The Bengals have had a reputation for keeping at least one eye on the future. It has had mixed results, but teams like the 2015 squad were built using such a method. That includes re-signing key players ahead of them hitting free agency (Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Giovani Bernard, Vontaze Burfict). It is also based on drafting well consistently. When the team misses, you see squads like the 2016 and 2017 ones because the players who were supposed to replace key starters who left didn’t quite rise up to their level.
“We are not in a building program. We have too many good players to be building for the future,” Blackburn said on Wednesday at the end of the annual league meetings. “We have so many good players we feel we have to build for now … I think very much the offseason for us has been focused on win now.”
This is welcome news to most Bengals fans, though, of course that’s what he’s going to say. So often we have seen the Bengals take a player in the draft at a position that has been stacked in anticipation of players leaving via free agency. Really last season the Bengals selecting John Ross was one of the first times in a few years the Bengals had selected a player that they were hoping to impact the team instantly.
Last season we also saw a gradual change in philosophy from Marvin Lewis as he started integrating more and more of his young players throughout the season. Lewis has played few rookies over the course of his time in Cincinnati, but the 0-3 start in 2017 created a sense of urgency that we can only hope extends to the 2018 season. That sense of urgency could lead to more rookies getting playing time this upcoming season. Blackburn feels the draft will be a great place to bring in talent to do just that.
“When we look to the draft we want to keep the pipeline of high-end talent fresh and vibrant,” Blackburn said. “We pay various high-end consultants to get feedback on how we are doing from a personnel standpoint. We met with them down here. They did a survey for over a decade of how effectively we were or were not drafting and they rated our draft to be third or fourth best in the National Football League over say the last dozen years.
“That tells us if we can have an effective offseason in free agency to build for now and also look to the draft to build the pipeline for future players that has a chance to be a positive thing for our football season this year. Not in two years. Not in four years. Now.”
As far as how far the Bengals will take this mantra of winning now, we won’t really know until the draft and even more so until the season begins. At the tight end position, the Bengals have only Mason Schreck under contract past 2018, so it seems likely a player will be drafted at that position. But if they draft players who are more NFL ready than just high ceiling players, then that would be a huge step forward. In short, the Bengals’ first round pick MUST play a pivotal role in the 2018 NFL season and 2017 first round pick John Ross needs to do the same. Winning now and preparing to win now includes drafting players who can help you to win now, not down the line.
Unfortunately for a portion of this fan base hoping to oust Andy Dalton as the quarterback, this win now mentality seems centered around the team’s belief in Dalton.
“We think Andy has proven he is a quality, high-end quarterback in the National Football League. You can win at a high level with Andy,” Blackburn said. “”What we have not done as well in years is given Andy the appropriate opportunity to shine. We are hoping with what we have done at a very aggressive level in addressing our offensive line play this past offseason with offensive coordinator, with offensive line coach, with personnel, we will get back to playing effectively at offensive line so the skill position players can shine.”
Dalton has shown when he is surrounded by talent and has time to throw that he can be effective. Whether or not the last two years have made Dalton more gun shy will remain to be seen. The pieces are there though. A.J. Green is still one of the best at his position, and hopefully a healthy Ross and Tyler Eifert will be able to take advantage of all the attention shown to Green.
The running game should be much improved with Joe Mixon entering his second season, and Giovani Bernard will be entering the year fully healthy instead of coming right off a major leg injury. Plus, if the offensive line gets the much-needed boost that’s expected with new players and a new coach, Mixon and Bernard should thrive.
The defense really could benefit just from a change in philosophy. That will come with new coordinator Teryl Austin. The defense also needs to add a few players, but as it is currently constructed, the Bengals could excel based on last year’s squad.
The draft and subsequent free agent signings will have a huge impact on just how far this team can go next season, but by the way the Bengals’ leadership is talking, they know the time to win is now and the front office needs to enable that.