For the first time in years, the Bengals have hope.
This optimism rests on the shoulders of rookie quarterback Joe Burrow. The 23-year-old enters the league with plenty of pressure. He’s expected to turn around a franchise that has had four straight losing seasons and hasn’t won a playoff game since January 6th, 1991.
Cincinnati was aggressive in free agency for the first time in decades. They committed over $130 million to eight unrestricted free agents, including six projected starters. Despite their offseason additions, there are still plenty of question marks surrounding this team.
Head coach Zac Taylor is entering his second season with the Bengals. He posted an NFL worst 2-14 record in 2019. There are plenty of reasons why the 37-year-old struggled in his first year with the Bengals, but he needs to get it turned around quickly.
The team is much more talented than the one Taylor inherited a year ago. He has to show the Bengals and the rest of the league that he can get the most out of Burrow. If he can be that guy, then Cincinnati has their head coach for the long haul.
There were plenty of obstacles in Burrow’s way this offseason. He didn’t get in person OTA’s, minicamp or preseason games. He’s embraced the challenge and believes he’ll overcome the adversity. The rookie signal-caller showed up to camp in great shape and knows the playbook inside and out.
“He’s an absolute beast. He’s an animal out there,” said tight end C.J. Uzomah. “He’s getting us in and out of all the right protections and making all the right checks and certain checks I didn’t even know we were allowed to check into. He’s like, ‘Why not? Go out there and do this. Come in here and do this.'”
Burrow isn’t the only player on offense that enters this season with high expectations. The Bengals placed the franchise tag on seven-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green. They’re banking on him reverting back to his old self. He missed all of last season with an ankle injury.
Cincinnati has given Burrow plenty of weapons to work with, at least on paper. They drafted Tee Higgins with the 33rd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The rookie grew up idolizing Green. He’ll also be able to learn from Tyler Boyd, John Ross and Auden Tate.
Running back Joe Mixon is arguably the best player on the team. He’s entering his fourth NFL season. The Bengals hope to sign him to an extension before the season starts. Mixon could be used more in the passing game this season. Catching the ball out of the backfield was a strength of his at Oklahoma, but Cincinnati hasn’t utilized those skills as much since they drafted him in 2017.
The success of this offense is going to come down to the trenches. Can Jonah Williams be a franchise left tackle after missing all of his rookie season with a shoulder injury? Is Michael Jordan a starting left guard in the pros? Can Bobby Hart be competent, or will he always be a below average player?
The Bengals did sign guard Xavier Su’a-Filo in free agency, who projects to start next to Hart on the right side, but they did little else to improve one of the NFL’s worst units. Offensive line issues could potentially derail another season in Cincinnati.
The Bengals completely remade one of the league’s worst defences this offseason. They released cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and let Darqueze Dennard leave in free agency.
They signed five starters in free agency: D.J. Reader, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Josh Bynes and Vonn Bell. Waynes is expected to miss most of the season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle in training camp, but the defence should be much improved.
Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are back. Combine them with youngsters like Sam Hubbard and Carl Lawson and the Bengals should have one of the better defensive lines in the NFL. Cincinnati was a poor tackling team in 2019, which is why they added Reader, Alexander and Bell. They also drafted three linebackers — Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey. Athletic linebackers that can run, and cover are a necessity in today’s NFL, especially in a division with Lamar Jackson, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
It’s a huge year for William Jackson III. The fifth-year cornerback is in the final year of his contract. The Bengals are hoping he can re-establish himself as one of the premier cover corners in the game.
Jackson had a breakout 2017 campaign but took a step back in 2018 and was awful last year. He had shoulder surgery this offseason to repair a torn labrum that he played with for most of last season. With Waynes expected to miss most of the year, the Bengals need Jackson to be an elite cover corner in 2020.
Predicted Record: 3-13
From Burrow to Green and Atkins, the Bengals have the plenty of high-end players. They also have plenty of question marks. Can Green stay healthy? Will the offensive line keep Burrow upright? How will the rookie quarterback adjust to life in the NFL? Can the young linebackers get up to speed and make an impact in 2020? Is Taylor the right coach for the job?
There are dozens of questions surrounding this team. They were aggressive this offseason and addressed multiple weaknesses, but offensive line issues are going to put a cap on what the Bengals can do this season, even if guys like Green and Ross can stay healthy.
With so many uncertainties and a rookie quarterback, this year might just have to be a transition year for the Bengals.