The Bengals have been an incredibly successful team in Marvin Lewis' tenure, and even more so since 2011, when the team landed franchise cornerstones in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. This immense success comes not only from coaching, roster management and cap management, but also from the players themselves. Here are five guys who have played a big part in that success and figure to play an equally big (or bigger) part in the team's 2016 season.
Adam Jones: It's hard to exclude the veteran corner from the list, as he is one of the premiere corners in the NFL and played a huge role in the Bengals' stellar 2015 season. But as with Josh Norman in Carolina, I'd consider Jones more of a luxury than a necessity. The Bengals' defensive scheme revolves around the front seven to set a tone and hopes the secondary can take advantage of the pressure provided at the line of scrimmage. Though the team would certainly be worse off without Jones, I believe it could still get by.
Carlos Dunlap: Like with Jones, excluding Dunlap from the list was very difficult. The defensive end is arguably the Bengals' only average-or-better edge player, so losing him could potentially prove catastrophic. But because the Bengals were able to make a playoff run in 2014, despite having the worst pass rush in football, I think the Bengals could get by without him. That being said, I can't say that with certainty, as Dunlap hasn't missed a game since becoming the team's full-time starter at defensive end.
Mike Nugent/Kevin Huber/Clark Harris: The Bengals' specialists aren't in the news a lot, and that's a really good thing. As a Bengal fan, I often take these three players' good plays for granted and only recognize when they slip up. But if any of these three guys were to get injured, the Bengals--like any NFL club that loses a specialist to injury--would panic. Just look at how Zoltan Mesko performed in the Bengals' 2013 playoff loss to the Chargers for any further evidence. Poor field position was one of the biggest reasons for the Bengals' playoff collapse against San Diego, and the team's dominance in regards to field position was one of the biggest reasons for the Bengals' 8-0 start in 2015.
Now let's get to the top five.
5. A.J. Green
Record with (since 2011): 50-25 (.667)
Record without (since 2011): 2-2-1* (.500)
*Counting the 2014 games against the Falcons and Broncos as games without Green, as he left both games after the first drive with an injury
Green's placement on the list comes as a no-brainer, but he lands lower than I'd guess most people expect. By the time his career comes to a close, Green may well be the greatest wide receiver in Bengals history. That being said, Andy Dalton has emerged as a franchise quarterback.
2015 was the year the Bengals have been least reliant on Green since he entered the NFL, and it was arguably the team's best regular season in franchise history. Green is still a highly valuable player, but with the emergence of a dominant ground-and-pound running game in 2014 and Tyler Eifert in 2015, Cincinnati has proven that it is no longer dependent on its superstar wideout, which is a very good thing.
Green is still easily one of the two best players on the team, if not the best player on the team, but he's not as indispensable as he once was early in his career.
4. Vontaze Burfict
Record with (since 2012): 30-16-1 (.649)
Record without (since 2012): 13-4 (.765)
Burfict is one of the most polarizing players on the Bengals, which comes at a cost. His opposition will point out that the Bengals have a better win percentage when he's standing on the sideline, but I'd point to the defense's efficiency when he is on the field versus when he is not.
Last season, the Bengals held opponents under 100 yards rushing one time when Burfict was sidelined to injury and five times when he was on the field. Cincinnati held opponents to 10 points or less five times when Burfict was on the field and zero times before he returned from injury.
If it weren't for Burfict's outstanding play in the Wild Card game, the Steelers would've wiped the Bengals out. He's deserving of a place on the list.
3. Andrew Whitworth
Record with (since 2006): 82-68-2 (.546)
Record without (since 2006): 3-5 (.375)
No matter how optimistic people may feel about Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, there's no replacing Andrew Whitworth. Whit has been an elite left tackle for years, and I'd argue he's the best in football.
I'm no offensive line connoisseur, but there's no questioning whether Whit can take on an edge rusher. Whitworth's giving up a sack is always a surprising event, because it happens once every one or two seasons. Whitworth is rarely penalized, and he's impactful on running plays and screen passes almost as often as he is on passing plays.
Furthermore, Dalton wouldn't be as confident or effective a quarterback as he is if not for Whitworth's stellar play. The humility displayed by Whitworth to play inside at guard in 2013 and step back as a team leader to allow Dalton to take over in 2015 often goes unspoken, but both moves greatly benefitted the team.
Ogbuehi and Fisher may develop into great players, but it would be completely unreasonable to expect them to be as good as Whitworth. Players like Big Whit don't come around very often.
2. Geno Atkins
Record with (since 2010): 29-28 (.509)
Record without (since 2010): 5-1 (.833)
Losing Atkins in 2013 may not have translated into the team's win-loss record at the end of the season, but it was the team's single-biggest injury absence since Carson Palmer tore his ACL in 2005--and that includes Dalton's thumb fracture toward the end of 2015.
Atkins tallied 82 quarterback pressures last season, far more than any other interior defensive lineman. That's over 5 pressures per game or, in other words, insane. In 2014, the Bengals were hard-pressed to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks; most of that had to do with Atkins still recovering from injury.
Opposing offenses would have a much easier time running over the Bengals if Atkins were to go down with an injury, and the pass rush would be incredibly unreliable if he were to be sidelined.
1. Andy Dalton
Record with (since 2011): 50-25-1 (.664)
Record without (since 2011): 2-2* (.500)
*Counting the 2015 game against the Steelers as a game without Dalton, as he threw three passes and left the game with injury after the first drive
Dalton will have skeptics until the day he wins a Super Bowl, but the fact of the matter is that he's a franchise quarterback. His passer rating has improved on a year-to-year basis every year except for 2014, during which his top four receiving options all missed significant time.
What often goes unspoken in regards to Dalton's 2014 season is that Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith also missed 11 combined games, pushing Marshall Newhouse and Mike Pollak into the starting lineup. Additionally, Dalton had to deal with a new offensive coordinator and a rookie center, as well as a lack of chemistry with the receivers who were on the field in relief of injured players.
Prior to 2015, many Bengal fans actually believed AJ McCarron was better than Dalton, until Dalton put on a clinic in 2015 and proved his skeptics wrong in an MVP-caliber season before a thumb injury derailed it.
Dalton's doubters haven't remained quiet, citing Cincinnati's brutal Wild Card loss under McCarron as a reason why the backup quarterback is better than Dalton. But it's worth noting that according to Pro Football Reference's expected points formula, the offense's playoff performance under McCarron was worse than three of four of the playoff offenses led by Dalton (2012 being the exception).
It's also worth noting that the Bengals' 2015 playoff defense was the only defensive unit that graded positively in terms of expected points. In other words, Dalton has never had defensive support in the playoffs--the Bengals defense gave up 26 or more points in three of Dalton's four playoff appearances (2012 again being the exception).
Dalton is the most indispensable player on the Bengals. He has become the leader of his team and has defied expectations by breaking through his perceived ceiling. Still in his prime, I expect Dalton to continue to show signs of progression in 2016 and beyond.
**All win/loss totals do not include playoff games.