The most defining thing to the Cincinnati Bengals 2021 season is how Joe Burrow will look when he returns to the field in Week 1 after suffering an ACL injury in the middle of 2020.
That is a ton of added pressure on a first overall pick going into his second season. He hasn’t even had a full season under his belt yet, but there were clearly strengths and weaknesses from 2020 that places like Pro Football Focus have noted.
Still, that uncertainty with the injury and plenty of questions left to answer from his rookie season, has led Pro Football Focus to rank Burrow below average heading into 2021 among quarterbacks:
Burrow had the fifth-best passing grade (92.5) when targeting throws 10-19 yards downfield, but he ranked 32nd out of 36 qualifying quarterbacks on 20-plus yard throws. He had a passer rating of just 50.8 on those 20-plus yard passes. But the good news is that deep passing can fluctuate from year to year.
The Bengals added some key weapons outside with the addition of Burrow’s former teammate Ja’Marr Chase, who should help with the downfield attack. We still need to see Burrow fully healthy, and the Bengals need to do a better job of protecting him. He showed a lot of promise as a rookie based on the number of snaps he took and the volume of the playbook he was executing.
The biggest thing that held Burrow and the Bengals offense back in 2020 was the deep passing game. It was rare to see the Cincinnati’s franchise quarterback hit any receiver deep. Even before the team drafted Ja’Marr Chase, both Burrow and the coaching staff emphasized how important improving that aspect of the offense was going to be for the team.
Replacing A.J. Green with Chase was a huge step there as Green and Burrow struggled to get on the same page. The two former LSU stars already having a built-in rapport doesn’t hurt anything either.
Burrow also went out of his way to rework his entire mechanics as he rehabbed from his knee injury to help improve his arm strength. If that doesn’t scream what kind of player The Bengals have at quarterback I don’t know what does.
The other thing that will help is the offensive line being improved. They may not be a top-5 offensive line, but they will be closer to average than one of the worst units in the NFL. Just swapping Jim Turner out for Frank Pollack at coach helps as the unit failed to develop any young talent the past two seasons that weren’t a first round pick.
Replacing Bobby Hart at right tackle with a veteran like Riley Reiff is also a very underrated move. Not to mention they aren’t quite dealing with a mountain of injuries at the position yet that saw mid-season acquisition Quinton Spain start at three different positions after only being with the team for barely a week.
Burrow showed us plenty of what made him one of the best college quarterbacks in NCAA history as a rookie. He was clearly lacking in a few areas, and the offense itself needed improvement. However, if he can start off the season looking like he is 100 percent recovered from his injury, he could work his way up these rankings very quickly.