2020 Bengals: No Longer Burrow-ing Underground?

Rudy's Curve

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The last four years have been rather rough on the banks of the Ohio as a team that made five straight playoff appearances from 2011-15 hasn't sniffed them since then, bottoming out at 2-14 last year. That run was built on a string of very good drafts/CFA signings from 2009-13 and as much as GM Duke Tobin and crew had the magic touch in that period, they've mostly missed it since 2014. They lost a ton of talent from those teams to free agency (Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, Reggie Nelson, Mo Sanu, Marvin Jones, Rex Burkhead) while pretty much all the guys they extended (maybe except for Carlos Dunlap) were not as good in their second contract as they were in their first. They also didn't find anyone like Nelson or Adam Jones off the scrap heap that were instrumental to their success. Since they didn't participate in real free agency or receive elite QB play, there was no way to mitigate this decline. As a result, Marvin Lewis was finally shown the door after the 2018 season. While Lewis is often mocked for never winning a playoff game, he generally got the most out of his rosters before the message got stale and it was proven it can get worse as new coach Zac Taylor started 0-11 on the way to a 2-14 finish.

Due to the Rams' playoff run in 2018, Taylor wasn't hired until after the Super Bowl and was way behind the curve in building a staff (many of whom met each other for the first time at the Combine last year) which was exacerbated as a rookie head coach in his 30s. They had no time to study up on their own roster before free agency (Bengals coaches usually have a lot of input in roster building) and the results were disastrous, as they brought back Preston Brown (released in midseason off perhaps the worst LB unit in league history) and Bobby Hart (well below-average starter at RT) while bringing on John Miller (middling starter at RG, released last week) and CB B.W. Webb (released last week), who showed why he's been on eight teams in seven years. In addition, first-round LT Jonah Williams missed the entire year from a shoulder injury in OTAs while A.J. Green hurt his ankle in the first practice of camp and never played a down. Incumbent LT Cordy Glenn was at odds with the team for two months over a possible concussion suffered in the preseason which led to them having to use washed-up Andre Smith and John Jerry (neither of whom were LTs to begin with) to protect Andy Dalton's blindside and the results were predictably disastrous, especially without Green on the field and John Ross failing to take a step forward. Dalton was benched halfway through the season before being brought back with five games to go as Ryan Finley proved to be the worst QB this side of Nathan Peterman. Thankfully they gave Finley a three-game trial though, because they could have won two of those games with Dalton and therefore wouldn't be picking first next month.

Picking first has given them the right to select Joe Burrow, who will be tasked with saving the franchise like Carson Palmer was 17 years ago. Like Palmer, Burrow is the reigning Heisman winner and is coming off perhaps the best season in CFB history. Unlike Palmer (who didn't play a down his rookie year), Burrow will be thrown right into the fire. If you took a shot for every time Dalton escaped the pocket at the first sign of pressure and threw it away, you'd have been dead during Obama's first term. Burrow's ability to hang tough in the face of pressure while also being able to make plays outside the pocket will be a huge upgrade, and it won't hurt that he'll have Williams protecting him and Green to catch the ball. I would imagine Green plays the year on the franchise tag and then the two sides can reevaluate - it's very tough to give a long-term deal to a 32-year old (in July) WR that's played one quarter in the last season and a half.

A 2-14 roster always has a ton of holes and as much as Burrow, Green and Williams should be upgrades, they're all on one side of the ball. Free agency isn't the way you build your team, but it can certainly supplement it and the Bengals were extremely passive with it forever. That looked to be the case again this year as they struck out on LBs Nick Kwiatkoski and Joe Schobert before shockingly outbidding the Broncos for Texans DT D.J. Reader. Reader is still well in his prime (turning 26 in July) and immediately becomes the best player Geno Atkins has ever played next to inside, which should take a lot of heat off Atkins and put him in more one-on-one matchups. Atkins is not the force he was at the beginning of his career (especially before the 2013 ACL tear), but he's certainly capable of winning those. They then grabbed Vikings CBs Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Waynes is an upgrade over Dre Kirkpatrick (who will be released) on the outside, especially as a tackler in the running game. Darqueze Dennard was an excellent slot corner but had a lot of trouble staying healthy (I would certainly sign him though if I needed one after his deal with Jacksonville fell through), so Alexander's youth and dependability (he also didn't commit a penalty last year) should be an overall upgrade there.

They still needed to badly upgrade the linebacker room though, which has been in serious decline ever since Vontaze Burfict's career started going south. It started by grabbing Ravens LB Josh Bynes, who should be a solid presence against the run in base. A bigger step was taken the next day by signing Saints S Vonn Bell, which not only upgrades the back end as he's an upgrade over incumbent SS Shawn Williams but it also allows Williams to move into a LB role where he's much more natural. It's still a position they'll need to address on Day 2 of the draft. I could definitely see a trade back from #33, as they've traded back in the second round three straight years and still have other big needs at WR and OL.

