When you go 7-9, you clearly have a lot of issues, but you’ve also got some positions to feel good about.
That’s the case with the Bengals, who have several positions they can feel confident about heading into the summer. While this team still has a lot of work to do in order to get back to the playoffs, they at least have some areas they can count on to help carry them back to their winning ways.
Here’s a look at the Bengals’ three biggest strengths heading into the summer:
Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis are set to take on bigger roles this season after promising rookie seasons. Lawson was arguably the biggest steal of the 2017 draft, racking up 8.5 sacks as a fourth-round rookie out of Auburn.
While Willis didn’t stuff the stat sheet, he still finished with a 75.6 PFF grade. He too should make a big jump in 2018 after playing in just 361 total snaps. His 80.0 run defense grade was just behind Carlos Dunlap (80.7) for best on the team.
And lest we forget Carlos Dunlap, one of the best defensive ends in football and entering a contract year. You can bet he’ll be motivated to have a career year and cash in on a big payday in 2019. Expect him to hit double-digit sacks this year.
Those three should cause a lot of havoc this season. The Bengals also added a promising edge rusher in Sam Hubbard via the draft. Hubbard isn’t ready for a full-time role, but he should be able to make a positive impact in limited snaps.
Despite playing behind arguably the worst offensive line in football last season, the Bengals still got good production from their running backs. The biggest surprise was Giovani Bernard, who has already proven he can be an impact player out of the backfield, but his 2016 ACL tear made it likely that 2017 would be more of a recovery season.
Except Bernard made one of the fastest recoveries from an ACL tear we’ve ever seen from an NFL player. He was ready for the start of training camp, played briefly in the preseason and was active in Week 1, where he rushed for 40 yards on just seven carries against Baltimore.
Bernard would go on to lead the team in yards per carry (4.4) while catching 43 balls for 389 yards. He averaged 102.8 total yards per game over the last four weeks and showed he’s still one of the NFL’s better running backs.
But it was rookie Joe Mixon who led the team in rushing yards 626) while also grabbing 30 passes for 287 yards. He too came on strong to end the season, averaging total yards over his last five games, a stretch where the Bengals went 4-1 (missed Week 14 and 15 losses due to injury).
Mixon capped off his rookie season with 96 rushing yards on 18 carries at Baltimore to help knock the Ravens out of the playoffs.
The Bengals also added fourth-round rookie Mark Walton who looks like a great speedster that could bust off some big runs in 2018. Then you’ve got promising second-year back Brian Hill battling preseason sensation Tra Carson for a spot as well.
Of course the position with the best player on the roster is going to be among the Bengals’ biggest strengths. Geno Atkins is enough to make any defensive tackle group one of the best positions on any roster. His ability to wreak havoc in the middle of the trenches is second only to Aaron Donald of the Rams.
While Atkins could use some more help, he’s proven time and time again he’s elite and can have elite production while playing next to scrubs. As long as he’s healthy, this will be one of the Bengals’ biggest strengths.
However, there’s reason to hope that this position will get good production from other players in 2018. Ryan Glasgow showed a lot of promise as a rookie, finishing with a respectable 71.2 PFF grade (average tier of players). With another full offseason under his belt, expect Glasgow to make a big step forward.
The Bengals also landed a solid veteran in Chris Baker, who could contend for the second straight spot next to Atkins, but at worst, will be a reliable backup.
Then there’s Michael Johnson, who is technically a defensive end, but he made his biggest impact as an interior pass-rusher last season. With Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis set to play more on the edge, expect Johnson to play inside a lot on passing downs this season.