — doling out big money to a free agent while letting a homegrown player depart — but this is a new era for a Cincinnati defense that has officially moved on from all of the familiar faces from the teams that consistently made the playoffs in the 2010s. That includes Geno Atkins, the perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle who was released and replaced with Larry Ogunjobi, a promising younger player who has plenty of starting experience but never quite hit his stride in Cleveland. The Bengals didn’t really have a replacement for Carlos Dunlap II when they traded him last year. Now, they’re hoping to see a bounce-back season from Sam Hubbard, who went from 8.5 sacks in 2019 to just two in 2020, and perhaps a spark or two from the three rookies they added to the position during the draft. Joseph Ossai, who began his career at Texas as a linebacker, is especially intriguing and was viewed by many as a steal early in the third round.
Cincinnati’s secondary added two marquee free agents after parting ways with two veteran starters. Gone is former first-round pick William Jackson III and Mackensie Alexander, and in are Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie. Hilton, who was beloved in Pittsburgh but ultimately fell victim to the Steelers’ salary cap woes, gives the Bengals a clear upgrade in the slot, a position at which he’s been able to change the game as both a cover man and occasional pass rusher (9.5 career sacks). The return of Trae Waynes, who missed all of last season with a pectoral injury, all but ensures that Cincinnati will open the season with a trio of cornerbacks who have never played a down for the Bengals. The glue holding the secondary together will be Jessie Bates III, an emerging star who is the NFL’s lead candidate for “best safety you’ve never heard of.” The second-team All-Pro was the highest-rated safety by Pro Football Focus in 2020 after combining for 15 pass breakups and interceptions — the most of any safety in the league. Bates is playing on the last year of his rookie deal and is poised for a big payday if he maintains the same level of play.
This is a big year for Germaine Pratt, the leader in the middle of a young Bengals linebacking corps. He’s been good, not great, and the Bengals simply need more from him and the rest of the group. Logan Wilson showed promise as a rookie last season, while Akeem Davis-Gaither, also a rookie, had his ups and downs. The Bengals’ lack of action with the position signals that they’re ready to roll with this group through the good and the bad.
The Bengals moved on from Randy Bullock, a reliable kicker for the past four seasons, and are likely rolling with a rookie. Florida’s Evan McPherson, taken in the fifth round, was the only kicker taken in the 2021 draft. He gives the Bengals a big leg — he made four kicks from 50-plus last season.
Punter Kevin Huber returns for a 13th season, and kick returner Brandon Wilson is back for a fifth, giving the Bengals one of the NFL’s biggest weapons in a phase of the game that’s been otherwise muted because of the changes to the touchback rule. Wilson has returned a kick for a touchdown in each of the past two seasons.
The AFC North, which sent three teams to the playoffs in 2020, is poised to be tough yet again. The Bengals were the odd team out last year and are likely to face similar circumstances again, but that doesn’t mean 2021 can’t become a launching pad of sorts, especially for one of the youngest and potentially most exciting offenses in the NFL. The Bengals, with a rising star at quarterback and loaded with talented skill players, aren’t going to be much fun for any opposing defense to face.