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2020 Team Report: Cincinnati Bengals

Last updated: Sat, Sep 5

Offensive Philosophy

Last offseason the Cincinnati Bengals parted ways with Marvin Lewis, their head coach of 16 seasons, and turned the team over to Zac Taylor. Taylor was 36 and had never even been a coordinator at the NFL level outside of a 4-game stint as interim OC for the 2015 Miami Dolphins. Nevertheless, Cincinnati promoted him from his position as quarterback coach for the Rams because they believed he could help them replicate Sean McVay's offense. Replicating McVay's offense means plenty of tight formations with the receivers closer to the offensive line than is typical, which opens up pick plays and crossing routes over the middle while also opening up the threat of the outside run. It means lots of quick snaps and up-tempo play to keep the defense off balance. And Taylor and the Bengals certainly imported all of those elements. But offensive line play (which was the foundation of McVay's success with the Rams) was awful, several key players (most notably A.J. Green got injured), and after the Rams' Super Bowl loss to the Patriots the league as a whole seemed to figure out how to defend the offense that flummoxed them so much through 2017 and 2018. As a result, the Bengals finished 30th in points scored. Now it remains to be seen how well Taylor can adapt to a league that appears to have adapted to him.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Joe Burrow [R]
Backup(s): Ryan Finley

Starting QB: Burrow's play at LSU in 2019 justified his overall top pick status, but there is doubt that he'll step into Cincinnati and perform the same way. At LSU, he had enough talent around him that there was a mismatch on every play. Burrow had to diagnose it and make the throws. In the NFL, the mismatches won't be as obvious or as glaring, and Burrow will have to make more tight-window throws. As for his prospects of starting from Day 1, in a typical season, it would seem to be a lock. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, the preseason programs won't be as comprehensive -- especially not in-person and on the field. Burrow's ability to learn the offense and gain chemistry with his teammates will be negatively impacted, which could lead to a slow start to his NFL career.

Backup QB: Finley was handed the starting job in the middle of last season as Cincinnati looked to the future. But he played so poorly that Andy Dalton was re-inserted after just three Finley starts. Finley finds himself as a backup once again, though, after the team released Dalton. Dalton's release is a signal that Cincinnati is Joe Burrow's team, not a signal that Finley is a quality backup.

Running Backs

Starter: Joe Mixon
Backup(s): Giovani Bernard, Trayveon Williams
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Despite the team crumbling around him, Mixon had another successful season in 2019. He averaged over four yards per carry once again, further quelling low per-carry concerns from his rookie season, and he caught 35 passes as well. Running back appears to be a position where Cincinnati has a clear plan, but that plan could be sidetracked if Mixon continues to be displeased with his contract. 2020 is the final year on Mixon's rookie deal, and for a player excelling at a position with a short shelf life, a hold out wouldn't be surprising. Cincinnati wants Mixon to be a three-down workhorse while Bernard spells him when needed, mostly on passing downs. But his current contract doesn't provide him much compensation for playing that role.

Backup RBs: Bernard will continue to carve out a small role, mostly as a pass-catcher, but Cincinnati's backfield is predicated upon Mixon getting the vast majority of the work. And beyond Bernard, there isn't room for much more. In fact, no running back other than Mixon or Bernard recorded a touch in 2019. Williams doesn't inspire much confidence to break into the mix.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd
Backups: John Ross, Tee Higgins [R], Auden Tate, Alex Erickson, Mike Thomas

Starting WRs: Green last played in Week 13 of 2018, but he only played 17 snaps in that game before leaving with an injury. Those 17 snaps are the only thing between Green having missed 24 consecutive games. But the team placed the franchise tag on him this offseason to keep him and hope he can return to his former self in 2020 rather than signing a seemingly brittle player to a long-term deal. Boyd has emerged as a solid contributor in the last two seasons, narrowly eclipsing 1,000 yards in each and catching 90 passes last year. Boyd doesn't have elite measurables or speed, but he's reliable and consistent, as evidenced by consecutive seasons with 50 or more receptions that generated first downs. His output would likely be boosted by better quarterback play, which could be something Cincinnati gets in 2020 -- even from a rookie.

