In June, every NFL team is primed for a playoff run. No franchise is innocent from typical tropes pertaining to how much better their roster looks. And any player that hasn’t lived up to their draft status? Guess what, this is their year. They’re in much better shape than they were at this time last year. They’ve taken the new coaching well, you can count on that. Those distractions they had last season? Gone. Oh, they were injured for most of the season? Don’t fret, those ailments have completely healed.
Every team has these stories with some of their players and the Bengals are no exception. The draft classes of 2016 and 2017 have looked more promising than the classes of 2014 and 2015 for Cincinnati. But there’s still a good amount of early-round selections who need to produce. Hopefully with past excuses and troubles behind them, here are three players who the Bengals most need to breakout this season.
I’ve grown tired writing so much about John Ross not playing football last year. Rookie struggles almost always have to do with nagging injuries, or simply not impressing the coaching staff to get on the field. For Ross, it was both. Having dealt with a labrum injury suffered in the preseason, to then re-aggravating that same labrum a month later, Ross was never entirely healthy to kick off his career. He was shut down in December when it was revealed he was concealing the injury from never properly healing.
Ross is the second-highest draft pick on the Bengals’ roster, behind only fellow receiver A.J. Green; there’s a couple reasons for that. For one, he has an elite trait in speed that is essentially unmatched in the league and was successful at a major college program because of more than just that. For another, the Bengals had a severe lack of verticality in their offense before Ross and they still were inept in that area without him last year.
For the Bengals offense to progress from the deep rut they’ve been in for two years, getting faster and quicker on the boundary is paramount. Defenses can too easily game-plan to take away Green because they have nobody else at wide receiver who safeties have to fear. And when Green is being bracketed by a safety overtop, the Bengals’ entire passing game is strained. Ross’ presence can open defenses up and if he gets going, the narrative about how to contain the Bengals offense starts to shift.
Expectations for rookie receivers are normally ambitious, as most first-year players don’t start their careers like Odell Beckham Jr. or JuJu Smith-Schuster unless the situation fits perfectly. But Ross has to be an even bigger long-term outlier if he wants to prove worthy of his draft slot having not recorded a single reception in his rookie year. Maintaining his health is the first big step for Ross; once he advances over that physical and mental hurdle, talent can begin manufacturing production and impact.
Perhaps the unluckiest player on the roster, Fisher’s career arc has been anything but traditional. Primarily a goal-line blocker in 2015, he was also used as an extra blocker aligned as a tight end and actually received five targets in his rookie year. Late that year, he was asked to change his number to 44 so he could be listed as a half-back and be a lead blocker in the backfield. A lot of the things Fisher was asked to do had little to do with being an offensive tackle.
Things started to normalize in his second season as he was the designated swing-tackle behind Andrew Whitworth and Cedric Ogbuehi, and he was upgraded to starting right tackle when Ogbuehi mightily struggled. The first game where he received significant snaps at right tackle, he was used as a receiver and was the recipient of a 12-yard pass, but he fumbled right after it and injured himself, taking him out of the game.
Fisher’s development had been stunted mightily and entering year three, he was expected to make the leap into full-time starter, but predictably was extremely inconsistent. To make matters worse, he developed an irregular heartbeat that eventually took him out of commission for the season and required surgery to repair.
Now it’s year four and we still don’t know what the Bengals have in Fisher. We do know he’s now healthy and ready to play and he’s in a three-way competition at the right tackle spot. The good news for him is that just looking at the positive plays of his career, he looks like the best choice for the Bengals at that spot. Based off what new offensive line coach Frank Pollack prefers in his scheme, Fisher is also the team’s best option. They haven’t had consistent quality play on the right edge of the offensive line in three years, so just an average full season from Fisher would bring noticeable stability to a group that’s improved everywhere else on paper.
When you separate the three levels of the Bengals defense, the strengths in personnel clearly occupy the defensive line and secondary. In between them, there are more questions than answers with the linebackers. The ever-polarizing Vontaze Burfict is the constant headliner of the group, but it’s his running-mate in their nickel sub-packages under the spotlight here.
No player’s performance on the Bengals defense may be more important than Nick Vigil to start the season. One of the many Bengals linebackers plagued by injuries last year, Vigil missed five games due to an ankle injury that clearly limited him when he was playing through it. Even when he was fully healthy, Vigil was unimpressive taking on blockers and lacked discipline as a run-defender. His athleticism would help him maneuver through traffic and make plays from time to time, but not enough to make up for his lapses.
Now a year older with starting experience under his belt, he’ll be counted on to pick up the slack from Burfict’s absence during his latest suspension. Putting together a full year of solid play would take pressure off Burfict when he returns, not force Preston Brown onto the field on third down, and give the Bengals a sign that they’ve finally drafted and developed a linebacker worthy of a second contract.