We've talked about the moves the Bengals have made, reviewed offseason grades, discussed draft needs and covered everything that's needed to be covered this offseason, but we've yet to answer one question here at Cincy Jungle: Have the Bengals gotten better this offseason?
On the surface of the issue, it's easy to look at the Bengals' losses (Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Andre Smith, Emmanuel Lamur, Wallace Gilberry, Reggie Nelson) and a player they've yet to re-sign (Leon Hall) and conclude that the Bengals are worse. Despite adding Karlos Dansby, Brandon LaFell and (maybe) Taylor Mays, the Bengals' losses outnumber their wins.
Of course, the Bengals re-signed George Iloka, Adam Jones, Vincent Rey, Pat Sims and Brandon Thompson, and the offseason isn't over. Cincinnati will still be able to add at least seven more players via the draft, and many hope the Bengals will bring back Leon Hall at some point this offseason.
Grading an offseason and determining whether a team got better is a tricky concept. Players improve and players decline. Wishful thinkers will hope and expect Dansby has an All Pro-caliber season at 34 (and turning 35-years-old during the season), but those who understand the aging process of the human body will expect Dansby's play to take a step back from what it was in 2015. Similarly, it would be foolish to think that A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict, Tyler Eifert, or George Iloka would regress in the prime of their careers. In fact, expecting one, two or even all of these players to put up better numbers in 2016 would be totally reasonable, given their ages and past production.
To another degree, intangible factors like scheme, chemistry, coaching turnover (whether by subtraction or addition) and even luck play a factor in a team's season. Injuries, the schedule and dozens of more variables will play a part in how Cincinnati's 2016 season turns out, so rashly calling the Bengals a bad team or claiming they're worse without examining these variables would be mindless.
So did the Bengals get better? To me, it's a maybe. Don't take that the wrong way; I don't know if I could positively say that any team in the entire NFL got better this offseason. Many people loved what the Raiders did in their offseason, but I wouldn't say I love it enough to say they're better.
Sure, Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack are all a year older. Sure, the team had what most (myself included) would call the best free agency period of any team, but Oakland still remains a young team. The Raiders lost a key locker room leader in Charles Woodson, and they have replaced him with former Bengal, Reggie Nelson, who can make plays in the defensive backfield. But, is he a guy who can command a locker room the way the future Hall of Famer was able to bring his team together? Any team can have a nice offseason, but only 12 teams make the playoffs. And of last season's nine biggest offseason winners, only two teams made the playoffs.
Though flashy spending in free agency has worked for some teams, it doesn't work for every team. Cincinnati doesn't believe in spending on external free agents, and the formula has worked, earning the team five straight playoff appearances. When the Bengals were spending big money on guys like Antwan Odom and Antonio Bryant, they couldn't sniff the playoffs. But when the team decided to stick with its own, Cincinnati got on a roll. When it comes to the offseason, putting yourself in a position to win is all that matters. The Bengals are good in that department every year.
Let's look at a few of the Bengals' biggest moves and factors that could help or hurt the team in 2016.
Re-signing George Iloka
Cincinnati pulled one of the best moves of the offseason, locking up Iloka to a 5 year, $30 million deal. He was given less overall and guaranteed money than Tashaun Gipson, who left the Browns for the Jaguars and Rodney McLeod, two left the Rams for the Eagles. I'd argue that Iloka is the best of those three safeties, yet he signed the least lucrative deal.
Re-signing Adam Jones
Adam Jones was easily a top-10 corner in 2015, allowing just a single touchdown all year. The touchdown reception pulled in by DeAndre Hopkins was a work of art, too. Jones was all over him, but the Texans receiver made a fantastic catch that not a single corner in football would've been able to prevent. Until Jones shows signs of slowing down, the numbers in his contract don't matter. And if his play drops off, the Bengals can get out of his deal after two seasons with a very low cap hit.
Signing key role players
Bringing back Rey, Sims and Thompson, as well as signing Mays, Dansby and LaFell, gives the Bengals depth that they desperately need heading into the draft. These acquisitions will allow Cincinnati to take a best player available approach in the draft, something the team loves to do.
Losing Hue Jackson will be disappointing, but the notion that his coaching is what made Andy Dalton such a spectacular quarterback in 2015 is just wrong. Dalton has progressed on a year-to-year basis, and while Jackson's coaching definitely had a positive impact on Dalton's passing, I'd argue Dalton's mechanical development could be better attributed to "quarterback guru" Tom House, who Dalton worked with in the offseason, or even Ken Zampese, who was his quarterback coach and now is the Bengals' new offensive coordinator.
Jackson's departure got all the attention, but the bigger loss on the coaching staff has to be Paul Guenther's loss of essentially the entire defensive coaching staff. Fortunately for the Bengals, the team was able to bring back a familiar face in Kevin Coyle, who will coach the defensive backs. Cincinnati's defense was able to have continuity on the coaching staff, so working with an entirely new coaching staff, defensive coordinator aside, could be difficult.
Losing these coaches doesn't necessarily mean the team's coaching is worse. Jackson is a brilliant coach, and the positional coaches on defense brought continuity and familiarity to the team. However, sometimes changes are needed. Perhaps the positional coaches can teach new techniques to the defenders, and maybe Zampese, who has worked very closely with Andy Dalton, will be able to provide a scheme that is suited to Dalton's strengths unlike any previous offensive coordinator he's worked with.
Vontaze Burfict's suspension
Losing Burfict for three games is brutal, but it's still not as bad as missing the entire offseason and first six games of the 2015 season due to injury. The linebacker's return to the lineup sparked his team, helping the defense become a premiere unit. His return in Week 4 of the 2016 season will provide a spark for the Bengals, without a doubt.
So the question must be asked...Are the Bengals better?
As of now, like I said, I'd say that there's no way to definitively say the Cincinnati Bengals are a better team today than they were in January. On the flip side, I'd say that there's also no way to definitively say that they're not a better team. However, the team is healthy and the roster has the same talent level in 2016 that it had in 2015. The Bengals are a year older, and they have another playoff loss motivating them to be even better. The team brought in a Super Bowl champion, in LaFell and a guy who is motivated by losing the only Super Bowl he every played in, in Dansby. In 2016, the Bengals will play two games against each their AFC North rivals, as well as games against AFC East, NFC East, the Broncos and the Texans. Only time will tell whether the Bengals are better or worse, but as of now, there's reason to be optimistic!