Whenever the Cincinnati Bengals add pieces on offense, most automatically assume it’s in an effort to prop up quarterback Andy Dalton. While that definitely is the case, the additions made this offseason, particularly in the NFL Draft, arrive in Cincinnati for another reason.
After Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones left in free agency during the 2016 offseason, pressure was added to Dalton and A.J. Green to carry the offense. Yes, the team added Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd, while also still rostering Tyler Eifert at tight end, but inconsistency and injuries plagued the offense last year.
Even so, Green was off to one of the best starts of his career last year. Through 10 games last season, Green finished with 66 catches for 964 yards and four touchdowns. Unfortunately, his year was cut short with a hamstring injury, but he was torching defenses regularly, even when the rest of the offense was often inconsistent.
Eifert only played in eight games last year, but the hope is that he’ll be ready at the beginning of this season and may finally play something close to a full season (fingers crossed), while the team re-signed LaFell after he filled in admirably for Green at the end of the season. Cincinnati also used its first two picks in the draft at the offensive skill positions in receiver John Ross and running back Joe Mixon.
Given the plethora of weapons the team has brought in for an offense that struggled last year, one is inclined to believe that Green’s uber-consistent numbers will dip. There is merit to the thought, as there is only one football to go around. Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill will be fighting with Mixon for carries, while Ross, LaFell, Boyd and Eifert will almost always be on the field at the same time as the star receiver.
Still, the offense goes as Dalton and Green do, so there are many reasons to believe that we could see the best season ever from the perennial Pro Bowler.
New and old weapons taking attention off of Green:
Let’s face it: no matter who is on the field with Green, defenses will always shade towards No. 18. However, with the team employing three talented running backs drafted in the second round and the other top-four receiving options being drafted in the first or second round (Ross, LaFell, Eifert, Boyd), the bracketed coverage Green saw with regularity in 2016 should diminish.
Maybe the reception numbers for Green dip, but big plays to him should be regularly available if he and his teammates remain healthy in 2016. Last year, Green torched Darrelle Revis and Josh Norman for a combined 21 catches for 301 yards and a touchdown, and that’s with a lot of attention coming his way in those contests.
Ross’ immense speed, coupled with the savvy route-running skills of LaFell and Boyd should keep safeties on their heels. Throw in a healthy Eifert, who dominates in the red zone, and Green should see more one-on-one looks.
Ken Zampese in his second year as the offensive coordinator:
Even though Zampese kept many of the same concepts the core offensive players grasped under both Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson, there were noticeable struggles in his first year as the team’s offensive coordinator. Whether it was trouble protecting Dalton, inconsistency in the running game, or trouble with the big plays in the passing game, it was a disappointing output for an offense that was a juggernaut in 2015.
Aside from his own growing pains in his first year as an NFL coordinator, Zampese was dealing with major player attrition from free agency and injury. As the season ended, Zampese was without Bernard, Green and Eifert, making life miserable for he and Dalton. This offseason, the team brought in players who are both contingency plans and ones who can immediately step in and contribute, so even if the injury bug hits again, Zampese will have a lot to work with this year.
Green coming off a great 2016 and his willingness to be a leader:
Green might be coined as the “anti-Chad Johnson”. Ochocinco not only played well on the field, but he also loved to let everybody know about his on-field forays. While eighty-five holds many of the franchise’s career receiving records, Green is set to beat them, and is doing so without being the outspoken player his predecessor was.
Even though he missed essentially the final six games with his hamstring injury, Green was set to shatter season franchise records in receptions (on pace for 105) and yards (on pace for 1,542 yards). This is all while going through the losses of Jones, Sanu and having Eifert sidelined for the first six games (and the final two), as well as coping with a rookie offensive coordinator.
Additionally, Green has decided to take on the mantle of leader with the Bengals. As longtime locker room leaders Andrew Whitworth and Domata Peko left in free agency, the veteran receiver is grabbing the torch. He thinks he can be a mentor to Mixon and believes the current locker room has what it takes to lead a young team to the Super Bowl. Between what we saw in 2016 and his willingness to step up even further this year, Green could be a star in and out of the locker room.
Andy Dalton improving:
The Bengals’ quarterback has come under much scrutiny since his arrival in 2011, but he still currently stands as one of the best quarterbacks the team has ever employed. After a subpar 2014 campaign, Dalton had an MVP-like season under Jackson in 2015. Even though the team won just six games and Dalton had only 18 touchdown passes last season, Dalton had one of his best statistical seasons of his career.
He threw for 4,206 yards last season, giving him the top-two single-season passing yardage records in franchise history, while only turning the ball over 13 times. With just 15 interceptions over the past two seasons, Dalton has been taking greater care of the football, and that should only increase with the added offensive talent.
Sure, the offensive line is a question mark, but even with the struggles last year, Dalton largely prevailed. Now that the team has multiple viable options at running back, as well as passing options that would make the likes of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers drool, Dalton should continue to show he’s in the prime of his career.
And, the greatest beneficiary of the continued progress? A.J. Green.