Backup WRs: Ross showcased his big-play ability in 2019, averaging 18.1 yards per reception. But last season was marred by injury troubles, an unfortunate hallmark of Ross' football career dating back to college. He only played in eight games after appearing in 13 in 2018. Even if he can stay healthy in 2020, the lack of volume and efficiency in Cincinnati -- combined with having other capable targets -- will limit Ross' upside. Behind Ross, the team was in need of upgrades and drafted Higgins to address the need. Higgins was Tennessee's 5A Mr. Football in consecutive years and added to his pedigree at Clemson. Having demonstrated success at all three receiver positions in college, Higgins is Cincinnati's leading candidate to be the future replacement for Green should the star receiver move on after 2020. The gigantic (6'5", 228 pounds) Tate performed well enough last season that he should return to a role in 2020, particularly if Green is hurt again. Erickson is more of a special teams contributor, and Thomas is a bottom-of-the-roster player at best.

Tight Ends

Starters: C.J. Uzomah
Backups: Drew Sample, Cethan Carter

The biggest news in the Cincinnati tight ends group is a player who left, rather than one who was added or remains. With Tyler Eifert's departure to Jacksonville, Uzomah regains the starting position he once had due in part to Eifert's many injuries. The most productive season of Uzomah's five thus far yielded 43 receptions and 439 yards. Don't expect him to suddenly emerge as a star just because Eifert left town. Sample enters his second season after the team invested second-round draft capital to select him. He was an in-line tight end, known more for his blocking, which makes it hard to anticipate a leap into being a high-volume pass-catcher. Carter was on the team last season but is primarily a blocker than lacks athleticism.

Place Kicker

Randy Bullock: Bullock bounced back in a down year for his team with better accuracy on more field goal attempts. He made 27 of 31 attempts and all of his attempts under 40 yards. Bullock was also an impressive 10 of 12 from 40-49 yards and he only missed one extra point attempt. At a cheap 1.525 million dollar salary, he should be safe for 2020, but Bullock is slated to become a free agent in 2021. He is rightfully going undrafted in fantasy leagues, but could be bye/injury/waiver material if Joe Burrow elevates the offense.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Alex Erickson, Darius Phillips, Brandon Wilson

Over the last decade the Bengals have featured one of the most stable return units in the league, and incumbent punt returner Alex Erickson should continue that legacy in 2020. The Bengals have been scaling back his work on kickoff returns, though, and he should compete for reps with Darius Phillips and Brandon Wilson.

Punt Returners: Alex Erickson

Over the last decade the Bengals have featured one of the most stable return units in the league, and incumbent punt returner Alex Erickson should continue that legacy in 2020.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: OT Jonah Williams, OG Michael Jordan, C Trey Hopkins, OG Xavier Sua-Filo, OT Bobby Hart
Key Backups: OL Fred Johnson, OL Billy Price, OL Alex Redmond, OT Hakeem Adeniji [R]

Center Trey Hopkins had a breakout season last year in the team's gap power scheme and was rewarded with a contract extension. Left tackle Jonah Williams returns from a shoulder injury which forced him to miss his entire rookie season. Williams was a high first round pick and should make an instant impact. Right tackle Bobby Hart will be pushed by Fred Johnson and sixth round rookie Hakeem Adeniji from Kansas.

