Jeremy Hill has made himself very available to the media this offseason, and in a recent interview on NFL Total Access, he gave fans some more insight into what the Bengals are shaping up to become in 2016: a veteran-dependent team with an influx of youth on both sides of the ball. The Bengals have been a relatively young team throughout the Andy Dalton era, but with the quarterback entering his sixth season, Cincinnati has shifted into a veteran team.
Of the Bengals' 13 projected 2016 starters (including Giovani Bernard, Ryan Hewitt and Tyler Boyd as the interchangeable 11th man on the field), only Hill, Hewitt, Russell Bodine and Cedric Ogbuehi have been in the league for fewer than three seasons. For comparison, only six of the team's 13 starters in 2013 had been in the NFL for three years or more. Hill believes his team's experience will play a huge factor in its 2016 success.
"I think our experience," Hill responded when asked what the Bengals' biggest strength was. "We've got a lot of guys who have played in a lot of playoff games and a lot of guys who have played a lot of downs in this league. I think that means a lot."
With the cornerstones of the Bengals' 2011 rebuild, Dalton and A.J. Green, entering their sixth seasons in the NFL, the Bengals are no longer a young team. Sure, guys like Tyler Boyd and Cedric Ogbuehi will likely earn starting reps next year, but neither of the two will be expected to carry the team on their shoulders. The Bengals' 2016 success will be contingent on Dalton, Green and Tyler Eifert replicating their 2015 success, as well as Hill and Bernard picking up the slack in the run game.
In 2015, the Bengals were excellent in terms of protecting the ball, giving the ball away only 17 times throughout the regular season. Only the Patriots, Seahawks and Chiefs turned the ball over less. On defense, the Bengals forced 28 turnovers, which ranked fourth in the NFL. Only the Panthers, Cardinals, Jets and Steelers created more turnovers on the defensive side. In total, Cincinnati forced 11 more turnovers than it committed, which really gave the team a good chance to win its matchups.
Winning the turnover battle in the regular season is one thing, but in the postseason, winning the turnover battle is a necessity rather than a luxury. The Bengals posted a -2 turnover differential in the 2015 playoffs, which was a huge factor in their Wild Card loss to the Steelers. Hill, who lost a fumble on the Bengals' final possession, understands how huge of a mistake his fumble was, and he's committed to fixing the issue.
When Hill was asked what the Bengals need to improve upon heading into 2016, his answer may have been more personal than team-based.
"I think turnovers," Hill said. "Obviously limiting the fumbles, taking that out and making sure we win that [turnover battle]."
The Bengals have a cumulative playoff turnover differential of -9 since 2011, and they haven't posted a positive turnover differential in a playoff game during that span. Though it's unclear whether Hill was citing the need to improve on turnovers for only himself or also his teammates, one thing's certain: Hill is not the only player who needs to protect the football. Andy Dalton made a ton of errant throws in his first three playoff games, Giovani Bernard has lost two fumbles in three playoff games and A.J. Green has dropped some very catchable passes. And it's not only on the Bengals offense to turn the ship around--the Bengals defense did not force a single turnover in its 2011 and 2013 playoff matchups, and the 2015 Wild Card game was the first time in the Dalton era that the defense forced multiple turnovers in a playoff game.
Hill emphasized the importance of the turnover battle, mentioning that at one point last season, Marvin Lewis showed the team that the team's winning percentage was something around .900 when the Bengals win the turnover battle.
One way the Bengals looked to improve their offense was by adding rookie wideout Tyler Boyd in the 2016 NFL Draft. Hill has faith in Boyd, who he cites as a 2016 breakout candidate:
"I think Tyler Boyd is going to come in and turn a lot of heads," said Hill. "I like the way he's come in and worked every day, stayed quiet, stayed humble and just come out there working, catching balls and all the things he can do. I'm looking forward to seeing how he plays in training camp."
If Hill can return to 2014 form, the Bengals won't need to rely on Boyd, but it's nice to know Hill has faith in his rookie teammate. Despite a down year in 2015, Hill's 20 rushing touchdowns in the past two seasons still lead the NFL in that span, and his career yards per carry now is at 4.3. If Hill can tally 4.3 yards per carry and takes more than 220 carries (he took 222 carries in 2014 and 223 in 2015), he'll tally over 950 rushing yards. Add on another 1,000 scrimmage yards from Bernard and about 200 receiving yards from Hill and that's more than 2,000 yards of offense without even considering the potential impact of Dalton, Green, Eifert and the rest of the offense.
If Ken Zampese and his coaching staff can get the best out of Hill, the Bengals offense could easily become the NFL's best unit in 2016. We only have to wait about three more months to discover whether Hill can recapture his 2014 magic. If Hill's in his groove, the sky's the limit for the Bengals offense.
Hill also spent Thursday at ESPN and appeared on nearly every show they have during the day. Here's a clip from one of his appearances.