When the Cincinnati Bengals came back healthy and aided with new talent going into the 2015 season, most figured they would be a difficult team to deal with. Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert, who both essentially missed all of 2014, were back to assist Andy Dalton, while the defense was also largely intact.
While the year didn’t end the way the team—or fans—wanted it to, the team tied a regular season franchise record with 12 wins and rode their massive wave of talent to another AFC North crown. Free agency and injuries took their toll on the team one year later, ending in a massively disappointing 6-9-1 2016 campaign.
So far, things are sounding mostly positive out of Bengals training camp. While that’s to be expected this time of year, we’re hearing more and more about the rookies looking mature, Dalton looking crisp and a healthy mix of both a fun and business-like approach to football.
This offseason, the Bengals have spent their resources on getting younger and faster, while also attempting to deepen some of the skill positions that were hit hard last year. Because of that and the good vibes coming out of camp, Scott Schulze and I recently had ESPN Cincinnati’s James Rapien on The Orange and Black Insider to talk about what the expectations should be for this year’s squad, given what we’ve seen so far.
“I expect playoffs. I think that should be the bar,—I think it should be the bar for Marvin (Lewis), for Andy (Dalton),” Rapien said. “Here’s the bottom line: how many OK coaches with franchise quarterbacks are there in the AFC?...I look at this team and all of the weapons that are around Andy Dalton, even with the offensive line issues.
“The defense was pretty good last year because Vontaze Burfict carried them. He’s in shape, flying around—he looks better this year than he did last year. I think he’s poised for a huge season.”
While many agree with Rapien’s assessment, there are plenty of national media members who expect a very similar output from the Bengals this year. Who will prove to be right and what’s factoring into that decision?
The skill positions:
When you look at the skill positions on both sides of the football, these Cincinnati Bengals appear to be just as talented (if you’re counting rookie potential), if not more so, than the 2015 crew. And, they too are getting back many of their stars (Eifert, A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, Vontaze Burfict) who were out of the lineup often for a variety of reasons in 2016.
It took them a little while, but when the trio of Green, Jones and Sanu were on the field together, it was one of the best groups in the NFL. With the additions of John Ross and Josh Malone, the Bengals once again could have one of the better units in the league, should those two prove to be able contributors.
Then, of course, are the running backs. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard have provided a nice one-two punch over the past few seasons, but a myriad of issues have hit the duo. Cincinnati saw what Joe Mixon could provide them on the field and pounced on him in the second round of this year’s draft. If Mixon looks anything close to the dominant force he’s been in training camp, the Bengals could have one of the best running back groups in the league.
That’s just on offense, though. At cornerback, another skill position, the team is loaded with former high picks. Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, William Jackson and Darqueze Dennard are all former first round selections, while there is talent at linebacker and defensive end, thanks to a re-stocking of the spot in the draft.
This is a bit of a high-potential versus a wait-and-see type of thing, though. If you look at it on paper, the skill positions seem to be even deeper than the 2015 squad and that’s saying a lot. However, this is contingent upon Ross, Malone, Mixon and others panning out in a variety of ways.
The lingering questions in the trenches:
While the Bengals employ one of the best interior linemen in the game in Geno Atkins, the other defensive tackle spot is a bit unsettled. Pat Sims currently has the top notch on the depth chart, but Andrew Billings is nipping at his heels. Still, as it is with Billings and so many other spots on this team, we’re talking about high potential without seeing any on-field output to this point.
Carlos Dunlap is a pillar of consistency, while his counterpart at the other end spot, Michael Johnson, has dipped in recent years. Still, if the Bengals come up with a good formula to mix in Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson (who has been one of the best newcomers in camp so far) with those two veterans, the pass rush could be formidable once again.
Ah, but the offensive line. After consistently having one of the best lines from the mid-2000s up until last year, the Bengals are in a major state of flux up front. It’s by far the biggest question mark the team faces in a quest to get back to the postseason this year, as they are hanging their hopes on their top two picks from 2015, Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher.
Not only will Fisher and Ogbuehi need to exceed expectations, but guys like Clint Boling, Russell Bodine and Andre Smith will also need to up their respective games if this offense truly wants to be elite. And, as we know, this unit wasn’t much of a concern at all in 2015.
What do you think? Are the 2017 Bengals just as talented as the 2015 club? Should we have similar expectations?
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