The 2017 NFL Draft is over, and we now have a good idea of what the Bengals 2017 roster will look like. The same is true in Las Vegas where oddsmakers have come out with their over/under win totals for the 2017 NFL season. Vegas Sportsbook has the Bengals’ total at 8.5, which is right where I expected them to be in the eyes of oddsmakers.
I’m taking the over and I’ll tell you why.
Before the draft, the Bengals’ roster wasn’t looking great, given how much they lost in free agency. However, the additions of John Ross and Joe Mixon could take the offense from average to unstoppable. Ross adds a speed element across from A.J. Green that we haven’t seen before. Marvin Jones presented a deep threat, but Ross is on another level as far as scaring opposing defenses.
Mixon was the most complete running backs in the draft. Given his baggage, the Bengals wouldn’t have drafted him in the second-round if they didn’t think he was an elite talent. Mixon is a perfect fit in the Bengals system. He showed a strong ability to run out of a shotgun/zone read set, which is what the Bengals like to do. The player that Mixon is likely replacing in the long-term, Jeremy Hill, has struggled mightily running out of the shotgun formation during the past two seasons. Mixon also has an uncanny knack as a receiver out of the backfield. His patience as a runner, to go along with his receiving ability, draws comparisons to Le’Veon Bell. The additions of Mixon and Ross make this offense as dynamic as offensive coordinator, Ken Zampese will allow it to be.
Yes, the Bengals still have holes on the offensive side of the ball, despite the overabundance of weapons. The offensive line is a question mark heading into next season. Cedric Ogbuehi hasn’t yet proven to be worth his first round selection. Ogbuehi has all the talent in the world, but his issues seem to be between the ears. He needs to get mentally tougher and figure out how to tap into the potential he possesses.
There are also uncertainties with Fisher at right tackle and Andre Smith at right guard. Fisher has also struggled during his young NFL career and Smith has serious injury concerns and has never played guard at the NFL level. Russell Bodine hasn’t exactly proven he’s a quality NFL center, and he’s brought down the offensive line in all three of his prior NFL seasons. Now, he’s one of the most experienced linemen the Bengals employ, and that’s scary.
The questions on the offensive line shouldn’t be understated, they’re a real issue. However, the list of weapons the Bengals have could mask the line issues, if all goes according to plan. Green, Tyler Boyd, Brandon LaFell, John Ross, Giovani Bernard, Tyler Eifert, and Mixon could combine to create the most dynamic offensive skill group in the NFL.
I don’t expect the Bengals to have a strong offensive line in 2017, but I do expect the new additions of Ross and Mixon to mask the deficiencies up front. With so many weapons for defenses to key in on, the odds of one of those weapons getting open are high, which in turn will result in Andy Dalton getting the ball out quicker. We saw it in 2015 with a healthy Mohamed Sanu, Jones, Eifert, and Green. The Bengals are loaded with weapons again, and because of that, I foresee a much improved offense for 2017.
Now let’s move to the defensive side of the ball. As a whole, the Bengals defense was nothing to write home about during the 2016 season. However, if you go back and look, you’ll find most of the struggles happened during the first half of the season. The Bengals only gave up 15.8 points per game (PPG) during the final eight games of the season. To put that into perspective, the New England Patriots had the number one scoring defense for the entire season at 15.6 PPG.
During the first half of the 2016 season, the chemistry among the defense just seemed off. The lack of chemistry was due to a multitude of reasons. Vontaze Burfict, the heartbeat of the Bengals defense, was suspended for the first three games. George Iloka and Shawn Williams were still getting used to playing side by side. And, the Bengals had new position coaches in linebackers coach, Jim Haslett, defensive backs coach, Kevin Coyle and defensive line coach Jacob Burney. It makes sense the Bengals defense took some time to get their legs under them in 2016. The strong finish to the season provides optimism moving forward, and the talent that was added in the 2017 NFL Draft only heightens the optimism.
The pass rush
It’s no secret the Bengals lacked a formidable pass rusher opposite of Carlos Dunlap in 2016. The Bengals addressed that need by drafting two intriguing prospects in Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson. Both players were considered first round talents by many. Although, I understand that one should be careful in counting on guys who haven't played a down in the NFL, if the assessments of these players are accurate, they’ll add an element to the defense that has been missing for a few years. The Bengals are using Lawson at both defensive end and outside linebacker this offseason to find his best fit at the NFL level.
Also, let’s not forget about William Jackson III and Andrew Billings. Jackson III was drafted in the first round for a reason. If he can prove to be the player the Bengals think he is, that’s a youthful insertion of talent into the already talented Bengals secondary. Billings, the former fourth round pick, was also highly touted coming out of college. He is coming back from a meniscus injury that sidelined him for his entire rookie season. It might take time for Billings to get back to himself physically, but there’s potential for him to be a game changer next to Geno Atkins.
Even if the Bengals didn’t add a single defensive player in the draft, there would be reason to feel good about the unit heading into the 2017 season. The fact that they added two promising pass rushers and will get some guys back from injury, offers reason to believe the defense could be a top five unit in 2017.
9+ wins is doable
The Bengals are better on both offense and defense than they were a year ago. Also, on paper, the schedule looks a lot more favorable than it did a year ago. The Bengals’ 2017 opponents had a combined record of 115-141 in 2016, giving them the fourth easiest schedule in the NFL. Between the improvements on offense and defense and the seemingly soft schedule, there’s no reason why the Bengals can’t win at least nine games in the 2017 season.