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Injury risks could make or break Bengals’ offense in 2017

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The Bengals have a lot of talent on offense, but injury problems could limit the unit’s potential.

NFL: San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The amount of talent on the Bengals’ offensive roster is not up for debate. On paper, the Bengals employ one of the league’s best receiving corps, a top-tier tight end, a solid franchise and backup quarterback, and a respectable backfield. Unfortunately, injuries have been a huge problem for some of the most talented offensive players, contributing to the Bengals’ lackluster offensive performance last year. For some players, the injuries can be more problematic than others and could make or break the Bengals’ season once again in 2017. A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert were on the field together far too infrequently, but if they can stay on the field together this season, coupled with the additions of John Ross and Joe Mixon, the sky's the limit for the Bengals’ offense.

Here’s a look at three players who had injuries in 2016 (both with the Bengals and at the college level) who will be critical to the team’s success moving forward.

A.J. Green

One of the top wide receivers in the NFL, Green has been an absolute staple for the Bengals offense since being drafted No. 4 overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, 2016 was a rough year for him. He missed six games with a hamstring injury, reducing his usually staggering numbers to a mere 66 catches for 964 yards and four touchdowns.

Luckily, Green does not have a history of missing games frequently. He missed three games in 2014 due to a lingering toe issue. He also missed a game in his rookie season, but otherwise he has been available for every game. Granted, there have been games where his production was clearly slowed by lingering issues, but there is a very clear difference in the Bengals’ offensive ability when he is on the field. The Bengals simply can not afford to lose him in 2017 like they did in 2016.

Tyler Eifert

The Bengals’ top tight end, when healthy, is one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL. For example, he only started 12 games in 2015 but managed to put up 52 catches for 615 yards and 13 touchdowns. Unfortunately, he has never played a full 16-game season in the NFL, largely due to injury.

In 2014, he only recorded three catches before going down with a season-ending elbow injury in Week 1. In 2015, he managed to play a significant amount of the season, but still missed time due to a concussion and stinger. In 2016, he missed half of the season recovering from a foot injury suffered in the Pro Bowl and then had a back injury that delayed his return and eventually forced him to miss the final two games of the season. But, when he was on the field, he was productive with 29 catches for 394 yards and five touchdowns. Unfortunately, you could tell the team missed his presence when he was on the sidelines. Will 2017 be the year he finally contributes for a full 16 games? It would certainly add a lot of firepower to the Bengals’ offense.

John Ross

When the Bengals selected John Ross with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, one of the biggest criticisms of the selection was his recent shoulder surgery after the combine. He also has had considerable knee injuries and had microfracture surgery and ACL surgery during college. If that comes back to haunt him at the NFL level, the Bengals will be forced to deal with yet another key offensive weapon hampered by injury. But, if you ask him, he will tell you the injuries are made to be a much bigger deal than they actually are.

“I tore the labrum blocking and playing one of the most physical teams in our conference in Stanford,” Ross told Paul Dehner Jr. of Cincinnati.com. “I don’t think people understand. Some people don’t watch the film so I feel like there’s no need to defend yourself sometimes. Imagine if I was healthy is what I can pitch to people.”

In some cases, he has found the rumors of his health problems to be completely untrue.

“People were saying I tore both my ACLs, I was playing on an MCL sprain,” Ross said. “I had to go ask my doctors, I was like 'Was this me?" I had to check my medical history. I don't remember none of that happening.”

Still, picking up a player with injury concerns has bitten the Bengals before. Cedric Ogbuehi, for example, was recovering from ACL surgery when the Bengals selected him in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. His development was stunted as a result, and he’s failed to show the potential the Bengals saw in his pre-injury college tape. Similarly, in Ross’ case, the injury on his shoulder could restrict arm movement in his first season. Luckily, head coach Marvin Lewis doesn’t seemed worried about his injury.

“If you can jump through the hoops and pass our medical, then you’re pretty good,” Lewis said. “It’s not my concern once they (the medical team) pass him.”

The Bengals appear to be placing a lot of faith in offensive players with recent injury problems. In addition to the players mentioned, Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill and Clint Boling all saw reduced effectiveness (and availability) in 2016 as a result of injury. Hopefully, injury problems will not define the offense’s potency in 2017. If the best players remain healthy, this offense could be unstoppable.