The Cincinnati Bengals have a nice blend of veteran leadership and young talent heading into the 2017 season.
The hope is that youth will blossom this year and help Cincinnati rebound from a losing season in 2016, just the second such season for this franchise since 2009. In order to get back to a winning record and playoff contention, at least one player still on his rookie contract will need to have a breakout 2017 season.
It just so happens ESPN has three Bengals in mind for that role. In their ranking of the top 25 breakout prospects in the NFL, they had two Bengals ranked in the top 10, both of whom are projected starters this season.
The first Bengal to make this list is Andrew Billings, who is penciled in as the starting nose tackle following Domata Peko’s departure this offseason.
8. Andrew Billings, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
Age: 21 | 0 defensive snaps | Fourth-round pick (2016)
After missing 2016 with a knee injury, Billings heads into training camp as the presumed starting nose tackle for the Bengals. He was a hell of a prospect, with elite strength and nimble feet at Baylor, where he was the co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year at 20 years old. He racked up 26.5 tackles for loss in his last two years of college.
The question with Billings remains: Is he a nose tackle, or is he more? Nose tackles don't have a ton of value in today's NFL, and the reason he slipped to the fourth round is because scouts looked at his body and saw a two-down player. The upside for Billings' skill set is to become Star Lotulelei, with the speed and power to win in any gap and be a factor on pass-rushing downs.
Peko had often been a weakness in this defense, so if Billings can come in and be just above average, that could be a nice boost to a defensive line that features a world of talent. Not having an adequate nose tackle has made it easier (but still a tall task) to account for Geno Atkins at the other tackle spot.
It’s scary to think how good Atkins could be if he had a better nose tackle next to him. Perhaps we’ll finally see that this year with Billings in the fold.
At linebacker, the Bengals could have two new starters, though one of those spots is almost certainly going to Kevin Minter in the middle. However, the strongside linebacker spot is up for grabs after Karlos Dansby left this offseason. That’s the spot where Nick Vigil is expected to start, which is part of why he made this ESPN ranking at No. 9.
9. Nick Vigil, LB, Cincinnati Bengals
Age: 24 | 111 defensive snaps | Third-round pick (2016)
Another of the Bengal Babies who are getting their first real chance this year, Vigil tested out highly at the combine as a line-of-scrimmage defender. Vigil's short shuttle and three-cone drill times were both in the top 10 percent of all inside linebackers over the past 18 years. His NFL.com draft profile includes this in weaknesses: "Instincts make him seem more athletic and fast than he might actually be." Sign us up for that weakness.
The question with Vigil will be the muscle he's able to add to his frame, and what it does to his speed. He was a mere 230 pounds at the combine. A best-case athletic scenario might be something like Kiko Alonso with the Bills before the injuries wrecked his career. After a successful cup of coffee in 2016, Vigil was dubbed "much better" by defensive coordinator Paul Guenther in organized team activities, and should be in line for a big role in 2017.
Vigil showed flashes of being a quality linebacker in brief playing time as a rookie in 2016. He actually played briefly at all three spots, but with Minter and Vontaze Burfict holding down the other two spots, the strongside is where Vigil has the best chance for playing time. That said, if either Minter of Burfict get injured, it’s possible Vigil moves to the middle or weakside. His versatility will ensure he has a large role in this defense in 2017.
The final Bengal to make ESPN’s ranking is actually someone who’s already had a breakout of sorts. It’s backup quarterback AJ McCarron, who was briefly a starter in 2015 and showed flashes of being a good passer in that time.
25. AJ McCarron, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Age: 26 | 259 offensive snaps | Fourth-round pick (2014)
McCarron didn't exactly set the world on fire in his small sample with the Bengals, but adequate quarterbacking is worth something. McCarron's statistics, including a 6.9 percent DVOA on 132 dropbacks, were heavily influenced by a great supporting cast. Whenever McCarron gets his chance, you can expect some adequate game-manager type play. Nothing inspiring or worthy of a thinkpiece, but every era needs its Jon Kitna.
McCarron is in a bit of an interesting dispute with the Bengals, who don't want his 2014 season to count as an accrued year for the purposes of free agency. Assuming this is just wishful thinking, McCarron may find himself as the next winner of the Brock Osweiler/Mike Glennon Enormous Contract Award. The only real problem with that idea is that those guys had big arms, and McCarron has never had that.
McCarron hopefully won’t see the field at all this year other than at the end of blowouts. Dalton has shown he can play at a high level when both he and his supporting cast are healthy. That’s the recipe for this team to reach its ceiling in 2017, but if McCarron is forced into duty, it gets harder to see said ceiling being reached.
To make this ranking, players have to have been drafted in the third round or later, or -signed as an undrafted free agent, entered the NFL between 2014-2016, have fewer than 500 career offensive or defensive snaps, and have not signed a contract extension. Players on this list must also be 26 or younger in 2017.
That’s why players like Tyler Boyd, Jeremy Hill, Jake Fisher, Cedric Ogbuehi, Russell Bodine, Shawn Williams, Tyler Eifert, William Jackson III, Darqueze Dennard, Josh Shaw and Ryan Hewitt were not eligible for this list.
What do you think of this ranking, which also includes guys like Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill, Steelers defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, Seahawks running back C.J. Prosise and Ravens defensive end Michael Pierce?