The Bengals are coming off one of their worst seasons in the franchise’s history. Even after an aggressive offseason in free agency and the draft that should lead to quite a bit of roster turnover, they are still being overlooked across the NFL landscape.
One of the big reasons for that is the uncertainty due to how young most of these players are being brought in to play major roles. The most obvious example is Joe Burrow at quarterback who is expected to start at quarterback after being drafted first overall.
However, it is this same dilemma that made them a fairly attractive team when ESPN released their rankings of teams based on their players under 25. Cincinnati ended up being ranked 13th overall.
For each team they listed their blue-chip players. Like most teams ranked in the early teens, Cincinnati only has one player considered to be that good, and it is unsurprisingly Burrow. However, the lack of sustained success from the LSU quarterback over several seasons does hold back how high the Bengals were ranked.
Joe Burrow just authored the most successful season in college football history, leading the FBS with a 76.3% completion rate, 5,671 passing yards, and 60 passing touchdowns and leading his LSU Tigers to an undefeated season and national championship. Burrow naturally leads his class in Football Outsiders’ QBASE projections as well, but he is not a historically great performer because he is a 23-year-old, two-year college starter whose college offense was loaded with NFL talent. It’s fair to be excited, but Burrow is unlikely to turn the two-win Bengals into an 11-win playoff team in his rookie season the way Andrew Luck did with the Colts in 2012.
There are plenty of arguments as to why this Bengals team is far more equipped for success in 2020 than 2019 beyond adding Burrow. The offensive side of the ball gets to add wide receiver A.J. Green and offensive tackle Jonah Williams. Both players missed all of 2019 with injury and are expected to be huge additions to that side of the ball.
The defense should also be improved. The recent injury to cornerback Trae Waynes hurts, but the team also acquired players like D.J. Reader to help stop the run, drafted three athletic linebackers and also drastically changed their secondary with the additions of Vonn Bell and Mackensie Alexander.
ESPN does accurately point out that most of the other players under 25 are still question marks going into the season. They note how wide receiver John Ross, offensive lineman Michael Jordan and Williams are all candidates with potential that haven’t been displayed yet.
They also talk about wide receiver Tee Higgins possibly joining Burrow as a blue-chip if he can make an impact as well. A good season from any of these player would obviously do wonders for their ranking on this list.
You may be asking yourself why players like running back Joe Mixon and safety Jessie Bates weren’t blue chips with Burrow, and it seems they may have just missed the cut.
The team could really use good seasons from both [Jordan and Williams] to boost a bottom-third run-blocking line (3.90 adjusted line yards, 26th), although an in-season change from a zone-blocking to a pull-and-pin scheme helped running back Joe Mixon — still just 24 entering his fourth NFL season — rebound from a slow start to enjoy a 4.6 yards-per-carry and 11.2% DVOA second half. Free safety Jessie Bates also trended positively over the second half of the season, culminating in a solid 55% coverage success rate for the year and making him one of the few holdovers, young or old, in a secondary that the team mostly rebuilt in free agency.
Mixon should have been up their with Burrow. His slow start gets played up too much at this point. No average running back would have finished last season with over 1,000 rushing yards after such a slow start and behind that offensive line. Bengals fans have likely become accustomed to this level of disrespect of one of Cincinnati’s best offensive weapons. However, it seems Bates has become less and less underrated.
Bates and Williams have been tasked with not only stopping the passing game the last few seasons, but they have also frequently had to stop running backs at the third level. That is supported by both of them ranking at or near the top of the team’s tackles the past two seasons. The fact Bates has been so solid defending the pass while also having to anticipate the first two levels of the Bengals defense would barely even slow down a running back is impressive all its own.
It will be interesting to see how he grows now that the team has a few prospects joining Germaine Pratt in the second level of the defense who can keep runners from getting to Bates as frequently.
What do you think about the Bengals’ ranking and who are some players you think deserve to be viewed as blue-chip players under 25?