Team Defense

The Bengals had a meager 31 sacks and 16 takeaways with no defensive scores last year on their way to the #1 pick. They were 25th in points allowed and 29th in yards allowed, making them a potential landmine in leagues that give penalties for high totals in either category. They did go on a rare free agent spending spree on defense, bolstering the line with DJ Reader and adding a quality safety in Vonn Bell while replacing Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard with Trae Waynes and Mackenzie Alexander. If third round pick Logan Wilson can step in right away and firm up the linebacker corps, they could be a much improved defense with better game scripts under the leadership of Joe Burrow. They are often one of the last two or three defenses taken, which is perhaps a little harsh with the arrow pointing up, but Cincinnati is still only suitable in extremely good matchups or as a third defense late in best ball drafts.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Carlos Dunlap, DE Sam Hubbard, DT Geno Atkins, D.J Reader
Backups: DE Carl Lawson, DE Khalid Kareem, DE Andrew Brown, DE/DT Kerry Wynn, DT Ryan Glasgow, DT Renell Wren, DT Mike Daniels

Starting DL: The Bengals finished 2019 in the bottom third of the league in nearly all defensive categories, including dead last against the run. For the most part, however, their struggle was not the fault of the defensive line. This unit is talented enough to provide a solid foundation and to help the Bengals turn their fortunes in 2020. In Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbart Cincinnati has a pair of standout, three-down defensive ends. Both players are more than capable edge setters versus the run while providing plenty of pressure against the pass. Between them, they accounted for 98 solo tackles, 50 assists, 17.5 sacks, and forced 3 fumbles, with the numbers divided nearly equally between them. They are on opposite ends of the age spectrum with Dunlap entering his eleventh season at age 31, and Hubbard his third at age 24; but this is a duo that should stay in place for at least the next two or three seasons. Entering his twelfth season with the team, Geno Atkins has been a mainstay as the 3-technique tackle in the Bengals 4-3 scheme and is widely recognized as one of the best interior linemen in the game. His production in 2019 would not suggest it though. In fact, the four and a half sacks Atkins was credited with last year represents his lowest total since and injury-shortened 2014 season. At age 32, Atkins is in the fourth quarter of an illustrious career but he is far from over the hill. The team had solid players at the other interior position going into last season but injuries to both Andrew Billings and Ryan Glasgow left the until without a big man to anchor the middle. Billings moved on in free agency so the club inked D.J. Reader to replace him. Unlike Atkins, Reader is not going to contribute much as a pass rusher. He is a powerful wide body that will command double team blocking on runs between the tackles though. Reader is a space-eater and will go a long way toward solidifying a leaky run defense on early downs. His presence will help free up both Atkins and the linebackers to make more plays.

Backup DL: Cincinnati has a good mix of youth and experience behind the starters, but they have no diamonds in the rough with the potential to push for more significant roles. Carl Lawson has added size and muscle over the last couple of seasons, in an effort to become a more complete defensive end. As the third man at the position, he showed improvement versus the run in 2019. There has never been any doubt about his ability as an edge rusher. Lawson had eight sacks as a rush specialist in his rookie season of 2017 and contributed five last year. Kerry Wynn is a versatile veteran who can play outside on early downs and slide inside for passing situations. Defensive ends Andrew Brown and Khalid Kareem are a pair of developmental prospects taken in fifth-round of the 2019 and 2020 drafts respectively. Ryan Glasgow and Renell Wren as also a pair of young, former mid-round picks that will compete for playing time as the third tackle.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Logan Wilson [R], WLB Germaine Pratt, SLB Josh Bynes
Backups: WLB/MLB Jordan Evans, WLB Akeem Davis-Gaither [R], MLB Markus Bailey [R]

