Prior to the start of the 2014 season, Alex Herd, Greg Kaplan and Pete Rynkowski will break down each of the 32 teams in the NFL and forecast their journey ahead.
CB Darqueze Dennard (2014 1st round pick), RB Jeremy Hill (2014 2nd round pick), QB Jason Campbell, DB Danieal Manning
DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins, C Kyle Cook, WR Andrew Hawkins
AH: The first thing to notice right away is that the Bengals did not make a ton of changes from 2013 to 2014. For a team that went 11-5 and won the AFC North, that’s nice to hear. However, the Bengals will certainly miss Michael Johnson who was an absolute force on the outside. I’ll go into more detail during the defense analysis but the Bengals defense is built to withstand such a loss and shouldn’t hurt them too much.
In a similar vein, the Bengals lose Anthony Collins and Kyle Cook from the offensive line but should be able to cover their losses without much issue. Collins is a great LT but the Bengals replace him with Andrew Whitworth who is considered an elite player on the line.
As for the additions, the most important changes came from their first and second round draft picks. Darqueze Dennard was ranked as the 2nd best CB on most draft boards heading into the draft and the Bengals were pleasantly surprised when he fell to them at pick #24. He’s currently set to slot in as the team’s #3 or #4 CB and could have an immediate impact. Jeremy Hill represents an interesting draft choice for a number of reasons. There’s no doubt that Benjarvis Green-Ellis may not stick around much longer but last year’s rookie, Giovanni Bernard, looked incredible in his rookie season and many Bengals fans want him to carry the load for the team. Additionally, there are some off the field issues with Hill who did not play his entire freshman year with LSU because he was convicted of sexual assault and he was also arrested last season for punching a man in a bar. If nothing else, Hill will provide a third threat out of the backfield if he can stay out of trouble.
2014 Schedule Overview
AH: The Bengals line up against the NFC and AFC South this season which gives them some interesting matchups. They’ll travel to New Orleans and Tampa Bay while hosting the Falcons and Panthers. They also will meet the Titans and Jaguars in Cincy while traveling to Indy and Houston. You can see some easy wins in there but also a lot of challenges. As an additional hurdle, the 2 standings based games are against the Broncos (at home) and Patriots (in NE). Repeating a 11-5 season will be a real challenge for the Bengals with their schedule.
AH: No one doubt that NFL offenses start at the QB position. The Bengals showed they believe that too by investing heavily in Andy Dalton with a contract worth $115M. I’m not a Dalton hater but good lord does that seem like an overpay for someone who grades out as a very average NFL QB. It is worth mentioning, the Bengals have found ways to successfully use Dalton – he has more TD passes in his first three seasons (80) than any NFL QB besides Peyton Manning and Dan Marino. What makes Dalton average is that he goes through streaks of really high peaks and really low valleys during the season and seems to be clearly carried by AJ Green. But there are signs of improvement. Dalton has seen a steady rise in completion %, TDs, yards, and QB rating during his three years (though he’s increased his INTs each year too). All that is to say that $115M is too much but Dalton is more than adequate to handle the QB duties for a Bengals team that has gone to the playoffs each year he’s been under center.
I discussed the RB situation a bit above. Green-Ellis is a very average player who provides just enough pounding up the middle to set things up for Bernard. Add rookie Jeremy Hill into the mix (it’s unclear early on what role he’ll really have this season) and there’s a chance of a three headed attack, or at the very least, some nice depth in case of injury. Bernard had only 170 carries last season but combined that with 56 receptions to give him 1,209 total yards and 8 TDs. If his workload increases, he could really break out in 2014. The only issue may be the Bengals reluctance to increase his role since sticking with BGE as a pace setter did work out pretty well.
