Late July feels different in Cincinnati this year. The weather, hovering around 90 degrees and 70% humidity, isn’t dissimilar. The Reds are below .500, so nothing’s new in that department. Hell, FC Cincinnati is now just another pro team with a lot of ambition and not a lot to show for it in the Queen City.
The Bengals are going to soon be playing football again, and around this time on the calendar, it’s been hard to muster up some actual optimism in recent years. You couldn’t talk about the team within the last three years without addressing the Marvin Lewis stigma. Will he finally win a playoff game? Will he finally be fired if he doesn’t? Are we still in the movie Groundhog Day?
Now, you can’t talk about the Bengals without mentioning Lewis’ replacement, Zac Taylor.
The transition has been...let’s call it hilly. Through the hiring process of Taylor’s staff, free agency, the NFL Draft and certain events during offseason workouts, there’s been pretty much equal parts good and bad. Neither side has been too strong to sway anybody one way or the other. It’s felt like the same old Bengals at times, but there’s still a new captain steering the ship. Why not be optimistic if you feel like you have the choice?
Just where Taylor intends to steer this ship is by far the biggest storyline coming out of Bengals training camp (which kicks off this Saturday), but it’s far from the only one. Let’s cover each one here and now.
A #NewDey, a new coach
Training camp will be the first time fans will get to see head coach Zac Taylor, well, coach. We’ve already seen he’s a better interview than Lewis has been in the later portion of his tenure, but interacting with players, other coaches, structure of practices; these are the things we’d like to see. How different is Taylor’s system from Lewis’?
An old fashioned leader through and through, Lewis made it known that practice was everything, and if you weren’t up to snuff on the practice field, you weren’t going to see the playing field. How Taylor manages this relationship with the roster Lewis left behind will be telling very early on in his first season, and we’ll likely witness the first signs of this early on in camp.
But it’s not just Taylor himself, the rest of the coaching staff is made up of mostly new faces as well. Change starts at the top and Even Mike Brown is noticing a shift in this area.
Mike Brown on new coaches and their ways of doing things:— Lance McAlister (@LanceMcAlister) July 23, 2019
"It is stunning to me how different all of this is."#Bengals
The hard reset of the coaching staff led by Taylor’s arrival has been a great move on paper. Now it’s time to go from paper to pads.
It’s now or never for Andy Dalton
How will we gauge the success of Taylor’s first season? Dalton’s play will obviously be a primary focal point and by the end of the season, it may be the only thing fans and pundits alike care about depending on how the team finishes.
Since 2015, Dalton has failed to replicate the production and level of play that had Cincinnati at 10-2 that year before his season-ending thumb injury. His two offensive coordinators since that time, Ken Zampese and Bill Lazor, were also unsuccessful at designing an offense that maximized his ability. Because that’s always what Dalton’s been: the driver of the truck, not the engine itself.
For the purpose of running a successful offense, this is far from the worst situation. Taylor comes from a system where the passing game is elevated due to a heavy dose of play action, condensed formations and similar personnel groupings for the run and the pass. If any system can get Dalton back on track, it’s the system that has turned Jared Goff into a star.
Dalton will turn 32 this year and has two years left on his contract. If the Bengals decide to re-up his deal in 2020 before he becomes a free agent, it will likely be because his marriage with Taylor was successful this season. The second half of what could be an even longer career largely depends on Dalton putting up or shutting up right now.
A.J. Green needs a bag, too
When Tyler Boyd inked his first contract extension, Green was one of the first people he told. And why not? Boyd has looked up to Green since he arrived from Pittsburgh at just 21 years of age. Green had already been to five Pro Bowls and secured a massive second contract; who’s footsteps are better to follow?
“He was happy for me. The whole process he just kept asking me ‘Bro, what’s going on?’ He was probably one of the few guys that I was keeping updates with,” Boyd explained in his press conference on Tuesday. “Because he’s getting his contract fixed up as well. He was one of the first guys on the team that I sent it to, like ‘Bro, it’s done. A done deal,’ about two days ago.”
