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What we learned from the Bengals’ loss to the Ravens

It’s time to move on from the Bengals’ 2016 season and look forward to the future.

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Bengals’ 2016 season is unofficially over. Sure, Cincinnati is still mathematically alive, but it would take a one-in-a-million type of scenario for the Bengals to make the playoffs. And while it’s surely difficult to cope with the fact that for the first time since 2010, the Bengals are not a great team, there were some bright spots on Sunday.

Cincinnati still has a talented team. Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Vontaze Burfict, Giovani Bernard and George Iloka are the team’s obvious cornerstones — all still relatively young and locked up for the next few years. Jeremy Hill and Tyler Eifert will be around through at least next season, while the team hopes to re-sign two more potential cornerstones in Kevin Zeitler and Dre Kirkpatrick in the near future, before they hit free agency in March.

The Bengals seem to be a team in transition, in the sense the team could be moving on from some of its longest-tenured players, which could be a major concern for Cincinnati.

Andrew Whitworth’s cap hit is very high for a guy who will turn 35 next month. At some point, the Bengals need to get Jake Fisher on the field along with Cedric Ogbuehi — even if they aren’t performing up to expectations — just to see whether they can afford to let Whitworth walk if his asking price is too high. After all, he’s a talented enough player to potentially hold the Bengals hostage for more money in free agency. That said, even with his gradual decline in play, the left tackle is worth the extra cash. But at some point, there needs to be some sort of contingency plan for when the veteran finally transitions out of the starting lineup.

Domata Peko should not — and likely will not — start for the Bengals next year. Fourth-round rookie Andrew Billings, whose 2016 season was over before it even started, figures to fill in alongside Atkins.

Rey Maualuga could also be gone in 2017, as his contract has zero dead money next season and the veteran has not been playing like the player he once was. In fact, it almost seems as though the Bengals are trying to keep him out of the lineup.

And Mike Nugent will certainly be a goner after this season, as he will be a free agent and has not earned an additional contract. In fact, the kicker has been almost as inaccurate on point after the touchdown tries as he’s been on field goals. That’s actually kind of impressive, though not in a good way.

The Bengals parted ways with Reggie Nelson after the 2015 season which, for the record, was the right decision to make. This year, Nelson hasn’t been remotely close to the player he was last year, and Shawn Williams has played at about the same level as the now-Raiders safety. That said, it’s been a rough transition for the first-year starter.

Cincinnati does not seem to transition well, but it’s something the team will need to do better if it wants to succeed in the near future. On Sunday, we saw some of the first glimpses of what the Bengals are aiming to do to replace some of the veterans on their roster — which brings us to our first point of what we learned from the Bengals’ loss to the Ravens.

The Bengals are actually seeing what they have in some of their younger players.

It feels long overdue, but rather than faulting Cincinnati for trying to win games despite a poor start to the year, we might as well appreciate what the team is currently doing to prepare for the future. Nick Vigil saw some early snaps in obvious passing situations, filling in for Maualuga at middle linebacker. Darqueze Dennard and Josh Shaw played a ton on Sunday, though the reason for this was more Williams’ injury than anything else. And though Dennard had a rough game, it was nice to see the Bengals giving him a shot. It took Kirkpatrick nearly five years to emerge as a playmaker, but now he’s the best member of Cincinnati’s secondary. It’s too early to give up on Dennard as a guy who could potentially be a contributor down the line. As for Shaw, it’s encouraging to see the young defensive back’s versatility, as he’s capable of playing either corner or safety. When the Bengals are in a pinch — like they were on Sunday, with Williams and Derron Smith out — it’s nice to have Shaw, a Swiss-army-knife, making an impact. Cincinnati hasn’t had such a versatile defensive back since Chris Crocker followed Mike Zimmer to Minnesota before retiring soon after.

Cincinnati could lose three dynamic players in free agency, which isn’t ideal.

Kirkpatrick, as mentioned, has been the Bengals’ best defensive back in 2016. Earlier on in the year, it didn’t seem like much, as he’s been the best of a very poor secondary. However, as the season has progressed, it’s becoming more and more clear just how good the cornerback is. He’s not a shutdown corner by any means — Kirkpatrick still has flaws, particularly in the run game — but Kirkpatrick is the best cover corner the Bengals have, and that counts for something.

Kevin Zeitler has underperformed in a year the Bengals have desperately needed their offensive linemen to perform. In fact, Russell Bodine has been the only member of Cincinnati’s line to overachieve this season — and he was still benched on Sunday despite his improvements this year. Negotiating with the guard will be a difficult task, as the Bengals certainly want Zeitler — who remains a talented player, perhaps even a top-10 guard — around. But if another team were to shell out major money to the former first-round pick, would the Bengals counter?

And finally, Rex Burkhead is an interesting case, as he wasn’t a part of the Bengals’ offense until Bernard’s injury. With so many teams desperate for playmakers at the running back position — and Bernard signed to a long-term deal in Cincinnati — it’s hard to imagine the former Cornhusker re-signs with the Bengals following the 2016 season. At this point, Burkhead could be playing for a chance at a somewhat lucrative contract from another team. Bernard’s injury unfortunately comes at a good time for the 2013 sixth round draft pick.

We finally got to see the human side of Burfict on Sunday, and it was pretty cool to see.

Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away in sports and just view athletes as if they’re machines, specifically designed to play football and do nothing else. But after provoking Steve Smith Sr. and flopping when the receiver gave the linebacker a slight head-butt, we saw the linebacker laugh off the flop on the sidelines. The media overreacted (of course), but it was fun to watch.

Despite his benching, Bodine has been having a good year.

Like with Kirkpatrick, it’s important to understand what Bodine’s expectations are. Prior to this season, they were very low. But, the center has been an average or better player for the entirety of Cincinnati’s season. He certainly has a bad play here or there, but he’s been slowly becoming a more consistent player. And for what it’s worth, he seems to have just as many good plays as he does head-scratching ones. I’m not a big Pro Football Focus guy, but here’s an interesting stat: there have only been two weeks this season in which Bodine has not been one of Pro Football Focus’ top-five graded Bengals offensive players.

With that in mind, the notion that Bodine will be replaced in the Draft is a very confusing idea to me. Bodine has been the only member of the Bengals offense to overachieve this year, save A.J. Green. Whether he should be replaced or not is not a question I can answer, but from a coaching standpoint, replacing one of the only players on your roster who has overachieved would not make sense, especially for a staff that has stood by Bodine despite criticism for the past three seasons.

To me, Bodine’s benching on Sunday in Baltimore was more likely an opportunity for coaches to remind him how far he’s come and encourage him to focus. As he was put back into the lineup in the fourth quarter, the benching was likely not a warning that he could potentially be replaced, though I’m speculating here.

The Bengals’ single-biggest issue in 2016 has been the play of their lines. But the defensive line’s issues haven’t been discussed enough.

Peko and Michael Johnson aren’t the only players underachieving on the Bengals’ defensive line. When you have Atkins and Dunlap healthy and active on a weekly basis, there’s no excuse for being a bottom-10 team in terms of sacks. Both linemen are great players, and they continue to grade well in advanced metrics, but 11 collective sacks between the two linemen is frankly unacceptable. Last year, the Bengals had one of the NFL’s most effective pass rushes. This year, they rank in the bottom 10, yet there haven’t been any significant changes in personnel.

It seems as though there are two or three occurrences in every game where an opposing quarterback gets pressured, rolls out of the pocket and effectively escapes. If half — or even a quarter — of these types of plays had resulted in sacks, the Bengals’ defense would not have spent nearly as much time on the field as it has.

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