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2016 Team Report: Cincinnati Bengals

Quarterbacks

Starter: Andy Dalton
Backup(s): A.J. McCarron, Keith Wenning

Starting QB: Prior to breaking his right thumb in Week 14 last season, Andy Dalton had never missed an NFL start. Dalton was having one of his most successful seasons yet, especially in terms of taking care of the ball. He had a 25:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio at the time of his injury, but the thumb break cost him the final three-plus games of the season and the team's playoff loss to division rival Pittsburgh. After progress in each of his first three seasons, Dalton took a step back in 2014. His 2015, though, was on track to be a successful year. The success can be attributed to a number of factors, but it's easiest to point to the emergence of tight end Tyler Eifert and the presence of Hue Jackson as Offensive Coordinator. Only one of those two, however, will return as Jackson is now the Head Coach in Cleveland. The injury should be no concern, but the loss of Jackson and a diminished supporting cast that lost Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu from the receiving corps could lead Dalton to another season of regression. New coordinator Ken Zampese may bring a more pass-focused scheme in 2015, as he has been the team's Quarterbacks Coach since 2003 and once coached under Mike Martz in St. Louis.

Backup QB: A.J. McCarron enters his third season in the league, though he saw his first action last season. McCarron was solid-yet-unspectacular at best and a liability at worst. Cincinnati's leadership has fielded questions from the media about trading McCarron to quarterback-needy teams, but Cincinnati hasn't made a move yet and doesn't plan to, according to Marvin Lewis. Between that and the team not signing or drafting addition players at the position, they seem to feel comfortable with McCarron as the primary backup. Keith Wenning was signed off Baltimore's practice squad after Dalton's injury to be McCarron' backup. It's unlikely that Cincinnati will keep three quarterbacks if Dalton and McCarron are healthy. Wenning isn't a NFL-caliber player.

Running Backs

Starter: Jeremy Hill
Backup(s): Giovani Bernard, Rex Burkhead, Cedric Peerman
Fullback(s): Ryan Hewitt

Starting RB: Outside of rushing touchdowns, there wasn't an area where Jeremy Hill improved from his 2014 rookie season to his 2015 sophomore year. On one more rush attempt, Hill gained 330 fewer yards, dropping his per-carry average by 1.5 yards. Hill followed up his five 100-yard games in 2014 with zero last season. Backfield mate Giovani Bernard outplayed Hill in many games last season, but Hill's role as an early-down bruiser and goal line back should remain due to Bernard's slight frame. New Offensive Coordinator Ken Zampese comes from a passing background as the team's Quarterbacks Coach since 2003 and an assistant under the Mike Martz Rams prior to that. Hill's arrow likely remains flat at best.

Backup RBs: Despite his playmaking ability and how he out-played Jeremy Hill at times last season, Giovani Bernard should remain a second-fiddle in the backfield due to his slight frame. He's an excellent player when afforded space, but it's difficult for him to maintain his health getting 15-plus touches per game. He left the team's playoff loss to Pittsburgh after suffering a concussion on a very hard hit. He has played 16 games in two of his three seasons, but that's likely in part to the team giving him no more than 170 carries in any season. Bernard is best served as a change-of-pace player and pass-catcher (he has no fewer than 43 catches in any season so far) even if he's the most electric playmaker in the Cincinnati backfield. Rex Burkhead is another pass-catching back, though he's not nearly as explosive as Bernard. Burkhead's main focus is special teams, while Hill and Bernard do the heavy lifting in terms of touches from scrimmage. Team reports have said that Burkhead will be used as a slot receiver more this season following the departures of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Cedric Peerman is purely a special teams player. Now getting up in age (29), Peerman isn't guaranteed to make the final roster.

Fullback: Some in the Cincinnati organization already believe that Hewitt is the league's best fullback. He was an undrafted free agent signing before the 2014 season and paved the way for Jeremy Hill in Hue Jackson's power run game. With Jackson's departure, though, Hewitt's usage is hard to forecast as new Offensive Coordinator Ken Zampese has no history in the NFL as a coordinator but could be more pass-focused based on his previous roles under Mike Martz in St. Louis and as Cincinnati's Quarterbacks Coach. A lack of usage for Hewitt could spell trouble for Jeremy Hill and make Giovani Bernard more useful.

