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The Armchair Quarterback: Young talent and accrued injuries cloud Bengals’ roster future

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The Bengals may actually have a stronger roster than their record would indicate, due to young players getting limited time and a mountain of injuries to important players.

Oakland Raiders v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

Even though most folks want the Bengals to tank for high draft positioning, the team wasn’t about to give up in 2018. Cincinnati beat the Raiders in Week 15 and kept their playoff hopes briefly alive, as their effort level has been raised the past two contests.

The team’s sixth win of the season gave us a number of items to think about as one of the most critical offseasons in franchise history is a few short weeks away. And, as with any offseason planning, a close examination of the roster will take place.

Of course, the big question is in who will be spearheading this evaluation in the late winter and early spring months. With this win over the Raiders and the above-mentioned effort level that’s been given, Marvin Lewis could be engaging in the process for the 17th time in Cincinnati.

Regardless, the last few weeks have told us a few things. One is that, obviously, injuries have greatly hindered the chances for this year’s team to make noise. Another is that there are young players on this roster (AKA those on their first contract with the team) who have bright futures.

But, is there enough to hang the hats on for a turnaround in 2019? Is Lewis the guy to get enough out of them?

Young talent setting up the possible rebuilding effort

On Sunday, we saw a number of players step up to aid the Bengals towards victory. Veterans played their part, with Carlos Dunlap recovering a fumble and Geno Atkins notching three sacks.

However, this year’s third-round pick, Sam Hubbard, notched two sacks and a forced fumble of his own. We also witnessed Tyler Boyd going over 1,000 receiving yards and Joe Mixon having a performance to put him just five yards away from his first 1,000-yard rushing campaign. All of these guys are under contract next season.

Jessie Bates III has been a nice piece with three interceptions as a rookie, while Clayton Fejedelem is a guy in which they can build their special teams group around. Oh, and Carl Lawson will be back after suffering a torn ACL after playing just half of the total games on the schedule.

There are many more names that could be mentioned in this vein, and some others definitely fall into the “unknown” or “disappointment” categories, but the talent is there for whoever roams the sidelines in 2019.

The unknowns will be the ones who shape the success or failure of this team in the future, though. It will be up to John Ross, Billy Price, Nick Vigil and others to steer the team from mediocre back to being relevant.

Price has been given the keys to an important position to start at for a rookie, and it has come with mixed results. Vigil and Ross had to bide their time (and, in a way, Ross is still biding it) before given more prominent roles after their rookie seasons. All three will be huge in the direction of the franchise next season.

Ross is particularly interesting. He was still in Lewis’ doghouse early in the season and had some on-field struggles in limited snaps, but he’s been able to get into the end zone with frequency as the year has passed. Ross is second on the team with six touchdown grabs, which is a trait carried over from college.

The knocks though are that he has only 19 catches this year and is averaging 6.5 yards per reception, which are very un-Husky-like stats by the former No. 9 overall pick. Those 19 grabs come on 48 targets for a deplorable 39.6% catch success rate and, ironically, the number seems to keep dropping as he gets more opportunities.

With A.J. Green and now Boyd sidelined, Ross’ targets have and will continue to go up in the final games of the season. He was targeted five times last week and made just one catch.

We could also point back to our recent discussion on Christian Westerman. He sat on the bench this week with the return of Cordy Glenn at left tackle after playing very well against the Chargers. The line did pave the way for a 100-yard rusher against Oakland in Mixon, but a couple of familiar issues popped up at spots where Westerman has use.

Even with the young talent mixed with cornerstone veterans, there are major holes on this roster. The offensive line needs help (bringing the Westerman issue back up), while the linebacker group is a shambles.

Atkins just made his seventh Pro Bowl and Andrew Billings took some nice steps forward this year, but the run defense was putrid and the team lost more interior linemen to injury throughout the season.

The bottom line is that there is clay to mold here in 2019, if they are used correctly, played often (when deserved) and developed properly. So, it’s just a matter of who the sculptor will be when the calendar turns to a new year.

Are all of the injuries actually a viable excuse?

The starting quarterback was lost in Week 12. Cincinnati’s Pro Bowl tight end and wide receiver have both missed the majority of the season. Heck, even the prized outside acquisitions, Glenn and Preston Brown, have missed chunks of time, with Brown landing on I.R.

At any given time, it seems that about half a dozen starters of the 22 spots are out of the lineup. Obviously, this throws a massive wrench in the works. And, in the case of linebacker, wide receiver and tight end, it isn’t just the vaunted starter out of the lineup, it’s others flanking him and/or his backups standing in street clothes.

When the team was looking to rebuild/re-tool after the awful 2008 and 2010 seasons, owner Mike Brown and a then-returning Lewis pointed to a combination of an aging roster and bad luck with injuries. This began the re-emphasis on the draft and the hauls from the April festivities.

It’s quite possible that the same men could be sharing a podium once again in early January, talking about Lewis’ return to see his contract through and how they were close this year, if not for the injuries. It’s a broken record and one that wouldn’t resonate well with fans to be sure, but there is a level of merit to the stance (excuse).

However, it doesn’t come without flaws. For instance, If the team truly was relying on having Vontaze Burfict and/or Tyler Eifert for most of the year and for them to be back to their Pro Bowl forms without any hiccups, it was a major risk in which they lost. Their position groups have suffered greatly this year.

Really, with those two, the mindset should be to hope for the best and anything they give you is just an added bonus.

The other is the issue we’ve talked about for some time during the Lewis regime, and that’s in the inconsistent track record of playing promising youngsters early in their careers. We talked about Westerman and Ross, but another player’s wasted rookie season has affected the Bengals this year.

Early this week, Cincinnati put rookie linebacker Malik Jefferson on Injured Reserve. With Burfict’s issues of both staying on the field and subpar play while on it, as well as injuries to Vigil and Brown, one would have thought the team would have used Jefferson’s athleticism in some capacity. Instead, he is another in a recent line of third-round linebackers who are struggling to make their career work with the Bengals.

The point? Hindsight is 20-20 of course, but if he was going to get injured anyway, it would have been nice if he had received some significant defensive work before his season was cut short. But, Lewis preferred to play guys with more experience and less talent, thus hurting the team.

Another not-so-obvious question that should be asked is in the viability of the medical staff. There are so many injuries and guys going right to I.R., it should be one of the areas for re-evaluation this season. Perhaps they are doing a bang-up job this year (I’m not medical professional, after all), but after three straight non-winning seasons, no issue should be left off of the table for discussion this spring.