2016 wasn’t anything close to what Bengals fans were hoping for, especially after coming off of a year that posted a franchise-high mark in regular season wins. However, Rex Burkhead, in his first start as an NFL running back, made sure to send the crowd home happy to start off 2017. The offense just looked efficient, even without premier receiving options like A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert. But in addition to making fans happy, Burkhead also likely earned himself a big pay day in the coming months as he enters unrestricted free agency for the first time in his young career. It will be interesting to see if Cincinnati is able to retain him or if he moves on to another team for a larger role.
Burkhead started out hot, and continued to stay hot throughout the contest. You can see him above following fellow free agent Kevin Zeitler through the hole on a power play during the opening drive. What makes Burkhead so much more effective than Jeremy Hill was this year is the minimal wasted movement from Burkhead. There are no sidesteps, no jukes, he just trusts his linemen will get the block as he shoots straight in at the hole. Run plays today in the NFL are often designed with cutback lanes in mind, similar to how a quarterback will make progression reads in the passing game. There’s a primary read, but the back also is aware of outlet opportunities if the initial hole is clogged. This became exceedingly popular in the early 2000’s when LaDainian Tomlinson ruled the NFL in San Diego (he’s currently a Hall of Fame finalist). LT had some of the best ball carrier vision that the game has ever seen, so by giving him these options it made him even more dangerous. I can’t say with any degree of certainty if the Bengals’ run game works in this manner, but sometimes it really seems like it and Hill has horrendous vision. “Grandpa” Rex’s decisiveness makes him a huge threat with the ball in his hands and his buddy Giovani Bernard also thinks so.
— Giovani Bernard (@G_Bernard25) January 1, 2017
But it wasn’t just Burkhead. Multiple young Bengals contributed in an effort that should make even the most pessimistic Bengals fan at least somewhat hopeful for next year. Cody Core in particular stuck out to me. He’s a guy who in training camp I figured could develop into a one-trick-pony deep threat like a young Mike Wallace in Pittsburgh. This week he showed me that he’s capable of some great footwork and separation skills, completely throwing off Baltimore cornerbacks multiple times.
Core is on the bottom of the screen, and you can see him working outside in on a slant route against veteran corner Shareece Wright. The Ole Miss rookie does a great job making the defender think he’s taking an outside deep release before coming back across his face to attack the middle of the field. Tyler Boyd working out of the slot opens up the underneath for him and allows his teammate to pick up a first down. This would set up a Cincinnati first-and-goal, which led to a touchdown by C.J. Uzomah. Boyd in his own right has continued to be particularly effective for the Bengals. He should see even more work in 2017 as a consistently reliable target for Dalton over the middle. Boyd provides great utility as well, as evidenced by his 15 yard reverse.
I think with a full year under their belts, both Core and Boyd will become much more effective in 2017. It’s also important to remember that offensive coordinator Ken Zampese was also in his first year at his current position so the consistency there will be welcomed. A lot of fans, myself included, have become irritated and impatient with Zampese throughout the year, but games like Sunday’s show you why it’s important to stay the course. The team was without its top three offensive weapons and still put up 27 points against a Baltimore defense that sits in the top 5 in most categories. A lot of that is chalked up to scheme and it’ll be nice to see how Zampese molds the offense with a year of real experience now accrued.
The Bengals may have finished the year 6-9-1, but I feel a lot better about this team than I did just three weeks ago. The influx of depth and young players getting game time, and the success most of them had in the season finale, makes me hopeful for the future. Add in some high draft picks as well as a few compensatory picks this April, and the Bengals can be right back at the top of the AFC North next season.
Other things I noticed:
- The most worrisome part of the team moving into 2017 is clearly its two young tackles. Neither looked prepared to play meaningful NFL games. That said, with what’s already invested, it would be an absolute waste to draft additional tackles this year. The only thing to do is give them more time and hope they continue to develop.
- This is a nice class for athletic linebackers and edge rushers at the top of the first round. The Bengals will be able to get a defensive playmaker at a position of need at #9 overall.
- The 2017 draft class is INCREDIBLY deep at running back. Jeremy Hill also carries next to no dead cap space in 2017 (~$200k). If the team wants to try another back they’ll have plenty of opportunities. In particular I like Pitt’s James Conner, a former 1,700 yard back who is projected to go in the fourth round (I can’t imagine Boyd would mind having his impressive former teammate joining him in Cincinnati).
- Brandon LaFell earned every penny the Bengals paid him in 2016. Hopefully he’ll want to return as he makes a great #2 opposite A.J. Green.
- Keivarae Russell only needed one snap to snag his first career NFL interception. Between he, Josh Shaw, and Williams Jackson III, the Bengals should be fine at corner - even if Darqueze Dennard never becomes anything of use for the team.
- The Bengals are going to want to hang onto Dre Kirkpatrick and Kevin Zeitler, but both will command a high price on the open market. I foresee the Bengals being able to sign Kirkpatrick long term, but I feel Zeitler will be given the Franchise Tag.