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Ranking the positions the Bengals most need to improve in 2017

From the defensive line to a vertical threat on offense, the Bengals have work to do in identifying key talent that can quickly contribute to the team next season.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

At 6-9-1 and despite many close losses we can all agree the Bengals were not a very good team in 2016. They had some deep holes among their roster that will need to be addressed in the offseason in order to make it back to the playoffs next year.

The defense was an issue for most of the first half of the season, but they improved down the stretch with help from getting star linebacker Vontaze Burfict back from suspension and back into playing form. They still were in the bottom third of sack percentage and somehow only had five sacks against a Browns team they faced twice and that gave up an outstanding 66 sacks for the season.

The offense was largely clueless without A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard but then found new life when Rex Burkhead was out there on the field. They were still below average in red zone, ranking 18th in touchdown scoring percentage inside the 20-yard line, way down from 2015 when they ranked 6th in that category.

If you’re familiar with how the Bengals’ ownership and management work in the offseason you’ll know they probably won’t make any serious changes. They will use the draft and sign a couple - at best, free agents that don’t require losing a compensatory draft pick, and will trust their core improves during the offseason.

Cincinnati has a talented roster, but some units do need reinforcements desperately while others just need growth from young players and for injured stars to get healthy. Considering this, let’s rank which units need the most improvement, either internally or via draft or free agency.


Shocking, right? Mike Nugent was a disaster in 2016 and thankfully the Bengals moved on from him. A little too late, I know, but now there will be an open competition to determine who the right guy for the job next year. The fans and even the players thought the kicking game played a big role in the season’s failure.

Were the kickers’ misses solely responsible for the Bengals’ losing record? No. But somebody who’s able to consistently hit 50+ yarders would help the offense a great deal, knowing that any time they get past midfield, they have a very good chance to score. Just ask the Ravens how much Justin Tucker helped them this season. So not only the team scoring would improve by having a reliable kicker, but the entire offense would get better with a more trustworthy kicking game.

Defensive end

The only way this is a slightly smaller concern for the Bengals than the kicker is because the position is easier to address. Seriously, you just need one guy to step in and don’t even need to draft him. This is a different beast, as Cincinnati has had trouble finding Carlos Dunlap an appropriate complement since Michael Johnson first left for Tampa Bay. Even Johnson can’t replace himself at this point as his play has sharply declined. The position was horrendous, in terms of sacks and the eye test in 2016.

The Bengals’ defensive scheme relies heavily on its front four to get home, and they can’t afford to ride Johnson at right end for 75% of the snaps going forward. There is basically no depth behind the starters, with Margus Hunt and Wallace Gilberry becoming free agents and Will Clarke failing to develop into anything more than a backup.

If Cincinnati would move Johnson to the SAM position, which could help him and the team at this point, they’d need at least a true pass rusher, a reliable backup that could give them quality snaps every week and a swing guy. Marcus Hardison, who’s spent his first two seasons in the NFL injured could fill that role as the fifth end/nickel tackle, but then, again, you’re betting on uncertainty.

Interior rusher

The Bengals need somebody to help Geno Atkins bring pressure inside. Remember when on third down Gilberry would slide inside and make the passing defense that much better a couple of years ago?

Is Hardison that guy? Is it DeShawn Williams? Are the Bengals willing to give both a fair chance? Considering redshirt rookie Andrew Billings should be healthy for next season, Cincinnati could, in the worst-case scenario, bring back Domata Peko, Pat Sims is also under contract next year, and hope the team can find a defensive end to play nickel tackle. That would be a nightmare. Peko and Sims don’t have much if anything left in the tank and no team should have so many nose tackles on a 4-3 defense nowadays. There’s just no need for that.

Vertical threat at receiver

We all hate the Steelers, but there’s no denying that they have a very dynamic offense that can dominate games. What do they have other than the referees on their side? Elite playmakers. The Bengals have one in Green, but without Marvin Jones this season, the offense took a steep step back and was unable to stretch opposing defenses vertically.

Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd both had nice seasons, but they’re not vertical threats. I’m fine with LaFell coming back but with somebody else at number 2. If you can make the defense fear getting beat over the top, that changes their entire gameplan and opens up multiple other elements of the offense. When Andy Dalton can identify those matchups, he’s at his best. He can deliver the pass quickly and to the right guy, make life for his offensive line easier and let the running game face more two-deep safety looks.

Right tackle

Whatever happens with left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals can’t afford to have the right tackle position continue to be such a weakness. Center Russell Bodine is still a huge liability and guard Kevin Zeitler might price himself out of Cincinnati, which would be terrible to see, as he’s one of the best in the league. He deserves top money and the Bengals can afford to sign him to a deal he’s worthy of receiving.

Do you want Dalton to repeat a season like 2015? Give him weapons and a good offensive line. Cedric Ogbuehi was moved to left tackle and still was a disaster. This doesn’t mean the Bengals have to go draft a new right tackle or sign an expensive free agent, but they really need Jake Fisher to put it all together next year if they want to be contenders and return to having a respectable offense.


The Bengals like Bodine for whatever reason and he’s going to stay there for at least the remainder of his contract. But, maybe the Bengals draft a center this year to groom as a starter for the future. Bodine is only under contract for one more season and the Bengals do typically plan ahead with their draft picks.

This should be a higher priority, I understand, but as I don’t see it really changing or improving I’d leave it here at the bottom of the list.

There’s few promising depth players on the roster outside spots like cornerback and safety, so nailing the upcoming draft will be key for the Bengals to restore their contender status in 2017 and build a roster that’s a threat to the rest of the league.