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Cincinnati Bengals who surprised the most in 2015

Which Bengals surprised us the most this season? Quarterback Andy Dalton headlines the group, but Domata Peko, Tyler Eifert and the secondary also are worthy of consideration.

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There are still two teams fighting for a chance at the Super Bowl for 30 other football teams, the focus has shifted to the offseason and the 2016 NFL draft. Here at Cincy Jungle we want to review what was yet another great regular season for the Bengals. Many players stood out this season, but who surprised the most in 2015? To me, that was franchise quarterback, Andy Dalton who showed he can rightfully claim his spot among the best quarterbacks in the league.

QB Andy Dalton

As I said above, Dalton was clearly the biggest surprise of the year for the Bengals. He definitely took another step in his development in becoming a true franchise player. Some progress was expected prior to the season, with the Texas native working in the spring with famed quarterback guru Tom House, and he even went back during the bye week to work with one of House's assistant. His willingness to bust his ass off and the return of both wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. and tight end Tyler Eifert from season-ending injuries in 2014 were also key to his breakout campaign.

The presence of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson - now head coach of the Cleveland Browns - was also one reason why he was able to develop as the leader of the Bengals' offense, which was really hard to stop when rolling. With his ability to read opposing defenses and the free reign he's earned, Dalton went on to post amazing numbers before going down with a hand injury in the Week 14 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Dalton was tied at seventh for completion percentage with a career best 66.1%, ranked fourth at touchdown percentage with 6.5% and only Tyrod Taylor of the Buffalo Bills threw fewer interceptions - Taylor had six and the Bengals' playmaker seven - among regular starting quarterbacks. His 1.8% interception percentage was only bested by six other players, and ranked second in the NFL in yards per attempt with 8.4, trailing only Carson Palmer. This is especially meaningful because of his issues with the deep ball in previous seasons and further proof of his progression in 2015. That 8.4 yards per attempt number surpassed his old career high by more than a yard. And, he ranked second in passer rating with 106.2 and his ESPN QBR ranked fifth, 73.11.

His sack percentage was also pretty good, and even if this number also shows how good the offensive line was at pass protection, it tells how Dalton makes them look better at times with the way he handles pre-snap adjustments.

The former TCU standout was the nicest surprise in 2015 because he really showed a lot of development and proved he is truly a special player.

NT Domata Peko

After a really rough season in which the Bengals' defensive line looked helpless and ranked at the bottom of the NFL in sacks, Geno Atkins' return and Carlos Dunlap's breakout year allowed Peko to shine, and revert back into a starting-caliber nose tackle.

Many wanted Cincinnati to draft a replacement for Peko in 2015, but the Bengals resisted and it paid off. Peko finished 2015 with a career high five sacks and provided solid play, on the field for 49.95% of the team's defensive snaps. He's still not an ideal long term solution alongside Atkins on the defensive line, and Cincy's run defense will remain a work in progress without un upgrade here. But, the Bengals needed someone to step up in that second interior tackle role and Peko was the guy.

TE Tyler Eifert

Okay, I might be cheating here. Eifert is a former first round pick who was supposed to be doing what he just did in 2015: tearing up opposing defenses in the middle of the field and providing Dalton with a powerful red zone target. He was clearly one of the best at his job in the NFL this season, despite two injuries at the end of the season, which limited him from improving on his stats even more. Pro Football Focus ranked Eifert as the third best tight end in the league this season, behind Rob Gronkowski and Delanie Walker.

Eifert's 13 touchdown catches were second to only other three players tied at 14 and also had the lowest reception per game ratio among the list of elite receivers with 14 touchdowns. Other tight ends carried a bigger load of their team's offensive plans, but Eifert shared targets with A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, limiting his reception and target stats. He was very consistent throughout the year and was everything this team could ask for.

I know placing Eifert in this list is a reach, but I think he's clearly bested any realistic projections had for him, reaching Pro Bowl level and playing at an All-Pro level at one of the most important positions in football today in an amazing breakout year.

The secondary

Barring Dre Kirkpatrick's down to earth year, after playing some encouraging football in spot duty in 2014, the Bengals' secondary was one of the best in the NFL. PFF even ranked them sixth among all teams, and wrote the following about them:

"Outside of New England, the Bengals are the only other team garnering four defensive backs with a PFF rating above 80. If not for the struggles of Kirkpatrick, who is our 110th-ranked cornerback and the second-most targeted, with 105 passes sent his way, this group would be much higher. Nelson is tied with Kansas City’s Peters for the league-lead in interceptions, and even with Iloka missing time recently with a groin injury, Shawn Williams (73.4) has given the Bengals starter-level play off the bench".

With four starters set to enter free agency very soon (Adam Jones, George Iloka, Reggie Nelson, Leon Hall), it will get expensive for the Bengals to keep this talented group together for another year. They all had some issues and flaws this year, (Adam Jones with his penalty against the Steelers, Reggie Nelson with his open field tackling, to name a few) and some communication problems turned Kirkpatrick's corner behind him into the Corner of Horror.

Nonetheless, and with plenty of injuries, the Bengals' secondary was able to achieve a very nice season, including solid contributions from backups Shawn Williams, Chris Lewis-Harris and even Derron Smith. Only the Broncos, Chiefs, Panthers and Texans saw a better net yards gained per pass attempt with 5.8, and only the Seahawks bested their 18 passing touchdowns allowed. To put the icing on the cake, the Bengals' 21 interceptions only trailed Carolina and Kansas City.

Their positional coach, Vance Joseph, was rewarded with the defensive coordinator job in Miami after this truly great effort from his banged-up unit.