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Why the Bengals can surprise everyone in 2019

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The Bengals have the firepower to prove all the naysayers wrong this season.

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NFL: Preseason-Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

As the Bengals are just getting training camp going, they continue to be slept upon when it comes to the national prognosticators.

The consensus form the “experts” is that the Bengals will perform poorly this year. The only question is just how bad 2019 will be in a transitional year under Zac Taylor.

The majority of projections have Cincinnati in the 5-6 win range, and picking in the top-10 of the 2020 NFL Draft. Some even have the Bengals finishing with the worst record in the league and getting the top overall pick.

Just how bad could it be?

Most of us remember when Cincinnati had a losing record in 11 of 12 seasons during the 1990s and early 2000s, including five seasons with three wins or fewer, before Marvin Lewis took over in 2003. And, after a streak of five consecutive playoff appearances from 2011-2015, the Bengals have posted losing records the last three years in a row.

ESPN, for one, does not see things changing for the better any time soon. In a recent projection for all 32 teams over the next three years, the four-letter network rated the Bengals’ roster as the 28th-worst in the league, while placing its quarterback situation as 29th in the NFL. They also have Cincinnati’s coaching staff coming in at No. 23, its Draft at No. 24 and its front office at No. 26.

But, you know what? All of the experts could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time the media’s crystal ball has failed them.

Mike Tyson was a 42:1 favorite to beat Buster Douglas. We all know how that turned out. The U.S. hockey team had 1,000:1 odds of beating the then-U.S.S.R at the 1980 Olympics, and the Colts were an 18-point favorite to beat the Jets in Super Bowl III.

In other words, there is no such thing as a sure thing.

This 2019 Bengals’ team might just have the parts to make the experts look almost as bad. And, as the old Wendy’s commercial used to say, “Parts is Parts.”

Offense

Andy Dalton

It all starts under center with Andy Dalton. In 2018, Dalton seemed to be on the verge of putting together his best year yet. He earned three grades of 85.0 or higher from Pro Football Focus prior to suffering a season-ending injury in game No. 11. Dalton finished this season with an 81.9 overall PFF grade, the highest mark of his career.

Through eight NFL seasons, Dalton boasts a regular-season record of 68-50-2, the best winning percentage of any Bengals’ quarterback with 10 or more starts. He is the team’s all-time leader in career passer rating (88.8) and 300-yard passing games (24), while also being second in career completions (2443), passing yards (28,100), passing touchdowns (188) and completion percentage (62.31).

Dalton also recently joined Cam Newton and Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to surpass 3,000 yards passing in each of their first seven seasons. His 188 career touchdown passes and 104 interceptions, a ratio of 1.81:1, is the best in Bengals’ history.

Entering this season, Dalton has 46 games with a passer rating at 100 or above, and his record in those games is 39-7.

A.J. Green

Wide receiver A.J. Green got off to another impressive start to his 2018 season, compiling compiled 687 yards and six touchdowns in just eight games. In Week 2, Green put forth an incredible Thursday Night Football performance, catching five passes, with three of them going for touchdowns.

Green missed most of Week 5 with a groin injury, then injured his toe in Week 8. He tried to come back in Week 13, but his season quickly ended after only a seven-yard catch against the Broncos and he couldn’t go on for the rest of the year.

When healthy, Green is among the best receivers in the league. During his first seven seasons in the league, Green went under 1,000 yards only one time (when he played in only 10 games in 2016), averaged 1,284 yards per season and never scored less than six touchdowns. Since 1980, only eight other receivers, including Jerry Rice and fellow 2011 draft-mate Julio Jones, have accumulated that much yardage over their first seven seasons.

Yes, the ankle injury is a setback that could cost him the opener, but he should be back shortly thereafter. And once get gets his rhythm down with Dalton in Zac Taylor’s offense, watch out.

Joe Mixon

Running back Joe Mixon led the AFC in rushing last year with 1,168 yards and scored eight touchdowns. His 4.9 yards-per-carry average was better than Ezekiel Elliott, who led the league in rushing, and was tied for third best among all runners with more than 200 carries. He and Saquon Barkley were the only two players with over 200 carries who did not fumble once.

Mixon did it all behind an offensive line that ended up rated as the 27th-worst in the league. Elliot ran behind the No. 14 offensive line and Todd Gurley, who wound up leading the league in rushing touchdowns with 17th and finished fifth overall, had the sixth-best line in the NFL.

