For the first time in 16 years, the Bengals have made a change at the head coaching position. This is a cause for excitement but not celebration as there is a lot more work to be done. Here are the top three things the new regime needs to get to work on right now.
1. Support Zac Taylor with experienced assistants
The Bengals just hired a 35-year-old with 11 total years of coaching experience as their head coach. He needs to hire incredible staff. And one of his first moves should be hiring an experienced coach who he can lean on for guidance.
Sean McVay of the Rams has had Wade Phillips, one of the best defensive coordinators in the league and a former NFL head coach, for this first two seasons. Matt Nagy of the Bears had Vic Fangio, another talented defensive coach who finally got his first chance as a head coach this offseason. Taylor needs to find this sort of colleague in Cincinnati.
This coach could be working with Taylor on offense, but ideally, he finds a defensive counterpart, like McVay and Nagy did. Finding a coach with experience like Phillips or Fangio will be difficult, but at a minimum they need to find a defensive coordinator who can be trusted to own that group so Taylor doesn’t have to worry about it. Then Taylor could call the plays offensively; supported by a young offensive staff. His offensive coordinator would ideally specialize in 3rd down and red zone calls.
2. Start replenishing the roster
Like any team, the Bengals need to add talented players, but they need to consider acquiring in a more aggressive manner. They have drafted well in the last few years, but they’ve lost key free agents and replaced them with bargain bin free agents. Their two biggest problems remain on the offensive line and with their linebackers, similar to last year.
Hopefully the inexplicable lack of opportunity for guard Christian Westerman went out the door with Marvin Lewis. He should be able to shore up the right guard position. Next to him, Billy Price will get a chance to improve drastically in his second year after going through an injury-filled rookie season that numerous former first-round picks have experienced in Cincinnati. That leave a big hole at right tackle, and the Bengals need to make this a major priority.
The linebacker group was atrocious this year. Preston Brown had his moments, but is a free agent. Nick Vigil and Jordan Evans do not seem to have developed like the team hoped they would. The Bengals could seriously afford to replace all three linebacker positions. It is clearly the weakness on that side of the ball.
Beyond those two position groups, tight ends C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Kroft, and Tyler Eifert are all free agents this season. It will be interesting to see where the Bengals go with this. Eifert can never seem to stay healthy, but they could bring him back at a value.
Kroft and Uzomah are not great big playmakers in the pass game, but they each have a skill set that could work if Taylor installs a system in Cincinnati similar to that in Los Angeles. The Rams’ top-receiving tight end was Gerald Everett, who finished the regular season with 320 yards — and he wasn’t even the tight end that was used the most (Tyler Higbee). The Bengals may not need to make any major changes at this position if they retain Kroft and Uzomah, and they run an offense that is reminiscent of McVay’s.
Finally, the Bengals were decimated by injuries this season — that is undeniable. What made it worse was that at the beginning of the season, they already had too many players in the lineup who were simply guys who you could survive with. These are players who ideally become fill-ins when injuries happen, but when those types of players are already in your lineup at the beginning of the season, injuries will completely derail you like they did Cincinnati.
3. Better utilize players they already have
The Bengals coaching staff was terrible at making the best use of the players they did have; the two most obvious examples are Joe Mixon and John Ross,
The Bengals relied on Mixon running the ball this season, but in the pass game he was primarily a check down. He should have been used more in the pass game in situations that were designed to get him the ball in space, as the team frequently took him off the field in passing situations. Giovani Bernard is an excellent player, but Mixon can do everything in the pass game that Bernard can. They should have had both on the field at the same time and lined one up at wide receiver frequently.
At the beginning of the year they would take a shot at Ross to open up the defense, but did little else with him. By the end of the season he became an unexpected red zone target. They should have schemed more to get him the ball on screen, reverses, and jet sweeps. Use his speed by getting the ball in his hands in a position where he can make a play.
The work the Bengals have on their plate transcends beyond just these three tasks, but accomplishing them will help them progress into a legitimate contender sooner than later.