Welcome to our NFL season preview specials. Over the course of August, we'll be taking a look at every single team in the National Football League and how they're shaping up before the start of the new season.
Yesterday we previewed a Carolina Panthers squad looking to build upon a strong 2017 campaign in what may well be the best division in football this season. Only the Super Bowl champion Eagles and the Chicago Bears beat Ron Rivera's team outside of their NFC South rivals last year, and the Panthers should certainly be a playoff contender yet again come January. Read more on that here.
Today we turn our attention to a Cincinnati Bengals team that went under .500 and missed the playoffs for the second straight year in 2017. Marvin Lewis remains at the helm, but are they in a position to make a legitimate playoff push? Let's take a look...
2017 began with much promise in Cincy, with the additions of dynamic offensive rookies John Ross and Joe Mixon in the draft offering hope of a big turnaround after missing the playoffs for the first time in six years in 2016.
That hope soon vanished though after a disastrous 0-3 start. Wins over the Bills, and lowly Browns and Colts, saw Lewis' side recover to 3-4 by week eight, but the ensuing months were harsh on the Bengals.
Ross barely saw the field all year and Mixon was slightly underwhelming, and both will be hoping to make a big impact in 2018.
Heavy losses to the Jags, Bears and Vikings in which Andy Dalton and the offense managed to put up just 21 points combined, left them at 5-9 and out of the playoff race again. Two wins over the final two games of the year showed the fighting spirit that is evident within the group, but they enter 2018 with more uncertainty hanging over the franchise than anything else.
And, in an improving division, Lewis and his staff face a stiff task to improve upon last seasons record.
Third-round pick Carl Lawson was a real bright spot though, flashing a natural ability to rush the passer and get penetration into the backfield and a keen eye should be kept on him as a possible breakout star in 2018.
Free Agency Moves
Franchise stalwarts Adam 'Pacman' Jones and Andre Smith have both moved on, with Jones' option being declined by the team and Smith inking a 2-year deal with the Cardinals. Jones' play on the outside will be tough to replace, with third year pro William Jackson III most likely to assume his role, though his antics on and off the field will probably not be missed.
Backup QB AJ McCarron and starting center over the past few years Russell Bodine both departed to the Bills too. After Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler both left for pastures new in 2017, Smith and Bodine following suit leaves the O-Line almost unrecognisable from just two seasons ago when it was an obvious point of strength.
It's now a huge problem area, but the acquisition of veteran tackle Cordy Glenn from Buffalo goes some way to resolving issue, as did the drafting of Ohio State center Billy Price.
Jeremy Hill was also allowed to walk before being snapped up by the Patriots, but the backfield still looks strong with Mixon's presence alongside veteran change of pace back Giovani Bernard.
On the defensive side of the ball the additions of former Bucs DT Chris Baker and ex-Bills linebacker Preston Brown, who was the joint-top tackle maker in the NFL from last season, will go a long way to help shore up the league's third bottom rushing defense from a year ago.
Re-siging star tight end Tyler Eifert also ensures that Dalton will have ample weapons with which to work yet again, and the returning Ross should bolster what is a thin receiving corps beyond perennial Pro Bowler AJ Green.
Billy Price - C, Ohio State. 1st round, 21st overall.
Jessie Bates - S - Wake Forest. 2nd round, 54th overall.
Sam Hubbard - DE - Ohio State. 3rd round, 77th overall.
Malik Jefferson - LB - Texas. 3rd round, 78th overall.
Mark Walton - RB - Miami. 4th round, 112th overall.
Davontae Harris - CB - Illinois State. 5th round, 151st overall.
Andrew Brown - DE - Virginia. 5th round, 158th overall.
Darius Phillips - CB - Western Michigan. 5th round, 170th overall.
Logan Woodside - QB - Toledo. 7th round, 249th overall.
Rod Taylor - G - Ole Miss. 7th round, 252nd overall.
Auden Tate - WR - Florida State. 7th round, 253rd overall.
Fans Eye View
In all our 2018 previews we'll be speaking to a fan to get their opinion on the current state of the team. Representing the Bengals is Paul Hirons of WhoDey_UK. Check them out on Twitter and give them a follow. Here are their thoughts on the season ahead...
GMS: How would you rate your team's offseason?
