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ESPN stamps Bengals as bottom 5 team for 2019

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The offseason skepticism surrounding the Bengals has reached a boiling point.

Indianapolis Colts v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images

Making blanket statements regarding the NFL is dangerous—no wait, risky business. Professional football has never failed to surprise us in unique ways year in and year out.

Claiming the Bengals will be straight up bad in 2019 seems like a declaration that, on the surface, is logical, but also one that lacks plenty of context.

The combination of 19 wins in three years, a first-year head coach and an average quarterback carries just as much negative weight as close game regression, injury regression and a soft schedule carries positive weight towards an overall outlook. Nevertheless, this roster hasn’t changed too much and crucial pieces are already going to miss multiple games to start the season.

The negative sentiment has been felt by most major outlets this offseason, and ESPN has been no different. In their NFL Preview, they have the Bengals just inside the top-30 for what is essentially their Week 1 power rankings.

28. Cincinnati Bengals

How soon will the Bengals contend for a playoff spot?

Ben Baby: After five consecutive playoff appearances at the beginning of the decade, the Bengals have failed to finish .500 or better the past three seasons. This year will show if the franchise has the necessary pieces to be competitive in the immediate future or look for new players to build around. Wide receiver A.J. Green is on the final year of his contract and Andy Dalton is approaching the final two seasons of his deal.

There really is no definitive answer to that bolded first question. If we knew that the Bengals could compete for the postseason this year, sub-.500 predictions would be much less common than they have been this summer. Alas, this could either be a complete meltdown, or a fairly average season-long product.

As for the Bengals’ first opponent, the Seahawks came in at No. 12, marking one of the biggest mismatches in Week 1. After making a big splash by trading for Jadeveon Clowney, Seattle looks ready for another playoff run and possibly their third trip to the Super Bowl since 2013.

Much of how this season goes down relies on head coach Zac Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s ability to raise the ability of players who have underwhelmed in recent years. One player who doesn’t fall under this description is Carl Lawson, whom ESPN Bengals reporter Ben Baby has as the team’s breakout player this year:

DE Carl Lawson

After a strong debut season in 2017, Lawson had a quiet sophomore year before he tore his ACL in the team’s eighth game. But the former fourth-round pick out of Auburn could be in for a big year. Lawson told the coaching staff this is the best he has felt in a long time. And if that’s the case, he could easily match or exceed the 8.5 sacks he racked up as a rookie. Lawson could give Cincinnati another imposing pass-rusher, something that will help an ailing defense.

Lawson missing half of last year is really the sole reason why he’s a breakout candidate. Though the sacks didn’t come when he was on the field, the pressure rate was as high as ever. He’s already a quality quarterback disruptor off of the edge; a year close to (or over) 10 sacks would simply put him in the headlines for casual fans everywhere outside of Cincinnati.

The continuing health of Lawson and other cornerstone players is crucial for the Bengals to be significantly better than where ESPN and other outlets are expecting them to finish by season’s end. If everything goes right, the playoffs are possible. But, as we saw last year, it’s very easy for things to derail so quickly.

For now, as they’ve been for the past six months, low expectations is the safe play, which makes the Bengals one of the true underdogs in the NFL.