Free agency is the unquestioned fastest way to improve an NFL team from one year to the next. It has completely overshadowed player development, and yet, the Cincinnati Bengals are viewed as a much better team compared to last year in mainly because of player development.
ESPN’s Mike Clay projected the Bengals to be a subpar team in 2021. He was not alone in that assessment, but he goes deeper than most. Every year Clay grades each team by personnel unit a scale of 0 to 4 and weighs those scores relative to position. For example, quarterbacks make up about a quarter of the overall grade, whereas running backs make up less than five percent. Positional value in a quantitative sense.
This year, Clay’s projections have the Bengals as the fifth-best team overall, with the fourth-best offense and eighth-best defense per his grading scale.
Just did a thorough sweep of the 2022 NFL Unit Grades. Here's the latest update: pic.twitter.com/cVWlNTdZ16— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) July 12, 2022
Clay’s grades reflect the Bengals achieving a great amount of roster balance, but to see how far they jumped from 2021 to now, despite the offensive line being the lone position group they truly upgraded this offseason, is remarkable.
I went back to look at Clay’s 2021 preseason grades to see how much each position group improved in the 0-4 score and league-wide rank. The results are pretty staggering.
2022: 3.3 (sixth)
2021: 1.9 (18th)
2022: 2.4 (14th)
2021: 2.1 (16th)
2022: 4.0 (first)
2021: 3.8 (third)
2022: 1.3 (23rd)
2021: 1.0 (25th)
2022: 2.5 (13th)
2021: 0.5 (29th)
2022: 2.9 (10th)
2021: 1.8 (19th)
2022: 2.8 (11th)
2021: 1.6 (20th)
2022: 1.6 (20th)
2021: 0.4 (30th)
2022: 2.1 (16th)
2021: 1.8 (19th)
2022: 3.9 (second)
2021: 3.6 (fourth)
That’s improvement all across the board, even at positions that were already considered elite last year .
Offensively, Joe Burrow’s ascension and aggressive acquisitions at o-line make up the sizable jumps. Burrow wasn’t yet viewed as an upper-tier passer upon entering his second season, especially in the midst of recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. Now the consensus places him in the top six at the position after his outstanding second half of the year. Alex Cappa, Ted Karras, and La’el Collins were enough to raise Burrow’s protection out of the gutter as well.
It’s the defense that’s most intriguing here. The Bengals spent $0.00 on that side of the ball in free agency. They focused almost their entire NFL Draft class on that unit, but most of those picks won’t be significant contributors this season.
The personnel defense is basically the same at a starting level, and most of the position groups have significantly improved from last year according to Clay.
Cincinnati spent the previous two years rebuilding the defense from the ground up, but entering 2021, it was still viewed as a below-average unit at best. It wasn’t until all the pieces came together last season when players began to shine. The scheme finally became viable with the right personnel fitting it, and credit belongs to the coaching staff for getting the most out of the players they spent millions on. That’s player development in a nutshell.
Many will say the Bengals won’t be as successful this season, but with a roster this improved compared to just a year ago, they’re more likely to be good than the alternative.