The Cincinnati Bengals had plenty of problems in 2016 that caused an improbable 6-9-1 end to the season. The team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and generally looked lost in key situations. Part of the problem was the many key players and coaches who left the team during the 2016 offseason, creating wide open holes for others to fill. That proved to be problematic throughout the season, and helped lead to a losing season.
While in 2015 it seemed the Bengals’ roster was deep and durable, in 2016, that wasn’t the case. With some of the young backup and rotational players, the experience wasn’t there, in other cases, it was the production that was missing. In a few cases, the players themselves weren’t even available due to injuries. However, everyone gets a fresh start in 2017, and many young players will once again need to step up and take on bigger roles, or in some cases, take on a role for the first time. Here are five players who we should hope to see big things from in 2017.
William Jackson III
With the heavily discussed struggles of Adam Jones both on and off the field and the impending free agent status of Dre Kirkpatrick, the Bengals’ cornerback position looks much less stable heading into 2017 than it has in recent years. Jackson lost his rookie season to a torn pectoral muscle. He was ready to return toward the end of the year and was going to be the Bengals’ pick to return from Injured Reserve. But, once Giovani Bernard tore his ACL, the Bengals opted to bring back a running back off IR instead and gave Cedric Peerman the lone IR designation to return tag. The Bengals drafted Jackson in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft with the thought that his frame, speed, and instincts would fit perfectly in the starting lineup. If he can make an impact this year, the sky is the limit for the young cornerback.
The fact that the Bengals need help at defensive tackle is no secret. Williams was one of the unlikely stars of the Bengals’ 2015 training camp as an undrafted rookie, and spent his rookie season on the practice squad. However, he did make the team in 2016 and, despite being cut for two days in late November, spent almost all of the season on the roster. Domata Peko struggled in 2016 next to Geno Atkins and is a free agent this year, so there is ample opportunity for Williams to continue to improve and possibly contribute as a key rotational defensive tackle. He does have competition though with other young stars in the making...
Hailed as one of the biggest steals of the 2016 Draft, Billings adds a different dynamic to the Bengals’ defensive tackle position. I discussed Williams’ potential to contribute significantly in 2017, but most of the same logic applies to Billings’ chances as well. He is known as a strong, hard working, athletic defensive tackle who can both make plays and dominate the point of attack. At the very least, he should share time with Williams at the defensive tackle spot, but he could very well help create an unstoppable defensive tackle tandem with Atkins in 2017. Billings lost his rookie year to a torn meniscus and should be extra motivated to start out year two on a better note.
One of the Bengals’ highest priority free agents this offseason is Kevin Zeitler. As one of the few bright spots for the Bengals’ offensive line in 2016, Bengals fans certainly hope he will be brought back in 2017. However, if he doesn’t return, 2016 Draft pick Christian Westerman might get his shot. He has the added benefit of being extremely versatile as an inside lineman, so it will be interesting to see how the Bengals use him as struggling center Russell Bodine only has one year remaining on his rookie deal.
The Bengals’ somewhat surprising third round pick from the 2016 Draft showed plenty of promise in his first season with the Bengals. As a depth player, he didn’t see a lot of playing time. But, he managed to record 11 tackles and a pass deflection in the few opportunities he did receive. Given the struggles of Rey Maualuga, the opportunity for Vigil to find a way to contribute consistently this year seems almost guaranteed.