These certainly aren't the dark years for Cincinnati football. While fans continue to wallow in the misery of the playoff drought, everyone has to admit that this is a time of excitement in the jungle. The Bengals have made he playoffs for five-straight seasons, and a young fleet of outstanding players at many different skill positions has brought a new hope to Cincinnati. This hope is fueled by the fact that the Bengals have won the AFC North Championship two of the last three seasons, including just last season. But what will it take for the Bengals to repeat as division champions this year?
Andy Dalton needs to stay healthy
This one may be kind of obvious, but there is no telling where Cincinnati would have been if Dalton had not gone down with an injury late last season. McCarron did all you could ask for as a backup, and he helped the Bengals do just enough to win the division, but he did not play at the MVP level Dalton was playing at (which you really can't expect him to do). If Dalton had stayed healthy, Cincinnati likely would have gotten one or two more wins in the regular season, and been set up for great success in the postseason with at least a bye. If the Bengals want to beat out the Pittsburgh Steelers for the division this year, Dalton cannot be missing games at any point in the season.
Running back bounce back
Both the Bengals franchise and its fans were very excited about the rushing duo of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard going into last season. With all the hype built up around them, the reality was very underwhelming, to say the least. Hill put up just 794 yards, and averaged just 3.6 yards per-carry, plus he fumbled three times and lost all three of them. It was no doubt a sophomore slump for Hill after he put up 1,124 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per-carry during his rookie year. Meanwhile, Bernard ran the ball pretty well last season as he averaged 4.7 yards per-carry, but he only got 154 attempts, resulting in 730 yards. What we expected to be a dynamic duo ended up being a rather average pair of running backs. Hill and Bernard will need to pick it up this year if they want to outrun Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers for the AFC North Championship.
Receivers, new and old, have voids to fill
The Bengals' aerial attack that greatly helped their run to the AFC North title last year has taken quite a few hit this offseason. Hue Jackson left for Cleveland, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones were lost to free agency, and there are reports that Tyler Eifert could miss some games early this season due to an injury he sustained in the Pro Bowl. While there have been many setbacks, the Bengals did sign wide receiver Brandon LaFell, and drafted Pitt wide receiver Tyler Boyd to fill some of those gaps. It's obviously highly likely that we will see great production out of A.J. Green as usual, but his fellow receivers will play a big part in the offensive success. Without Jones or Sanu, opposing defenses will be able to pay more attention to Green without the fear of another receiver beating them. If other Bengals receivers can have a breakout season and force attention away from Green while also putting up some big numbers, Cincinnati's passing attack won't miss a beat.
Defense should embrace youth
Cincinnati's defense was extremely deep last season, and that certainly helped get them to a 12-4 record and a division title. They've lost some of that depth, as many of their top defenders became free agents. And while the Bengals re-signed most of their guys, some slipped away. The Bengals lost Reggie Nelson to the Oakland Raiders a season after he led the NFL in interceptions, and Leon Hall is still a free agent after being a shutdown corner and a staple in the Bengals' defense for years. Wallace Gilberry is also gone to the Lions. It's clear the Bengals are looking to get younger on defense. They let three veterans go, they signed safeties George Iloka and Shawn Williams to contract extensions, and they drafted cornerback William Jackson III in the first round. While Adam Jones did get re-signed and will stick around as a veteran, it's clear that this defense is in the hands of young players like Iloka, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Vontaze Burfict for the foreseeable future.
Speaking of Burfict, this younger defense is going to have to go without his services for the first three weeks, which could be difficult. Burfict is one of the best linebackers in the league, especially when it comes to tackling, as he's recorded 401 tackles in his career and led the NFL in tackles back in 2013. However, Burfict's suspension is something ESPN's Cole Harvey doesn't think will be a problem.
Discipline is key
It's only right that we talk about discipline after mentioning Burfict. It's no secret that Cincinnati's national image isn't exactly a squeaky-clean one. Penalties were an issue for the Bengals, specifically during the debacle that was the end of the playoff game in January. Sure, the Bengals got the short end of the stick here and there, and not everything was called fairly (I'm still trying to figure out how Ryan Shazier's hit on Bernard wasn't attempted murder), but it isn't just bad luck that is leading to these penalties. The Bengals really do have to clean up their act. If Cincinnati wants to win the division again, they can't get caught trying to emulate a snap count, and they can't take a wide receiver's head off. The Bengals racked up 132 penalties in 2015, and that's unacceptable if they're going to win the division two years in a row.
This Bengals team is one that is certainly more than capable of winning back-to-back division titles. The talent is there, and last year we saw what is hopefully just a glimpse of how good the Bengals can be. If Dalton stays healthy, the running backs play up to their potential, the new wide receivers help fill the void of losing Sanu and Jones, and the young defense fills the shoes of the veterans who came before them, while also staying more disciplined, there is no telling how far this Bengals team can go. Yes, those are a lot of factors, but they're all doable. With room for improvement from last season, the Bengals still went 12-4. All it takes is working out a few kinks for the Bengals to not only repeat as division champions, but aim for the top of the AFC.