Personnel-wise, the Cincinnati Bengals have a bright future ahead of them.
Much of the core of the roster is under contract for multiple seasons, including Andy Dalton (who’s signed through 2020) and A.J. Green, (who’s signed through 2019).
As good as those two are as a foundation to build around, many other key players are also under contract for the foreseeable future. Dre Kirkpatrick, Clint Boling, George Iloka, Shawn Williams, Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and Vincent Rey all are signed through at least the 2018 season.
Then you’ve got the promising crop of young guys the Bengals have drafted in recent years, including Jake Fisher, Darqueze Dennard, William Jackson III, John Ross, Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd. All of these guys are also signed until 2018, at the earliest. With so much young talented mixed with quality veterans, the Bengals should have a nice future ahead of them.
ESPN somewhat agrees with that notion. They just unveiled a projection of how well all 32 NFL franchises set up for the next three season. With so many of the team’s key players under contract for the next two to three years, the Bengals probably should have come in on this list a little higher than the No. 14 spot.
However, their reasoning for having the Bengals in the middle of the NFL is actually a fair one: the coach.
2016 record: 6-9-1 (Third in AFC North)
AFC North future rank: second
Why they're here: The Bengals are laced with talent at the skill positions on offense -- A.J. Green was on pace for a 1,700-yard season before going down in Week 11 -- and still feature a defense that's consistently competitive. But the long-term future of the offensive line is a major question mark after a poor 2016 season got worse when two key contributors (tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler) bolted in free agency. The pipeline doesn't appear to be stocked with future stars up front, either. -- Field Yates
Biggest worry: Is Marvin Lewis' leadership enough to get this team to register its first playoff win since he took over in 2003? He is currently 0-7 in the postseason, despite registering double-digit wins six times in 14 years and coaching a roster often among the league's best from 1 to 53. Yes, Lewis has often been saddled with coaching players who aren't the most dependable/professional, but he's going to have to win a playoff game soon to keep his job. -- Louis Riddick
What could change for the better: Cincy lags in front-office outlook with a No. 20 ranking, somewhat understandable now that owner Mike Brown is 81 years old. However, Brown has taken steps over the past few seasons to prepare the team for a power transfer. Katie Blackburn and Duke Tobin have assumed larger roles in the organization, with seemingly positive results. It's plausible to think this front office could be set up well for years to come. -- Mike Sando
It’s clear ESPN doesn’t think highly of the Bengals future due to the head coach. As you can see in the above graphic, that’s the area at which ESPN believes the Bengals are weakest going forward. That 66.7 rating is tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the fourth-lowest ranking of any team’s head-coaching situation.
It’s safe to say if the Bengals had even what ESPN views as an average coach in terms of the rest of the NFL, the ranking would be somewhere around the top 10 of this ranking, if not higher.
Alas, Lewis is still in Cincinnati, so the Bengals will have to make the best out of the situation they’re in. And to be fair, Lewis has taken this franchise to heights it’s never been before with seven playoff trips in an 11-year span. He’s taken this franchise from being a bottom-feeder in the 1990s to at least being respectable for much of his tenure.
But being unable to get the Bengals over the playoff hump while coming off a 6-9-1 season makes it hard to have faith that Lewis will take this franchise to the next level. Hopefully that’s not the case and Lewis is able to help the Bengals taste playoff victory and even more this coming season.