7/10. The Bengals showed uncharacteristic bravado and mild aggression when they traded for Bills' left tackle Cordy Glenn, which pleased a lot of people - the offensive line was unquestionably the weak point in 2017, with the departures of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler in free agency really hitting home – and picked up DT Chris Baker in free agency. The dire OL play – with first and second-round draft picks Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher failing to live up expectations – impacted everything: from Andy Dalton’s rhythm and confidence to the running game.
The acquisition of Glenn was supplemented by first-round pick, Billy Price. Many Bengals fans did cartwheels held street parties when the man he replaced, Russell Bodine, moved onto the Bills in free agency in the offseason (he was one of the league’s worst during four seasons in Cincinnati). The left-hand side of the OL now looks set.
Elsewhere, the draft was seen as an unsexy but intriguing one: safety Jessie Bates, DE Sam Hubbard, RB Mark Walton and, lower down, CBs Devontae Harris and Darius Phillips, and even seventh-rounder, WR Auden Tate, show promise.
The question still remains though: should the Bengals have taken another offensive lineman early in the draft? It was a surprise to many that they waited until round seven to draft a guard (who went down injured on the first day of training camp).
Perhaps the most exciting additions in the offseason were those behind the scenes: Marvin Lewis choose to totally revamp the coaching staff and the likes of DC Teryl Austin (from Detroit), OL coach Frank Pollack (from Dallas), and QB coach Alex Van Pelt (from Green Bay) all look exciting hires.
GMS: What's the general opinion of the job the head coach is doing?
The eternally-debated question.
Many ask, quite rightly, how a coach who hasn't won a playoff game in 16 seasons can still be in a job. When Marvin joined the team in 2003, the Bengals were a laughing stock (the Bungles), but during his tenure, he’s won divisional titles and qualified for the playoffs seven times. So it really does depend on your definition of success – yes, we’ve lost in the first round in each of those seven appearances, but we managed to get to the dance (something that 20 or so other teams in the league would snap your hand off for).
So it’s a tricky one. Many were shocked that he signed a new, two-year contract at the end of last season, and there is apathy in Cincinnati itself at his re-hire. But Marvin’s a good man, and well liked as a man by many of the fans in the UK.
However, there are flaws that keep raising their ugly heads: game management (especially in one or two-minute offensive drills), a seeming inability to prepare schematically and the lack of half-time adjustments. It often means we lose games by being out-coached.
However, he seems to have rebooted (again) and the hope is we get back to our 2015 levels of play.
GMS: Your opinions of the offense? (What's good, bad, different from 2017)
Offensively, we often played like a 4-12 team in 2017. So much so, Ken Zampese was fired as OC after a couple of games and QB coach, Bill Lazor, took over. There was sporadic improvement (the first halves against Green Bay and Pittsburgh at home were almost perfect), but too often poor line play and inconsistency from Dalton meant that we were always in a hole.
Lazor now has had a full off-season to work on the playbook, and all the talk is that he has changed things from the mostly West Coast style brought in by then OC Jay Gruden seven years ago. We’ll see, but the hope is that Lazor will do a good job and breathe new life into a unit that was anemic in the extreme last season.
Elsewhere, Tyler Eifert is back (but was placed on the PUP list during training camp), and last year’s first-round pick, John Ross, has to have an impact after a disappointing rookie campaign. If he fires, look out – he’ll be an excellent complement to AJ Green.
GMS: Your thoughts on the state of the defense? (What's good, bad, different from 2017)
Our defense under Mike Zimmer and Paul Guenther has been pretty good in recent years (with the likes of Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict making hay in Zimmer’s famed double A-gap blitz scheme, and in the case of Burfict, making headlines), but during the last two years they were being asked to do a heck of a lot – in some cases the offence was going through so many three-and-outs the defense was pretty much on the field all the time.
They also seemed to give up the big play at crucial times with tackling often being a problem. New DC Teryl Austin has vowed to plug up the middle and stop the run and increase the number of turnovers.
We have some good, potentially All-Pro, young players on the defensive side of the ball. William Jackson III is a genuine shutdown corner and will reach the Pro Bowl this year, and situational pass rusher Carl Lawson is an absolute monster coming off the edge. Geno Atkins is still Geno Atkins and one of the league’s best.
GMS: What's your deepest concern for 2018?