Starting LBs: Most of the Bengals defensive struggles in 2019 were due to average at best speed and talent at the linebacker positions. Thus it comes as no surprise the team will likely have a trio of new starters in 2020. When the organization selected a receiver in round two, it felt like the defensive struggles were destined to continue. Then Wyoming linebacker Logan Wilson slid to round three and Cincinnati snapped him up. Wilson is a true three-down middle linebacker. He is a former safety with good speed and cover skills, and at 241 pounds, is a stout physical run defender as well. At Wyoming, Wilson racked up big numbers in both the tackle and turnover columns. He even had seven career sacks as a four-year starter and three-time team captain. Germaine Pratt was the third-round pick of the new coaching regime last year, so he fits the new vision going forward. Pratt worked his way into the lineup and became a starter over the second half of his rookie season. Though he never quite made it into an every-down role, he played and produced well. Enough so in fact that he will enter the season as the starting weak-side linebacker. At 6'3" and 245 pounds, Pratt is a physical presence versus the run and is more than adequate in coverage. All that remains to be seen this year is if he can land a three-down role. The final piece of the new puzzle at linebacker in Cincinnati is veteran Josh Bynes. The journeyman has bounced around the league a bit, changing teams five times now in eight seasons as a pro. Every season it seems Bynes lands with a team that needs a starting linebacker to get them through a short term situation. This may be the case with Cincinnati as well. Bynes has proven to be a solid veteran contributor and has been a starter at some point with every team he has played for, but he has not been good enough to keep any of those jobs for long. He is versatile enough to play any of the three positions in a 4-3 scheme and is likely to open 2020 as the Bengals starter on the strong side.

Backup LBs: Linebacker depth could prove to be an issue for the Bengals. Jordan Evans is the only backup with any NFL experience. The 2017 sixth-round pick has the versatility to cover any of the positions if needed and has been slightly better than adequate when called upon over the last two seasons. After Evans, however, Cincinnati has fourth-round rookie Akeem Davis-Gaither and seventh-round selection Markus Bailey. Both played well at their respective schools but are basically developmental guys, expected to play special teams for now.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB William Jackson III, CB Trae Waynes (inj), CB Makenzie Alexander, SS Shawn Williams, FS Jesse Bates, SS Vonn Bell
Backups: CB Darius Phillips, CB Leshaun Sims, S Brandon Wilson

Starting DBs: There is some uncertainty about the pecking order in the secondary in terms of playing time, but there is no doubt this unit will have a different look. The Bengals have three returning starters from a secondary that played well in 2019 until injuries at corner took their toll. That did not stop the team from adding three more starter caliber players at the third level. At face value this points to a lot of competition for starting jobs. Looking a bit deeper, it may be a sign of a different defensive approach by the Bengals. Jessie Bates is locked in at the free safety position. There is some speculation that free agent addition Vonn Bell was brought in to replace incumbent Shawn Williams, but Williams has done nothing to lose the job. In fact, he has been one of the few bright spots for the defense over the last two seasons. What seems more likely, particularly considering their linebacker situation, is the team using a big nickel base defense much of the time. This is a trend throughout the league in recent years as defenses look to get faster and better in coverage without giving up too much against the run. This is a situation we will be watching closely once teams get back on the field. William Jackson III is the lone returning corner from last year's top-3. He is among the leagues most underrated cover men because he is not flashy and does not make many highlight-reel plays. Simply put, he covers so well opponents tend to throw elsewhere. It is hard to say if free-agent additions Trae Waynes and Mackenzie Alexander are an upgrade over Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard as the Bengals second and third corners. It feels more like a lateral move in terms of talent and ability and may have been more about moving money around than the players. While it is unclear what changes the scheme may bring in terms of philosophy and approach, it would seem the Bengals are both deep and solid in the secondary. If everything jells, this unit has the potential to be among the leagues better secondaries. That effort was set back when Waynes suffered a pec injury in camp that could keep him out for most of the season.

Backup DBs: There are six defensive backs that should get on the field regularly for Cincinnati. The team will keep at least four more as depth and special teams contributors. Darius Phillips was a third-day draft picks in 2017. He will compete with former Titans fifth-round selection Leshaun Sims for the next spot in the pecking order at corner. The team recently re-signed special team ace Brandon Wilson who played well last year in limited action. He has been more than adequate when called upon for spot duty in the past and would be a particularly good fit as a third safety if indeed the team uses that set often as anticipated.