After taking a look at the players who were the biggest surprises of the season, today we find out who surprised the most in a bad way in 2015. I wanted to avoid the usual suspects, such as Brandon Tate or Margus Hunt, whom you'd barely notice being on the roster. I also stayed away from players like Russell Bodine and Emmanuel Lamur, who maintained the same level of play as last year, which while uninspiring didn't fail to meet expectations, as few expectations existed. Guys that went down with injuries like Darqueze Dennard don't count either. The focus here is on expectations, so feel free to share your picks in the comments below.
RB Jeremy Hill
The second-year tailback was the clear choice just because he had such a great rookie season and the hype surrounding him in the preseason was huge. In 2014, Hill was a force of nature, reminding Bengals fans of an all-time great - Rudi Johnson. In 2015, his fumbles cost Cincinnati a lot, including a chance to seal the deal against the Steelers in the Wild Card game. After racking up 1,124 yards for 9 touchdowns and 5.1 yards per carry in 2014, he followed it up with a very disappointing effort in 2015. Hill only recorded 794 yards with an average of 3.6 per carry, average numbers for a breakout star to say the least.
The reality was that the Bengals' offense looked better with Giovani Bernard in the backfield, and despite his 11 rushing touchdowns, Hill never looked like the same unstoppable running back on display in Hue Jackson's power running scheme a year ago. With a healthier offense, Cincinnati went to the shotgun and 11 personnel more often, which clearly did not suit Hill as well as having fullback Ryan Hewitt paving the way for him. Nonetheless, even behind Hewitt, he did not look as explosive and aggressive as in 2014, and his yards after contact declined badly.
After managing 2.29 yards per carry after contact in his rookie campaign, Hill only got 1.46 this year. The LSU standout also went down from 11 carries of 15 yards or more to only four in 2015. Bengals.com's Geoff had something to say about this:
I think one thing they want to do with Hill this year is get him back to his rookie year mode when he stayed on his inside running paths and challenged the safeties in the middle of the field. There is a train of thought that when he scored two TDs in the ’15 opener from three and two yards out by veering to the outside, he started to bounce everything to the outside and it robbed him of his signature inside explosion and breakaway speed.
Plus, look for the Bengals to melt down their large number of runs so they can focus on mastering a couple of them rather than being familiar with a ton of them.
He might be on the right track though, as he got better toward the end of the season with 98-yard and 96-yard efforts against the Browns and Ravens in the last five weeks. Hopefully Hill can get back to the level he displayed in his rookie season.
RT Andre Smith
Okay, maybe we did not expect as much from him, but he was arguably a disappointment in many crucial moments in 2015. And, he was bad at the worst time, considering he is set to become a free agent this spring and the Bengals already have his replacement in line after drafting two tackles in the 2015 draft.
After being solid for most part of his career in Cincinnati, Smith aimed to be great before the season started, but was behind center Russell Bodine - who was the worst player along the Bengals offensive line. And as our own Kyle Phelps pointed out, he finished the season with the third most penalties committed on the team (9), and the most pre-snap penalties of any player (5).
In a great unit, only Bodine and Smith kept the line from being one of the best in football, despite Pro Football Focus ranking the Bengals' offensive line eighth in the NFL.
CB Dre Kirkpatrick
I don't think anybody expected him to become a Pro Bowler, but the former first round pick was a liability for most of the time in 2015. The expectation was that he could become at least a solid starter in this league. He was good at times, but his inconsistency and his blown coverages were frustrating. Kirkpatrick was also a poor tackler last season, and PFF ranked him only ahead of two other cornerbacks in football.
Now the Bengals have a tough choice to make, with his fifth-year option picked up last April, Kirkpatrick set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2016 season. Kirkpatrick excelled on spot duty in 2014, although that did not translate into his full-time role. With both Leon Hall and Adam Jones on the wrong side of thirty and hitting free agency, the Alabama product will have to improve his focus and increase the number of turnovers he forces - he did not record an interception after getting three in 2013 and 2014 - if he wants to keep his job as a starter in the future.
DE Wallace Gilberry
This is tough, at least to me. I really like Gilberry, but he looked gashed out on the field in 2015 after replacing Michael Johnson as right end the year before. He is also a free agent come March, and it's not a certainty that he'll be brought back with fourth-round pick Marcus Hardison on the roster competing for his spot.
The Spanish Fort native has been a core member of the defensive line for four years - and also seems to be one of the most popular guys in the locker room - but after his production went down in a big way in 2014 with Geno Atkins recovering and Johnson in Tampa, many thought he could thrive again in his role as situational inside pass rusher. For a guy that played 58 percent of the snaps on defense, two sacks is not a great sign.
Some might argue his fellow defensive end, Michael Johnson, belongs in this list, but I think we calmed down our expectations after his performance with the Buccaneers, and he quietly had five sacks and three forced fumbles.
I'd love to see him back, but he did not show he still has it in 2015, and it might be time to let him go.