Some good and some bad things happened to the Bengals in 2020.
For starters, they got Joe Burrow. The Heisman Trophy winner and reigning National Champion was exactly as advertised.
But there were plenty of injuries and discontented veterans to derail Burrow’s rookie year. The Bengals lost so many close games, and only managed four wins and a tie. Plenty of the losses were in winnable games, yet the Bengals checked the L column.
With the 2020 season in the books, what did we learn about Joe Burrow, Zac Taylor, and the Bengals organization?
Joe Burrow is the guy
The way the season ended early for Joe Burrow is beyond devastating for the franchise. But before that, Burrow was one of the only positive things going on for the Bengals.
Burrow played in ten games, completing 65.3 percent of his passes, throwing for 2,633 yards, 13 touchdowns, and five interceptions. Through ten games and without a true offseason, that’s pretty impressive for a rookie.
The biggest, and pretty much only, flaw in his game was the number of sacks he took. He was sacked 32 times and was on pace to set new records for sacks and quarterback hits. His ability to improvise was his biggest strength, but it also caused him to work his way into more sacks. As the year went on, Burrow put less pressure on himself and put more trust in his receivers, so he cut down on the number of hits he was taking by getting rid of the ball sooner.
Unfortunately, Burrow’s season was cut short by a nasty knee injury.
But the Bengals have found their quarterback of the future. Not only is he a star off the field, but he has embraced the city of Cincinnati and the Bengals organization
Now the Bengals just have to make sure he stays intact.
The rest of the rookie class is promising
Tee Higgins was on the cusp of matching some rookie receiving records before blowing a tire in Week 17. He ended the year with 67 receptions, 908 yards, and six touchdowns. Higgins is the emerging WR1 of this offense, and is going to very good for the next few years.
Third and fourth round picks Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither also made meaningful contributions in their rookie seasons. Though they only had a limited number of snaps, they still had defined roles as rookies. Wilson played roughly half of the teams’ defensive snaps when he was healthy, and recorded 33 combined tackles, one sack, and two interceptions. Davis-Gaither played fewer snaps, but still had 30 combined tackles, half a sack, and one interception.
With Josh Bynes on a one-year deal, one of the rookie linebackers has a shot of becoming a starter next season.
Other rookies like Khalid Kareem, Markus Bailey, and Akeem Adeniji didn’t play as much but have promising futures ahead of them.
The offensive line is...rough
Burrow took a lot of sacks, and most of the blame for that goes to the offensive line.
The Bengals offensive line has been bad for a few years, so there’s no need to get into too much detail here. But let’s just say that there’s a good reason Jim Turner didn’t survive 2020.
The Bengals only added two pieces in the offseason: free agent Xavier Su’a-Filo and seventh round pick Adeniji. The Bengals added Quinton Spain and B.J. Finney during the season, and only Spain ended up being remotely helpful.
With a new offensive line coach and a new franchise quarterback to protect, the Bengals can’t ignore the offensive line again this offseason.
Strength and conditioning has to improve
It’s pointless to sign free agents and draft top talent if everyone is just going to get injured.
The Bengals have a tradition of letting their first round picks get injured, and that tradition continued in 2020. Burrow ended the season early this year, joining Jonah Williams, Billy Price, John Ross, William Jackson, and Darqueze Dennard as Bengals’ first round picks to join injured reserve in their rookie seasons.
The top free agents that the Bengals brought in, D.J. Reader, Trae Waynes, and Su’a-Filo all spent significant time on the injury report. Vonn Bell and Bynes were the only free agent signing that didn’t miss a game this season.
Then, Joe Mixon suffers a season ending injury after signing a contract extension.
The number of injuries the Bengals have had to endure in 2020, and the last few years for that matter, is absolutely ridiculous. This has to change.
Lawson and Jackson are must-haves on defense
With a whole slew of things going wrong on defense, two young players at the end of their contracts gave the Bengals a bright spot.
William Jackson is the best cornerback the Bengals have had over the last few years. Carl Lawson was pretty much the only defensive lineman who was generating pressure. They were the best two defensive players for the Bengals, and they should stick around.
Zac Taylor has to win in 2021
Enough developing culture. Enough single-score losses. The Bengals have to start winning.
There’s no excuse. The Bengals have a franchise quarterback. They have a star running back and a group of talented wide receivers. They need to add some offensive lineman and defenders, but they can win more games with what they have.
The clock is ticking. The Bengals are going to have to sign Burrow to a second contract at some point. He will fetch a lot of money on his new deal, so the Bengals have a window to rebuild before they have to start allocating a good chunk to Burrow.