And with most of the other offensive weapons on the sidelines as the season wore on, Mixon had success when everyone knew what was coming. He faced at least eight defenders in the box 16% of the time, as opposed to only 8.2% for Gurley. And, Mixon produced carries of 15 or more yards 42.4% more frequently than Gurley.

Gurley led the NFL with 17 rushing touchdowns last year and Mixon tied for 11th with eight. Both scored .25 touchdowns per attempt in the red zone, but Gurley had 68 opportunities while Mixon had only 32.

Tyler Eifert

Tight end Tyler Eifert is a 6’6”, 255-pound freak of nature with the skill set of a wide receiver (4.68 speed and great hands). The last time Eifert appeared in the majority of the team’s games was in 2015, when he recorded 52 catches for 615 yards and 13 touchdowns. He played in 15 games during his rookie season before missing the Bengals’ season finale due to a stinger.

In 2014, Eifert appeared in only one game before dislocating his elbow, an injury that landed him on Injured Reserve. In 2015, he missed three games due to another stinger. He made the Pro Bowl that year, but suffered a serious ankle injury in the exhibition that ultimately caused him to miss the first seven games of the 2016. He was placed on Injured Reserve once again prior to the season finale due to a back injury that required surgery.

After playing in two games in 2017, Eifert was yet again placed on injured reserve and once again had back surgery. He also had knee surgery to remove a cyst. In 2018, Eifert broke his ankle during a Week 4 game against the Falcons and, you guessed it—was placed on I.R for the fourth time in his six pro seasons. Eifert has only played in 43 of a possible 96 games in since entering the league back in 2013.

Even so, the Pro Bowl tight end averages nearly a touchdown catch in every other game he has played (49%; 66% of his starts). And he has accounted for 11% of Dalton’s total of NFL touchdown passes.

Tyler Boyd

Slot receiver Tyler Boyd broke through in 2018, his third year in the league, when he caught 76 passes for 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games. Boyd actually performed better with Green on the field. In the nine full games that Green played in 2018, Boyd averaged 79.7 yards and 0.56 touchdowns per game.

Without Green, Boyd averaged 62.2 yards and 0.29 touchdowns per game. Boyd, with a PFF grade of 84.6, gave the Bengals a viable receiving option outside of Green and Eifert, producing career-best marks for yards, receptions, touchdowns and overall grade. He is entering 2019 training camp somewhat-healthy and the team is both monitoring him closely, and hoping he’ll be a nice security blanket for Dalton in the new offensive system.

John Ross

No. 3 receiver John Ross, the Bengals’ first-round pick in 2016, was a red-zone threat last year with seven touchdowns and 210 yards on just 21 receptions. His receiving numbers were similar to Boyd’s second-year numbers. In 2017, Boyd caught 22 passes for 225 yards and only two touchdowns before making the leap to a 1,000-yard campaign last year. If Ross can pull off a similar feat the Bengals’ offense could be totally lethal.

Last year, the Bengals finished 26th in total yards and 17th in points per game. In the 10 games that Dalton played, the team averaged 25.6 points and 329.3 yards per game. In the eight games where Green was healthy, Cincinnati averaged 27.6 points and 344.3 yards per game.

And, in Eifert’s four games, the Bengals averaged 31.5 points and 376.5 yards. With none of them in the lineup, Cincinnati averaged only 18.4 points and 261.4 yards per game. Add a healthy and newly-focused Ross into the mix and Taylor’s offense could hit the ground running.

Defense

Geno Atkins

Although Geno Atkins earned the lowest overall PFF grade (83.5) and pass-rush grade (85.1) of his career in 2018, he still finished ranked 16th in overall grade (83.5) and sixth in pass-rush grade (85.1) among all qualifiers. He was fifth in pass-rush win percentage (16.2%) in the league and second in the AFC.

Atkins was at his best on crucial downs, producing the third-most pressures among interior defensive linemen on third and fourth downs, and his win rate of 18.7% ranked seventh. He also managed a pressure percentage of 13.6 and pass-rush productivity of 7.8, both of which ranked among the top-five among players at his position.

Much was asked of Atkins when guys like Ryan Glasgow and Carl Lawson left the lineup with season-ending injuries. With their returns and the additions of Renell Wren and Andrew Brown (also on I.R. last year), Atkins could receive a few more breathers and gain even more production per snap.

Carlos Dunlap

Carlos Dunlap is coming off an eight-sack season. Over the course of his nine-year career, Dunlap has amassed a franchise-best 72.5 sacks, and he has averaged just under 8 sacks per season over the past three years.

His best season came in 2015, when he had 13.5 sacks. While he is on the back half of his career, there really aren’t many signs of him slowing down. Dunlap is a very well-rounded defensive end, who also plays the run well and bats down passes with frequency.