No one needs to be told how good AJ Green is. Green posted over 1,000 yards and 7 TDs in his rookie season and that has improved each year including a 1,426 yards and 11 TD performance in 2014. The sky is the limit for Green who put up these ridiculous numbers while still dropping 11 balls and having the most passes thrown his way intercepted (12). Lining up along side of him is Marvin Jones. Jones burst out during his 2nd year with the team, posting 712 yards on 51 catches and 10 TDs. Mohammad Sanu will line up in the slot and while he’s not particularly exciting, he’s a very capable 3rd WR.
The dual TE threat remains in Cincy between Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham but the question is how much of a threat they really pose. Gresham played very physically in 2014, proving hard to tackle every time he got the ball. While neither TE had an amazing year, the two combined for around 900 yards and 6 TDs.
Finally, the offensive line has to be considered a strength for the Bengals. I already mentioned that Whitworth is an elite LT and the right side of the line is strong as well with Kevin Zietler and Andre Smith holding down that side. There is expected to be a position battle for starting center between below average Trevor Robinson and rookie Russell Bodine. Mike Pollack may also play a role in battling for the starting job at center but some expect him to just provide depth at the guard position.
AH: Defense is where the Bengals earn their stripes. There is no doubt they will miss recently departed Michael Johnson but they have a lot of talent to make up for him. The 2013 Bengals finished 3rd in yards allowed, 5th in passing yards allowed, 5th in rushing yards allowed, 5th in points allowed, and 8th in takeaways. The Bengals do need to improve in getting to the QB, as they ranked 30th in sacks last season
The D-line still has elite DT Geno Atkins who is an absolute force to be reckoned with up the middle. Carlos Dunlap is also fantastic coming off the end. Replacing Johnson, Wallace Gilberry will take the reigns at LE and he’ll need to step up along with Domata Peko who recently received a contract extension.
The question marks for the Bengals defense is at the LB positions. Vontaza Burfict is one of the best LBs in the NFL so there’s not reason for concern there but the other 2 spots are not so certain. Rey Maualuga and Vincent Rey will compete for the strong side position and while Rey may be a bit better, neither is an impressive option. Jayson DiManche may get some playing time there as well. Emmanuel Lamur (who recently punched AJ Green in the helmet during practice) is likely to start as well but he only has 9 games under his belt in the NFL.
The Bengals secondary is very strong. Leon Hall, Adam Jones, and Reggie Nelson highlight the elite group which is rounded out by Terrence Newman and George Iloka. Newman could see his playing time drop to the likes of Dennard or Danieal Manning depending on how those two produce during the preseason. Regardless what group makes the start week 1, the secondary is going to be tough to beat.
Breakout Candidate: Giovanni Bernard
AH: Is there really another choice? Gio was electric in his rookie season and he didn’t even get a ton of touches. BGE is another year older and Hill is an untested rookie which means that Gio could see his role improve and take the step towards great RB instead of very good RB. His use in the passing game is key for the Bengals as that’s where he really found a way to break out. I like the idea of big things to come from Bernard this season.
Reasons for Optimism
AH: The Bengals have one of the best WRs in the game, an exciting RB and a top tier defense which will keep them in almost any game. The team really shows a good mix of youth and leadership which just gets stronger with each year.
Reasons for Concern
AH: A team tends to only be as good as its QB in today’s NFL. Dalton has shown flashes of brilliance but he’s been plain terrible in the playoffs. After 3 straight years of first round exits, the Cincy fan base needs to see more. The Bengals also did get a little worse defensively and lack some all around depth to protect against injuries.
AH: Since Dalton and Green joined the Bengals in 2011, the team has gone 9-7, 10-6, and 11-5. The Bengals let some talent leave in the offseason, really just Johnson but they didn’t really add much either. That’s just fine for the reigning AFC North champs. It’s hard to not be excited about what the running game can do with more Gio, if they let him loose this season. A strong defense, tons of youth and one of the best playmakers in the game is a recipe for success and I don’t expect any AFC North team to be strong enough to wrestle the division crown from the Bengals this season. They do have a very tough schedule which will really challenge them but they should emerge with a chance to get Dalton his first playoff win.
Projected Record: 10-6 AFC North Champions