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Bengals receive poor grade from ESPN in NFL offseason review

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Free agency was rough, but, the Bengals had a solid draft. Still, ESPN doesn’t seem to be thrilled by Cincinnati’s offseason.

NFL: 2017 NFL Draft Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals have had an interesting offseason, to say the least.

It began with some brutal losses in left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler. Those two were instrumental to the Bengals having one of the NFL’s best offensive lines on a regular basis. That changed in 2016, but, their play was the only redeeming factor of the offensive line the Bengals fielded in 2016.

Somehow, the Bengals let both walk out the door this offseason to sign with annual losers in the Browns and Rams. Sure, they both got deals the Bengals preferred not to match, but losing your two best linemen in one offseason is a recipe for disaster when the line was already fragile.

However, the highs of getting offensive playmakers in John Ross and Joe Mixon could offset those losses, especially if Mixon lives up to his billing. He’s the kind of game-breaking running back who can make any offensive line better, whereas guys like Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, at their best, were often benefiting from a great offensive line in front of them.

Mixon is the kind of back who can be great even behind a questionable line. And if he can’t get the ground game going, Ross adds another explosive playmaker in a pass-catching unit that already has A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert.

And that’s not even accounting for the rest of the Bengals’ draft class, which was widely viewed as one of the best any NFL team had. You can make a good argument for the Bengals have gotten better this offseason, but ESPN’s Bill Barnwell isn’t buying into that.

In his offseason grading of the AFC North, Barnwell gave the Cincinnati the worst grade of any team in the division, a C+. He also praised the Bengals’ for getting Ross and Mixon, as well as re-signing rising star Dre Kirkpatrick, who became a great cornerback last year, a role he will continue to build off of during his contract extension.

However, Barnwell couldn’t get over the losses of Zeitler and Whitworth, as well as not adding any impact linemen in free agency or the draft.

Their offensive line is in a shambles. The most important thing with which to surround Dalton -- even more so than receivers like Ross and Green -- is protection. Dalton is an entirely different quarterback when he's pressured. Over his six-year career, Dalton's QBR is a respectable 70.0 when he's left alone in the pocket. When he's pressured, though, that number falls all the way down to a QBR of 9.9. The only passer over that timeframe with a worse QBR under pressure is Mark Sanchez (minimum 200 attempts).

The Bengals knew two years ago that Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler were going to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, which unquestionably led to them drafting Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher with their top two selections in the 2015 draft. Things have not exactly gone well. Fisher has barely played and wasn't even able to beat out journeyman veteran Eric Winston as the team's swing tackle for stretches last year, and Ogbuehi missed all of 2015 and was a disaster at right tackle last season. It's not good when a player describes his own season with an expletive.

If Ogbuehi and Fisher were ready, the Bengals could have happily let Whitworth and Zeitler leave. They're not, and the Bengals weren't able to hold onto either of their top two linemen anyway. Whitworth, quietly one of the best linemen in football over the past five years, left to go protect Jared Goff in Los Angeles on a one-year deal the Bengals should have been able to top. The Browns simply outbid the Bengals for Zeitler. Cincinnati re-signed Andre Smith, who was a disaster in both 2015 (for the Bengals) and 2016 (for the Vikings), in the hopes that he'll move to guard and allow Fisher to play right tackle. Ogbuehi also suggests he'll be better as a left tackle than he was on the right side. Regardless, Bengals fans have to hope Dalton will have enough time to find his wildly talented receiving corps for big plays this season.

It’s hard to argue with Barnwell’s assessment, especially when it comes to how awful Dalton has performed under pressure. He’ll be facing a lot of it in 2017 with the current offensive line, so there’s reason to think this could quickly turn into a disaster that fails to come close to reaching its potential.

Per PFF, Dalton had a lower completion percentage differential when under pressure vs not under pressure, than all other quarterbacks other than Tom Brady. When not under pressure, Dalton completed 71% of his passes in 2016. When under pressure, that number fell to 43.9%. A good offensive line is fundamental to his success; hopefully, the Bengals realize that.

Then again, Dalton has one of the quickest releases of any starting quarterback, so he will need to use that to his advantage to help make up for bad offensive line play. If this Bengals team is get back to its winning ways, Dalton will need to cope with the assets he has, or hope the line takes a major step forward. After a 6-9-1 season, the Bengals can’t afford to have had a C+ offseason. With that said, let’s hope Barnwell’s grade is far off from the reality.