Carl Lawson

Carl Lawson’s rookie year in 2017 was special. Despite only taking 41% of the defensive snaps, Lawson was second on the team in sacks with 8.5. Despite having 105-less pass rush opportunities, Lawson had the same number of total pressures (58) as Everson Griffen, per PFF.

Lawson suffered a torn ACL in 2018, which limited him to seven games and a single sack. Even so, according to PFF, Lawson had totaled the 15th-most pressures in the league through the first five weeks of the season with 21, and had also beaten his opposition on another 14 pass-rush snaps. His win percentage of 25% ranked third behind only Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack.

Sam Hubbard

Defensive end Sam Hubbard, who was a third-round selection (No. 77 overall) by the Bengals in 2018, had six sacks and 21 solo tackles in a reserve role last year. During his Ohio State career, Hubbard had 17 sacks and 30 tackles-for-loss, including seven sacks and 13.5 TFLs as a fourth-year junior in 2017.

This pass-rush group ranked No. 12 in the most recent PFF rankings. The top-14 defenses in sacks last year were the Chiefs, Steelers, Bears, Vikings, Cardinals, Saints, Redskins, Broncos, Packers, Eagles, Ravens, Lions, Texans and Seahawks. Those teams finished 31st, 6th, 3rd, 4th, 20th, 14th, 17th, 22nd, 18th, 23rd, 1st, 10th, 12th and 16th, respectively, in total team defense.

If you take away the Chiefs’ standing, which was certainly a statistical anomaly, the average of the other 13 defenses would be a No. 13 ranking. In 2018, the Bengals’ defense was ranked dead-last in the entire NFL.

William Jackson, III

Cornerback William Jackson III made quite the impact in 2017 after missing his entire rookie season with an injury. He allowed just a 34.9 completion percentage of the targets thrown into his coverage, the second-best mark ever recorded by PFF. He shut down top receivers like Antonio Brown, who was with the Steelers at the time, who had zero receptions against him on eight total targets that year.

Jackson’s production took a step back in 2018. Even so, he still posted a decent PFF grade of 72.9 in coverage and found himself listed among the top-20 cornerbacks of the year. The 6-foot, 196-pound defender graded out as the No. 18 cover corner in the NFL last year, according to Pro Football Focus.

With the roller coaster that was learning under Teryl Austin and Jackson having a case of the drops, things should be looking up for Jackson and the rest of the crew in 2019.

Jessie Bates

Second-round safety Jessie Bates was able to break up four passes and intercepted three of them, good for a 59.9 passer rating when targeted (ninth among qualifying safeties). His overall PFF grade of 79.9 was the 12th-highest among safeties and third among rookie safeties.

PFF ranked the Bengals’ secondary as the seventh-best unit in the league last year. Bates was a big reason for that ranking and he could emerge as a star player in the league this year.

Preston Brown

Linebacker Preston Brown joined the Bengals last offseason as an unrestricted free agent, after spending his first four seasons (2014-17) with the Buffalo Bills. In his first year in Cincinnati, he recorded 42 tackles and two interceptions, despite being limited by ankle and knee injuries to just seven games (all starts).

Prior to joining the Bengals, he had played in all 64 possible regular-season games (62 starts) since entering the NFL with Buffalo in 2014. In 2017, His 144 tackles tied for most in the league. PFF gave Brown an overall grade of 71.6 last year, which ranked 42nd among all qualifying linebackers in 2017.

That year, Brown had a 70.4 rating in coverage snaps and a 23.0 PFF tackle efficiency rating, good for fourth in the league among inside linebackers. Brown played his best football when it mattered most, earning an 86.5 PFF overall grade against the Jaguars in the AFC wild card round.

Coaching

Zac Taylor

After 16 seasons without a playoff win, the Bengals finally closed the door on the Marvin Lewis era and hired Zac Taylor, who was the former quarterback coach of the Los Angeles Rams, to take his place. With a healthy Dalton and Green, an ascending Boyd, a returning Eifert and the conference’s top running back from last year in Mixon, Taylor has the parts to field one of the league’s best offensive units in 2019.

Defensively, Brown will look to help fill the holes at the linebacker position, and the team still boasts a formidable defensive line and secondary. Atkins, Lawson, Dunlap, Jackson and Bates are among the best at their positions. But, as we saw with the Chiefs last year, a truly explosive offense will help to mask any holes in the defense.

So, yes, parts is parts. And these Bengals might just have enough parts to confound the experts.