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6 reasons why the Bengals can win the AFC North in 2018

Many pundits believe the Bengals will be one of the NFL’s worst teams in 2018. Here are a handful of reasons to have hope.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-John Ross Press Conference Sam Greene-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve been following the news surrounding the Bengals this offseason, it hasn’t been very positive.

Whether it’s in prognosticators predicting their finish to be one of the worst in the NFL this year, or in the lack of respect for Andy Dalton, the national media doesn’t think much of the Bengals in 2018.

Still, for those who are close to the club, there are reasons for optimism. It may not fully point to a double-digit win season for some, but we’ve seen the Bengals surprise folks under Marvin Lewis in years past.

Could 2018 be another one of those seasons?

Here are a handful of reasons to be optimistic.

Offseason improvement of weak areas:

Last year, the Bengals were poor at protecting the quarterback, running the football and stopping the run. With acquisitions made through free agency and the draft, the Bengals made some pretty solid strides to immediately improve some major areas.

On the offensive line, left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Billy Price were brought in to upgrade two of the weakest spots up front and, if healthy, should produce tangible results. Andy Dalton, Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard will all be the biggest benefactors of these additions.

Somehow, the Bengals’ defense took some major steps back last year—namely in the areas of missed tackles and getting off of the field on third down. Preston Brown, while not akin to making the spectacular play, led the league in tackles and the Bengals also brought in a trio of rookie defensive backs (Jessie Bates III, Darius Phillips and Davontae Harris) to create more turnovers.

They can get to the passer:

Last year, the Bengals were in the top half of the league in quarterback sacks, thanks to rookie sensation Carl Lawson getting 8.5 sacks in just a rotational role, while Geno Atkins was his normal self with nine sacks. But, in a little bit of a rare case on the 2018 Bengals’ roster, the rich got a bit richer.

Chris Baker was added and he has garnered 10 sacks over the past three seasons as an interior lineman. Imagine him next to Atkins, while flanked by Carlos Dunlap and Lawson.

Meanwhile, the Bengals lost rotational rusher, Chris Smith, but added Sam Hubbard, who may actually be an upgrade. Throw in an increased role for the promising end, Jordan Willis in year 2, as well as exciting fifth-round addition Andrew Brown and the team should continue to get to the passer with relative ease.

The only wild card is father time. Can Atkins and Dunlap avoid it as they reach their 30s?

The slew of first and second-year talent:

While Marvin Lewis has done a near-masterful job in resurrecting some of the past doomed Bengals teams into playoff contenders, he still has a number of issues to contend with in his previous 15 years as the Bengals’ head coach.

Aside from promising third-year guys like William Jackson, Tyler Boyd and Andrew Billings, the past two draft classes provide potential. We already mentioned a number of players in the 2018 draft class who should immediately contribute, but we didn’t mention linebacker Malik Jefferson and running back Mark Walton, who should both provide sizzle on both sides of the ball.

However, it’s the 2017 class of flash could end up paying off in a big way this year. Getting John Ross back healthy is essentially gaining another top-10 pick this year, while Mixon will get an increased role behind an aforementioned improved line. Josh Malone should also see more snaps, as should Willis and Lawson.

An emphasis on big plays and turnover creation:

Paul Guenther tried, often admirably, to carry the immense torch of his predecessor, Mike Zimmer, but it still wasn’t the same. “Zim” had his unit be at least pretty good at all facets, while Guenther’s units seemed to excel at certain areas and falter at others.

Teryl Austin, a guy who has been mentioned as a future NFL head coaching candidate, is taking over for Guenther, and the message is different. Creating turnovers and other back-breaking plays are the crux of Austin’s 2018 offseason message.

Even though Lawson had 8.5 sacks last year, he didn’t force a fumble, while the Bengals are looking to greatly improve off of their No. 20 ranking in interceptions last year. It’s something that’s been lacking since Reggie Nelson left in free agency, and has been made a massive priority this offseason.

Offensive line improvement:

We’re not going to beat a dead horse here, but Price and Glenn should provide massive upgrades. And at the end of the year last season, Alex Redmond and Christian Westerman showed great promise at guard when finally given the chance to play.

Jake Fisher seems to have the inside track at the right tackle spot, and after a mid-season heart procedure done, the hope is that he’ll be back to the form that attracted the Bengals to him when he played at Oregon.

If all things fall into place, four of the major positions of issue on the the line should be upgraded.

But, the biggest addition may very very be a guy who won’t be suiting up for the Bengals. New offensive line coach Frank Pollack has brought a new intensity and toughness to the group after things may have gotten stale under Paul Alexander.

“We’re not here playing chess, I know that,” Pollack said via recently.“The last time I checked its football and you have to kick the guy’s ass who’s across from you. Nothing’s changed.”

Just a little bit more promising than Alexander’s take on ketchup with prospects, huh?

Easy strength of schedule:

For the second consecutive season, the Bengals face a schedule that seems promising. While this always isn’t an exact science for teams in a league of parity, it does have a bit of clout—especially when the team went 7-9, containing four one-possession losses in 2017.

With their opponents on the 2018 schedule, the Bengals face teams with a combined 121-135 record and a .473 winning percentage. Though this isn’t necessarily a feather in the cap of the Bengals’ roster status, it does play into Lewis and Mike Brown’s approach to “building a winner”.