Wide Receivers

Starters: A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell (inj)
Backups: James Wright, Tyler Boyd [R], Mario Alford, Brandon Tate, Cody Core [R], Alonzo Russell [R]

Starting WRs: One of the NFL's most consistent elite performers, A.J. Green is coming off his fifth straight 1,000-yard season, making him five-for-five in that accomplishment. Green is a target hog, averaging over eight targets per game played in each of his last four seasons (and the 7.6 per game he averaged in his rookie year isn't far off). With a new offensive coordinator whose background is primarily in the passing game and a running back who hit a second-year slump in 2015, it wouldn't be surprising to see Cincinnati go more pass-heavy in 2016, meaning that Green will again be a focal point of the offense, particularly with the offseason departures of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. The receiver spot opposite Green has always been a revolving door of pedestrian talent. Enter Brandon LaFell, who despite showing flashes in New England in 2014 isn't exactly the man to put an end to that trend. LaFell said after signing that he expects to be used all over the field, including the slot, but he's not likely to command a ton of targets with Green and tight end Tyler Eifert still in the fold, particularly once Eifert returns from injury. LaFell tore a ligament in his hand in training camp, but the team has said they don't expect him to miss time in the regular season. It is possible that rookie Tyler Boyd overtakes LaFell while he is recovering from his injury.

Backup WRs: Once an exciting sleeper drafted in the seventh round of the 2014 draft out of LSU (he didn't receive much playing time in college with players like Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry ahead of him on a run-first team), James Wright is yet to prove whether he can contribute in any way other than special teams. Wright said at the beginning of camp that he finally feels like his explosion is back after suffering a PCL injury in 2015 spring practices. Tyler Boyd is an interesting case, as he's not the most athletic player but is one who uses his smarts and ability to read coverage to get open frequently. Despite playing just three seasons, he broke Pittsburgh's school records for receptions and yards. While he'll compete with Brandon LaFell to start, Boyd's fastest route to playing time could be if he learns the slot position, something many who cover the team say is already a foregone conclusion. Mario Alford was a seventh-round draft pick for Cincinnati in 2015. He rarely played his rookie year, making just one reception. He's not likely to find his way into the offensive game plans in 2016 either. A veteran whose specialty is special teams (especially returns), Brandon Tate returns for his sixth season with Cincinnati. Tate has never made more than 17 receptions in a season with the Bengals, and that's not likely to change this year. Cody Core was a sixth-round selection in the 2016 draft out of Ole Miss. He has good size at 6'3" and 205 pounds, but he's mostly a raw deep threat who wasn't used much underneath and on intermediate routes opposite LaQuan Treadwell. He has impressed early in camp, however, and could be a sleeper to climb the depth chart to backup (WR4 or WR5) status.

Tight Ends

Starters: Tyler Eifert (inj)
Backups: Tyler Kroft (inj), C.J. Uzomah

After a breakout 2015, there was much talk in Cincinnati about Tyler Eifert's contract being extended. The team has made it clear that they want to do that, but they also want Eifert to show he can stay on the field more consistently. He has missed 19 games in his three seasons, including three between Week 13 and Week 16 last season. Eifert was even injured (sprained ankle) in the Pro Bowl game. On May 24, it was announced that Eifert would need ankle surgery and that his recovery would be three months. That puts him right up against the end of camp. As of July 29, Eifert says his walking boot will be removed in early August. Running, cutting, and jumping will follow, but Week 1 is still in doubt. When on the field, Eifert showed that he could be the best red zone weapon this side of Rob Gronkowski. His 13 touchdowns tied for second in the NFL last season, and nearly all came from inside the red zone. Eifert brings incredible athleticism with a very large frame and is one of the best "hybrid" tight ends in football. Tyler Kroft enters his second season with Cincinnati after being used mostly as a blocker in 2015, even with Eifert was out. Kroft could be more involved in the passing game this season, though, in two-tight end sets with the team's continued lack of wide receiver depth behind A.J. Green. He injured his knee in camp, but the team says he should be ready for Week 1. C.J. Uzomah is a very athletic player but is still quite raw and not ready to be an all-around contributor yet. He could generate some hype during non-padded practices this spring and summer as he did last season, but it's not likely to translate into offensive playing time.

