The Bengals had a rough 2016 season for multiple reasons. The most obvious of which had to do with many players and coaches leaving Cincinnati during the 2016 offseason. Still, the Bengals did a solid job of replacing their departed personnel with plenty of talent in the draft and free agency. Unfortunately, there were plenty of growing pains and the team finished the season 6-9-1.
With that type of record, there are naturally many issues that the team needs to fix if it wants to be competitive in 2017. The Bengals won’t need to complete a full-team rebuild to get back to their recent playoff form, but there are still some areas that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Here are three ways the Bengals could instantly improve the team in 2017.
1. Draft a top-talent linebacker
The Bengals have personnel holes at various positions, but perhaps none more than linebacker. Take the starting lineup for example - Rey Maualuga, Karlos Dansby, and Vontaze Burfict. Maualuga’s play has been unsatisfactory over the last few seasons and Dansby is a free agent, not to mention, he will be 36 by the end of the 2017 season. As a young, elite player, Burfict doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon, but he’s the only elite linebacker the Bengals have.
The only relatively young, reliable, and productive linebacker on the team is Vincent Rey, who plays a rotational role rather than a starting one. Nick Vigil appears to be in the process of grooming for an increased role and could join Rey on that list soon, but he isn’t quite on that level yet. P.J. Dawson and Marquis Flowers shore up the rest of the depth with recent offseason addition Bryson Albright.
The Bengals might want to draft multiple linebackers in the upcoming draft for the sake of both talent and depth. But, without a doubt, the team will want to pick up at least one high-end linebacker to bring along while they decide what to do with Maualuga, or for insurance purposes with Burfict, whose aggressive play has him injured somewhat frequently. Alabama’s Reuben Foster has been a popular pick for the Bengals in the first round, but the team could go in a number of directions such as considering Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan, UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley, or Alabama’s Tim Williams early in the draft. Vigil may be part of the future, but the Bengals could still use a dominating linebacker to add to the unit.
2. Improve the pass protection
The Bengals sported one of the NFL’s worst pass protection units in 2016, giving up the seventh most sacks in the NFL (41). That ranking was actually worse throughout much of the season, but the pass protection improved near the end of the season as the line was shifted around for various reasons.
One of those reasons was the removal of Cedric Ogbuehi from the right tackle position, allowing Jake Fisher and Eric Winston to hold down the position. The results weren’t perfect, but they were better, so the Bengals know Fisher is a better fit at right tackle going forward. Furthermore, in Week 16 of the season, Andrew Whitworth shifted to left guard to relieve the injured Clint Boling, who was extremely inconsistent throughout the season. The Bengals also asked Whitworth to make the move to test out Ogbuehi on the left end.
Whitworth played at a Pro Bowl level in 2016 and is a priority to re-sign this offseason. If the Bengals fail to lock him up, there will be serious questions as to how this line will succeed and improve in 2017. Hopefully, Ogbuehi performs better at his natural position of left tackle so the Bengals can rely on him for the long-term. If Whitworth is brought back, there’s also the possibility of him playing left tackle in 2017 and maybe guard in 2018 so that Ogbuehi can get a chance, once he proves he’s ready for it...assuming that happens.
Kevin Zeitler is one of the few stabilizing factors on the offensive line. Re-signing him would greatly help to keep this position from regressing in 2017, something the Bengals can’t afford to have happen. But, the team may look to its younger guards if Zeitler gets away in free agency, something many believe will happen. The Bengals will also want to keep a close eye on center Russell Bodine. He did improve in 2017, but inconsistencies in his pass protection still crept in and the center position could greatly use an upgrade, especially if Zeitler leaves in free agency. Zeitler has been able to help mask many of Bodine’s issues and without him at guard, more of Bodine’s issues will surely be revealed.
The Bengals can’t believe that a line that struggled mightily will improve in 2017 without added help, especially if Zeitler and/or Whitworth leave in free agency. The Bengals should consider free agents and draft prospects to help aid a unit that underperformed in 2016.
3. Solidify the pass rush
The Bengals’ pass rush was lackluster at best in 2016. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins did their best to put together solid numbers with eight and nine sacks, respectively. 17 sacks is a solid number between two individual players. But, the team as a whole combined for 33 sacks across the board. That’s 16 combined sacks by everyone on the entire team not named Atkins or Dunlap, less than those two players’ combined total.
The Bengals don’t have any solid complements for either Dunlap or Atkins. Michael Johnson holds down the right defensive end position, but he only managed 32 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and three pass deflections in 2016. His production has been down since leaving for Tampa Bay in the 2014 offseason then returning to the Bengals in the 2015 offseason. But, the dip in 2016 was even worse than the dip in 2015. With Wallace Gilberry playing a strong rotational role, the Bengals simply need to replace Johnson as a starter with a better defensive end in this year’s draft. The team can’t afford to have Johnson starting if the team wants to be a real threat in the NFL.
The Bengals’ nose tackle position, next to Atkins, is also an issue. Domata Peko has been fairly reliable at the spot for years and was effective in 2015, but his production slipped in 2016. At 32-years-old, he isn’t getting any younger, and he’s a free agent this offseason. With that said, the Bengals need to find a solid complement for Atkins in the starting lineup. Hopefully, Andrew Billings can stay healthy and develop into that player this year, but if he doesn’t, the Bengals are going to have a serious problem. The Bengals need to get younger on defense and that should include parting ways with Peko in free agency and getting more out of the team’s young players and potential newcomers from the 2017 NFL Draft.
The Bengals have the basic skeleton of a solid team intact. If there is any rebuilding that still needs to be completed, it is getting younger at certain positions and picking up talent to add more meat to that roster. The Bengals can certainly improve from 2016 to be competitive in 2017, the front office just needs to stay focused on the right moves, and make decisions that positively impact the team in both the short-term and long-term.