There are a lot of variables. Too many variables.
We need the offensive line to gel and knit together. We need Bill Lazor to provide a scheme that works. We need Andy Dalton to be Good Andy Dalton. We need Tyler Eifert to be injury-free. We need Vontaze Burfict not to be suspended again. We need Joe Mixon to be better. We need John Ross to provide a down-field threat. We need the defense to eliminate mental mistakes and stop the big plays. We need Marvin to coach better.
If some or all of these things can happen, I genuinely think we can be a playoff caliber team again.
GMS: Give us a name to watch out for?
William Jackson III. All-pro in the making.
Look out for RB Joe Mixon and WR John Ross, too.
GMS: And finally... your crystal ball prediction for the season?
We’ve got a tough-looking schedule and we’re always difficult to predict. But I’ll go 9-7.
Week 1: @ Colts
Week 2: vs Ravens
Week 3: @ Panthers
Week 4: @ Falcons
Week 5: vs Dolphins
Week 6: vs Steelers
Week 7: @ Chiefs
Week 8: vs Bucs
Week 9: BYE WEEK
Week 10: vs Saints
Week 11: @ Ravens
Week 12: vs Browns
Week 13: vs Broncos
Week 14: @ Chargers
Week 15: vs Raiders
Week 16: @ Browns
Week 17: @ Steelers
Andy Dalton's value has never been lower with a rebuilt O-Line and and uncertainty over the health of some of his top weapons. He's guaranteed a start but that's about it and he certainly shouldn't be considered a top 20 fantasy QB heading into the year.
AJ Green will receive the majority of targets in this offense and should once again be one of the highest scoring wideouts. Green has never finished outside of the top 12 receivers in terms of fantasy points scored in his seven seasons in the league. That trend should hold in 2018 and he's certainly worthy of a second round pick.
As for the other wideouts on the roster, I don't foresee any of them being major factors in fantasy game, largely because of Green's target dominance and the lack of a true WR2 being present within the ranks at this stage meaning the rest of the snaps and targets will be spread around until someone stands up and takes the job.
Brandon LaFell and John Ross would be the frontrunners to do that, but with TE Tyler Eifert returning to the field he stands to get more targets than either of those guys. Eifert is a reliable red zone target when healthy, so he could be a worthy selection if he can prove his injury troubles are behind him.
He's appeared in just 24 games over the past four years though, and enters training camp as questionable to start the year.
Joe Mixon will be the feature back in Bill Lazor's offense and expect the running game to be much improved from 2017. Mixon could fall down draft boards a bit but he'd be well worth a second round pick given the improvements along the O-Line, coupled with him having a full season of NFL football behind him.
The dynamic former Oklahoma back offers value as a pass catcher as well as a runner and should certainly improve on his totals in both departments in 2018. Mixon would be my favourite pick outside of Green in this offensive group, and he could well have a breakout year in an offense that projects to be run-heavy this season.
This team will be defined by it's play up front on both sides of the ball. Andy Dalton and the offense cannot put up competitive numbers unless the O-Line, which was ranked the fifth worst in the league by Pro Football Focus last season, affords them better protection. Dalton was pressured 158 times last season, and any with a series of new combinations in that unit it's hard to see how they will be much better this time out.
Likewise, the D-Line which again put up solid sack numbers last year, needs to be better against the run. The Bengals gave up the third most rushing yards in 2017, and shoring up the middle of the front seven is vital to their success this year.
Chris Baker can help in that department though, whilst Preston Brown should be a big difference maker across the middle so the defense should improve in that regard. Adam Jones' loss is big though, and with the likes of Drew Brees, Derek Carr, Big Ben, Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan to face, the secondary could now be a problem area that teams will look to exploit.
The skill positions are filled with talent, and if guys like Ross and Mixon can start playing to their potential this offense could be dynamic in both facets.
The schedule is ranked as the third easiest in the league, but Cincy stands to face a flurry of teams that will be much improved from 2017. The AFC North is a stronger than last year, and the NFC South and AFC West teams they face will provide stern competition. Vegas has their over-under win total at seven wins, and I'd be surprised to see them exceed that.
There are simply too many unknown quantities across the roster to feel comfortable with projecting any kind of big leap forward and we're predicting the Bengals to struggle to a 6-10 record.
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