Place Kicker

Mike Nugent, Zach Hocker, Jon Brown [R]: Nugent finished 11th in points last year with 117, but mostly on the back of 49 extra point attempts (of which he made 48). His field goal accuracy continues to hover around 80 percent (23-for-28 - 82.1 percent), and the Bengals have brought in two kickers - UDFA Jon Brown, who has little to no experience, but impressed the team in a tryout, and Zach Hocker, who was drafted in the 7th round in 2014 by Washington, only to be beat out by Kai Forbath. Hocker won the Saints job to open the season last year, but Forbath surfaced again to take his job when he had a slow start. Nugent will have to win his job, but the Bengals have seemed unwilling to go away from Nugent despite his mediocre performances year after year.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Brandon Tate, Adam Jones

The Bengals have enjoyed an unprecedented level of stability in their return units; Brandon Tate and Adam Jones have combined to account for 415 of Cincinnati's 434 kick and punt returns over the last five years, an unheard-of 95.6%. There's little reason to expect Cincinnati to mess with a proven formula at this stage of the game.

Punt Returners: Adam Jones, Brandon Tate

Other than Adam Jones and Brandon Tate, the last Bengal to return a punt was Quan Crosby in week 16... of the 2010 season. Barring injury, it's unlikely we see that streak end in 2016.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Clint Boling, C Russell Bodine, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Eric Winston
Key Backups: Jake Fisher, Cedric Ogbuehi, Christian Westerman [R]

The Bengals are returning all their starters from the end of the last season, which gives them strong cohesion. They are led by All-Pro and Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth. The team drafted Jake Fisher in the 2015 draft but Fisher has only been able to get on the field in jumbo situations. Whitworth has been dominant. Similarly the team drafted Cedric Ogbuehi to take over at right tackle but he will likely be stuck behind new NFLPA President Eric Winston. Although not today, the youth will eventually be served, and it's good news that the team has these depth options. The guards, Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler are above average, but the team has to resign Zeitler after this season and might want to work rookie Christian Westerman into the mix. Overall the Bengals are one of the better units in the league but their right tackle position could be cause for concern. They have a rare amount of depth, compared to other units and will be better as their young tackles can find the field. Tier Ranking: Top Tier.

Team Defense

The Bengals did a good job retaining their defensive talent in free agency, keeping Adam Jones, George Iloka and Vincent Rey in-house, while adding veteran Karlos Dansby. They were a mid-to-low D/ST1 last year, depending on how much points allowed was weighted in the scoring system (they were better the more it was weighted). Cincinnati finished third in interceptions and tenth in sacks, and they open at a Jets team that might be starting Geno Smith if Ryan Fitzpatrick and New York can't agree on terms before the season starts. They are draftable D/ST and could improve this year if Andy Dalton stays healthy.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Carlos Dunlap, DE Michael Johnson, DT Geno Atkins, DT Domata Peko
Backups: DE Margus Hunt, DE Will Clarke, DT Pat Sims, DT Andrew Billings [R], DT Brandon Thompson, DE/DT Marcus Hardison

Starting DL: Defensive line was a strength of the Bengals in 2015. The starting quartet accounted for 34.5 sacks while helping the team finish with the seventh best run defense. All four starters are back for 2016. Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are the bookends. Both players are strong run defenders. Dunlap turned in a career best 13.5 sacks last season. Johnson's sack totals over the past couple of years have not been impressive but he has played better than the numbers suggest. He recorded 4 sacks in a one year stint (2014) with Tampa Bay, where he was not a good fit. Johnson played through a back injury over most of last season totaling 5 sacks. He is healthy now so the organization hopes to see the player who had 11.5 sacks for them in 2012 and batted 10 passes in 2013. In Geno Atkins the Bengals have one of the league's elite interior linemen. He is quick and athletic player who is stout against the run. Atkins is also one of the best inside pass rushers in the game. The 2013 knee injury slowed him through the 2014 season but Atkins was back with 11 sacks last year. Domata Peko rounds out the starting four. Peko is a 325 pound bowling ball who excels versus the run and does a great job keeping blockers off the linebackers. He has enough power to push the pocket in passing situations and was able to play off his teammates for a career best 5 sacks in 2015.

Backup DL: Quality depth is a big reason the Bengals defensive line is so good. Defensive end Margus Hunt is a physical specimen with tremendous potential. He was raw when the team made him a second round pick in 2013. Limited opportunity over the past three years has led to only a sack and a half for his career to date. In 2014 Cincinnati used their third round pick on Will Clarke. Like Hunt, Clarke player with high long term potential. Neither player had much opportunity last season when Wallace Gilberry was the third end in the rotation. Gilberry has moved on leaving the two talented youngsters to compete for more playing time. In veterans Pat Sims and Brandon Thompson the Bengals have a pair of proven players who would be starters for several teams. Both are space eating run defenders but neither has much to offer as a pass rusher. Rookie fourth round pick Andrew Billings is seen as a younger version of Domata Peko. At 6'1" and 311 pounds his low center of gravity makes Billings hard to root out at the point of attack. The organization hopes he will evolve into the eventual replacement for Peko who will be 32 in November. That probably won't happen at all this year, as Billings is sidelined indefinitely with a torn meniscus in his knee. 2015 fourth-round pick Marcus Hardison flashed in the preseason last year and has the ability to play end and tackle, so he will figure into the depth for this unit sooner than later.