The Bengals don’t make many mistakes when it comes to contracts signed in the weeks leading up to the season. They certainly don’t regret offering the $60 million over four years they offered to Green back in 2015, and make no mistake, Green’s next deal will soon follow Boyd’s.
Consistent from those we talked to about A.J. Green now that Boyd deal is done, #Bengals working to get him done as well.— Paul Dehner Jr. (@pauldehnerjr) July 23, 2019
Green, who turns 31 on the 31st, needs not to convince the Bengals’ front office what they already know. But even he can show signs of new life in a new offense, which would only make the Bengals smarter for getting him on the books for a few more years.
Life after Clint Boling doesn’t have to be hard
For the past few seasons, Cincinnati’s offensive line has acted like a sinking ship with multiple holes in it. Varying levels of patchwork has been done to fill the holes, but water keeps getting through before long.
After the first round of the draft, the selection of Jonah Williams was a major addition and cause for optimism in regards to the group. Just so, his season-ending shoulder injury represents an equally major loss. The flooding persists.
On the surface, the retirement of Clint Boling would seem to be something that compounds on top of Williams’ injury. Boling has been the rock of this unit since Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler left and the ship then began to sink, but everybody eventually declines. Boling’s regression started late last season and barring an unlikely turn of events, an upswing wasn’t likely to happen with one year left on his contract.
#Bengals G Christian Westerman only saw 96 snaps last season, but in that time he managed an 80.8 pass-blocking grade and an 80.0 run-blocking grade. In 60 pass-blocking snaps, he allowed just two pressures, translating to a pass-blocking efficiency of 98.1 (T-18th among guards).— PFF CIN Bengals (@PFF_Bengals) July 6, 2019
The Bengals are more prepared for replacing Boling than they were replacing Williams. No, they can’t play Cordy Glenn at left guard now, but they do have a couple solid options, starting with Christian Westerman. The fourth-year player should get first dibs on Boling’s spot, and if all goes well, there shouldn’t be much interchanging of players among this unit. They should have their starting five before the first preseason game.
But what about that awful Defense?
No matter how much better the Bengals’ offense becomes, they won’t go far if the other side of the ball fails to improve as well. A youth movement will be what determines the success or failure of new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s defense.
Starting up front, so much is riding on the pass-rushers from the 2017 draft class. Carl Lawson and Ryan Glasgow return from torn ACL’s and will be counted on to play significant snaps, which is a little worrisome. Lawson is by far the team’s second-best edge rusher behind Carlos Dunlap, but he has the potential to overtake him. Don’t expect to see him much in training camp, though.
The forgotten man from that class is Jordan Willis, and unfortunately, for good reason. Willis hasn’t developed into the three-down player Cincinnati hoped he’d become, and if he doesn’t take a major step in year three, life will be even harder for Lawson, Dunlap and second-year player Sam Hubbard.
Behind them is main story: the next wave of linebackers. Preston Brown and Nick Vigil return as starters, but athletic studs Malik Jefferson and Germaine Pratt are gunning for first-team reps as well, essentially replacing Vontaze Burfict. This is the first time we’ll see what a Bengals’ defense operates without the influence of Lewis, and seeing ANY signs of improvement from the linebackers will be a sign of progress. Either Jefferson or Pratt (or both!?) could be the key to turning the defense around.
Finally, the secondary is in a much more calm state. All five starters return along with the addition of B.W. Webb, who played under Anarumo for the New York Giants last season. While Jessie Bates wasted no time establishing himself as one of the better young safeties in the league last season, it took William Jackson III half the season before getting back to how he was playing in 2017. Both of them playing at a high level together can elevate this group from solid to spectacular.
There was no other team in the NFL that needed a coaching change more than the Bengals, and it finally happened, long overdue. Now is the time to see the fruits of the front office’s labor.