Optimism is running pretty high for a Cincinnati Bengals offense that has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL.
“The Cincinnati Bengals will have four 1,000 yard skill players,” NFL Network analyst Nate Burleson said recently. “Joe Mixon will have over 1,000 yards. Tyler Boyd will have over 1,000 yards receiving. Tee Higgins will have over 1,000 yards receiving and Ja’Marr Chase will come in as a rookie and have over 1,000 yards receiving. That’s four skill players and I do believe that this offense is capable because they have some young superstars.”
But before we get too excited, there are still several questions that need to be answered.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, it really doesn’t matter how good your skill players are. If your line can’t block, you’re not going anywhere. Just ask college football’s only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, Archie Griffin.
Cincinnati’s offensive line was nothing short of horrendous a year ago, and the Bengals’ do-everything quarterback, Joe Burrow, paid the ultimate penalty when he was lost for the year with a torn ACL/MCL in week 11.
Cincinnati addressed the problem with the signing of free-agent right tackle Riley Reiff, and selected Clemson tackle Jackson Carman in the second round. The Bengals also added East Carolina’s D’Ante Smith in the fourth round and Georgia interior lineman Trey Hill in round six in a continuing effort to upgrade personnel.
But the biggest change up front was likely the addition of former offensive line coach and new running game coordinator Frank Pollack. After he helped make the Dallas Cowboys offensive line one of the best in the NFL, Pollack led the Bengals’ offensive line to a No. 11 ranking in fewest sacks allowed during his lone season in Cincinnati in 2018. Now he’s back to find even better success with his new group.
One place area the Bengals almost completely ignored this off-season is tight end. Starter C.J. Uzomah is coming off a torn Achilles tendon. Drew Sample, the former second-round selection out of Washington, is not much of a receiving threat as he averaged just 8.7 yards on his 40 receptions and produced only a single touchdown.
There are a couple of dark horses, however, who could turn this question mark into an exclamation point pretty quickly. Thaddeus Moss was a college teammate of Burrow at LSU during the Tigers’ National Championship run, and finished with 47 receptions for 570 yards (an average of over 12 yards per catch) and four touchdowns. He added a pair of touchdown catches in the title game against Clemson.
Like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, college free agent Pro Wells is a basketball player turned tight end and has the size and speed to succeed. At 6-4 and 245 pounds, Wells ran a 4.83 40 at his Pro Day, but his lack of college production kept him from being drafted. The Bengals would love to see Wells have a similar trajectory to Mo Alie-Cox, an UDFA of the Indianapolis Colts who broke out with 31 catches for 394 yards and two touchdowns last year.
Veterans Mason Schreck and Mitchell Wilcox are also still in the mix, but they don’t have much of an edge over either Moss or Wells.
Mixon missed 10 games last season with a foot injury, and his primary back-up, Giovani Bernard, is now with Tampa Bay. Samaje Perine made the most of his opportunities last year, finishing with 301 yards on 63 carries (4.8 yards per carry) and three touchdowns and is the top choice to fill Bernard’s role.
“Joe does all the things we ask him to do,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “He’s catching the ball really well. He’s getting detailed. He knows who to block in the protections and how to do it. He really buys in to the schemes that Frank (Pollack) employs and what we’re asking him to do up front.”
Whom the No. 3 running back will be is anyone’s guess, but there are a handful of talented players vying for the honors. The front runner right now is probably 2021 sixth-round selection Chris Evans of the University of Michigan, but don’t count out Trayveon Williams, who rushed for 1,760 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior with Texas A&M in 2018. Injuries have slowed Williams, but he did manage 157 yards on 26 carries (an average of six yards per carry) last year.
Also in the running are former Florida State standout Jacques Patrick and UDFA Pooka Williams of Kansas.
Despite the question marks, at least one Bengal likes what he sees.
“I think every area [on offense] we’ve improved,” Uzomah said recently. “I think receiving corps. I mean, good luck. Again, pads haven’t been on, but just watching these guys, I’m just like ‘wow.’ Looking at Tee (Higgins) now. I’m like ‘Dude, you are a monster right now. You fit the mold of what you should be, and you’re going out and doing what you need to do.’ The offensive line, Riley (Reiff) is a man. He’s commanding the offensive line room really, really well. Joe’s gonna Joe. Both Joes are gonna Joe. And the tight end room, we’re older now and we’ve added a few more guys we feel will be valuable to the offense. So I think as a whole, we’ve gotten better.”
How much better they’ve become could be the difference in achieving a winning season for the first time in six years.