Linebackers

Starters: WLB Vontaze Burfict, Karlos Dansby, SLB Rey Maualuga, WLB/MLB Vincent Rey
Backups: MLB Paul Dawson, MLB Nick Vigil [R], OLB Marquise Flowers, SLB Jayson DiManche

Starting LBs: If there is a weakness for the Bengals defense it is at linebacker. Vontaze Burfict is among the league's elite at the position from a physical perspective. He throws his body around with reckless abandon, has the speed to chase down ball carriers, is strong in coverage and makes plenty of big plays. The problem being he is a little too aggressive at times, to the point of being out of control. As the result of multiple illegal hit infractions Burfict will serve a three game suspension to open the season. It was his final penalty of the season that led to the Steelers game winning field goal in the playoffs. To sure up the position Cincinnati added free agent Karlos Dansby. The soon to be 35 year old is clearly not a long term answer but he can still play. He has been a quality three down starter throughout his career and has a knack for the big play. In Cleveland last year Dansby accounted for six takeaways and scored twice. He was a good signing for the team and will buy them some time to more permanently address the need at middle backer. Vincent Rey has been the first linebacker off the bench for the Bengals in recent years. Filling in for injured players has provided a good deal of starting experience. Rey should start the first three games for Burfict and his strong coverage skills could make him a sub package option when everyone is back. Rey Maualuga is a veteran two down thumper. He shifted to the strong side last year after working in the middle for much of his career.

Backup LBs: When he was drafted last year many people thought Paul Dawson would eventually land the starting job in the middle. The jury is still out on his future after he failed to impress as a rookie. The team added Nick Vigil in the third round this season. He will contribute on special teams and may eventually challenge for a starting job on the strong side or in the middle. His strength will likely be passing down work if he can get on the field this year. In Marquise Flowers and Jayson DiManche Cincinnati has a pair of young developmental guys who will make most of their immediate contributions on special teams. Once Burfict is back from suspension the team will have four solid starter quality options. If they suffer an injury or two however, there are some questions.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Dre Kirkpatrick, CB Adam Jones, CB Darqueze Dennard, S Shawn Williams, S George Iloka
Backups: CB/FS Josh Shaw, SS Derron Smith, CB Chykie Brown

Starting DBs: Cincinnati has always been willing to make a big investment at corner. Even with Leon Hall not coming back they still have four former first round picks at the position. Dre Kirkpatrick moved into the starting spot last season when Hall was relegated to nickel duties. Adam Jones starts opposite Kirkpatrick with Darqueze Dennard likely stepping into the nickel role. There is certainly no lack of talent or cover skills among this group. The Bengals are neither as deep nor as talented as the safety positions. Reggie Nelson had 12 interceptions and 26 passes defended over the past two seasons but he is working for the Raiders this year. Cincinnati re-signed George Iloka who is a solid if unspectacular starter who has never made much of a statistical impact. He will be joined in the lineup by 2013 third round selection Shawn Williams. Williams played sparingly in his first two seasons before seeing an increased workload over the second half of 2015. His strong showing probably contributed to the team's willingness to let Nelson walk. Williams's final numbers of 25 tackles, 5 passes defended and a pair of interceptions was not impressive until you consider his limited playing time. Safety is not exactly a strength for the Bengals but it is not a weakness either.

Backup DBs: First round pick William Jackson III had an opportunity to compete for the nickel corner job but the Bengals have a history of bringing first round corners along slowly. Neither Kirkpatrick nor Dennard were on the field much in their first seasons. Jackson was considered by many to be the most pro ready corner in this year's draft, but his torn pectoral will likely cost him his rookie season. Derron Smith and Josh Shaw provide depth at safety. Shaw is a capable backup at corner as well though he is unlikely to see the field at that position unless there are multiple injuries. Smith was the team's sixth round pick last year. He has the potential to develop into a starter but will make his living mostly on special teams for now.

Last modified: 2016-08-29 10:37:42