To sum up, there's a lot of talent replacing the status quo:

View: https://twitter.com/FOX19Joe/status/1242881408986755077

I expect the AFC North to be very tough (Baltimore is obviously excellent, Pittsburgh gets Ben back to go with a bigtime defense and the Browns should at least be a little better), but the rest of the schedule isn't overly hard (AFC South, NFC East, MIA, LAC) and the coaching staff is miles ahead of where they were last year. I don't think it's out of the question to expect a .500 season (they had six, 5.5 and five-win improvements under Lewis) with the chance to be a real contender in 2021 if Burrow and Jonah Williams are the real deal. It's certainly fun to have this hope after being in QB purgatory for a decade.
 
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Seels

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8-8 sounds crazy. Even with Burrow I just don't see talent on that team. That post says all these guys that are coming back -- who of those is even an average player? The returning from injury Williams?

I think they're still a ways away and 8-8 is Burrow recreating RG3s rookie year while the rest of the team progresses greatly. Just my opinion, but the roster they had last year is among the least talented I've seen.
 

Rudy's Curve

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8-8 sounds crazy. Even with Burrow I just don't see talent on that team. That post says all these guys that are coming back -- who of those is even an average player? The returning from injury Williams?
The tweet is simply all guys who weren't there last year. Williams was a top-11 pick that started at Alabama from day one. The pedigree is certainly there. Green has a ton of question marks but I'd say he's proven he can be a very productive player. Reader is a very good player. Waynes is a starting cornerback that's better than the guy he's replacing. Alexander is a plus slot corner. All of these guys are replacing worse players and in most cases significantly so.

I think they're still a ways away and 8-8 is Burrow recreating RG3s rookie year while the rest of the team progresses greatly. Just my opinion, but the roster they had last year is among the least talented I've seen.
Well, almost no one's true talent level is 2-14 bad. I think starting at about 4-12/5-11 is fair since that's where their point differential was, plus they played the fifth-toughest schedule in the league according to PFR's SOS and the seventh-toughest per DVOA. They're vastly improved at a bunch of important positions. They still have a ways to go, but it's hardly uncommon to go from the cellar to average.
 
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Rudy's Curve

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William Hill has the Bengals’ over/under for wins at 5.5 — tied for the second lowest. There’s a strong case to be made for the over. The Bengals were 0-8 in one-possession games last year. In the last 50 years, only three teams have gone 0-8 or worse in one-possession games. According to Football Outsiders, Cincinnati’s per-snap performance was more in line with a four- or five-win team, but it ended the season 2-14. If ever there were a season to suffer bad luck, 2019 was probably it — because it landed them Burrow.
The Bengals were below league average in injury luck, ranking 20th in adjusted games lost, and ranked 29th in turnover margin. One thing they don’t have going for them is an easy schedule. The Bengals are in a tough division and despite finishing last in 2019 have the 11th-toughest schedule.
It’s not hard to identify the things that could derail the Bengals’ season: terrible offensive line play and bad pass defense. Yes, three of the projected starters in the secondary are different, but there’s no guarantee the pass defense will be significantly better than it was a year ago.
Even if those areas prove to be weaknesses, the Bengals should see an upgrade at quarterback with Burrow and at wide receiver with Green and Higgins. Their run defense should be better as well. And it seems reasonable to assume Taylor and Anarumo will be better in their second seasons as play callers. Because of all those things, the Bengals look like a good bet to go over 5.5 wins, and it would not be a surprise to see them competing for a playoff spot.
That's the conclusion to Sheil Kapadia's excellent team previews on The Athletic. The offensive line is still a huge question mark as they didn't address it a ton in FA or the draft. However, they did sign projected starting RG Xavier Su'a-Filo and adding Jonah Williams will be like having another first-rounder. Su'a-Filo should be serviceable, so the big questions remain at LG and RT. Last year's fourth-rounder Michael Jordan started the year at LG and was overmatched. However, he was a 21-year old rookie playing a very physical position, has an excellent pedigree (started as a true freshman for Ohio State with a higher draft slot for a guard) and played better down the stretch. It's very similar to what Clint Boling went through his rookie year (except he was in school four years) and he went on to have an excellent career. I expect Jordan to take a big step forward and solidify himself into a starting-caliber player. The bigger question is at RT, which will be a battle between Bobby Hart and Fred Johnson. The fans are sick of Hart and two years of sub-mediocre play, although the coaches keep defending him at every opportunity. Johnson is an interesting case as he was claimed off waivers from the Steelers in October and played extensively in the final two games. It's tough to draw a ton of conclusions from two meaningless games at the end of the year against bad teams, plus he went undrafted despite playing at a major school and has already been cut, but he showed out very well and has good size (listed at 6'7/326). I'd certainly like to see him win the job, as we've already seen what Hart has to offer and it isn't good enough. At the very least, the offensive line's troubles will be helped by Burrow being able to go through his reads and extend plays where Dalton fled the pocket at the first sign of pressure.

When you consider they're also adding Green and Jonah Williams, neither of whom played a snap last year, I don't think anyone improved more this offseason. The division is tough, but they should clear 5.5 wins easily and I expect them to compete for a playoff spot.
 
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