AFC North – Cincinnati Bengals
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Round 1 – Offensive tackle, Jonah Williams, Alabama
Round 2 – Tight end, Drew Sample, Washington
Round 3 – Linebacker, Germaine Pratt, N.C. State
While the selection of arguably the best offensive lineman available in the NFL Draft was a great pick for a team desperate for help up front, a torn labarum suffered by Jonah Williams during minicamp looks to have ended his rookie season before it began. Williams should figure to be a fixture along the offensive line for years to come, but he will be of no help to Cincinnati in 2019.
Drated higher than many experts had projected, tight end Drew Sample excelled as a blocker at college but was far less impressive as a receiver. Less athletic than many of the other options available for selection, the former Washington product is likely to need a significant amount of time to adjust to life in the NFL. Even then, it is unlikely that he will become much more than the No.2 player at his position.
As a converted former safety, third-round draft pick Germain Pratt is still learning his craft as a linebacker, but his talents as a pass rusher and a run defender should be enough to get him on the field during his rookie season. Perhaps lacking the strength he will need to excel at the professional level, Pratt was a consistent tackler at college and his 10 sacks during his senior season suggest he can add value to the defense as a pass rusher as well. Unlikely to open the year as a starter, but someone who should see their role grow as the season progresses.
In typical Bengals fashion, more talent left Cincinnati than was added in 2019, with the surprise retirement of veteran guard Clint Boling the most notable loss of the offseason. But while the release of troubled linebacker Vontaze Burfict is significant in terms of name recognition, his departure should be considered a positive for the organization.
Former Buffalo Bills guard John Miller was their most expensive free agent signing of the offseason, although by league standards, a three-year deal worth $16.5 million was relatively modest. Former New York Giants cornerback B.W. Webb may yet push Darqueze Dennard for a starting role and should at least provide the Bengals solid depth in the secondary. Fellow former Giant Kerry Wynn gives the team another viable body along the defensive line, but none of these signings will have a major impact on the season.
The money Cincinnati spent during free agency mostly went on retaining names like tight end C.J. Uzomah, offense tackle Bobby Hart and Dennard, with emerging wide receiver Tyler Boyd the recent beneficiary of a contract extension as well. But with close to $20 million in salary cap space still available as training camp begins, fans might rightly question why more effort was not made to bring in better talent once again.
The arrival of a new head coach for the first time in 16 years following the dismissal of Marvin Lewis represents the biggest change for the Bengals in 2019. In his place, the team has turned to former Los Angeles Rams wide receivers and quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor to do what Lewis never could – win a playoff game.
Taylor has limited coaching experience having only joined the ranks of the NFL in 2012, prior to that, his only coaching experience came as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M. While Taylor has never been a head coach at any level, the Bengals are hoping the 36-year-old coach will be able to recreate a similar turnaround in the team’s fortunes as achieved by other young coaches like the Rams’ Sean McVay.
Veteran wide Receiver A.J. Green is the team’s biggest star on offense by some distance but running back Joe Mixon may not be too far behind him. A versatile player, adept as both a receiver and a runner, Mixon has certain qualities that compare favourably to New York Jets running back Le’Veon Bell.
Much like Green on offense, veteran defensive tackle Geno Atkins remains the star name on the other side of the ball, with young cornerback William Jackson III expected to take that title soon enough after three productive seasons with the Bengals. One of the best young players at his position in the NFL, if Jackson could just record some interceptions to accompany his stellar play, he would be one of the more talked about cornerbacks in the league.
There appear to be few neutral observers projecting anything but a down year for the Bengals in 2019, with Cincinnati the universal choice to finish last in the division. However, while there are understandable concerns about the offensive line, the trio of Green, Boyd and Mixon are a formidable set of weapons. With Andy Dalton under center, their production will always be hindered by his limitations, but If the new head coach can elevate game, the Bengals could be better than predicted.
Cincinnati has some talent in the secondary and along the defensive line but have serious questions marks at linebacker heading into training camp. How young names like Malik Jefferson and Pratt develop will go a long way to determining the success of this unit.
Injuries to Dalton and Green doomed the Bengals over the second half of 2018 and a team that went 5-3 before the bye week was 1-7 after Week 9. Green was essentially lost at the bye, while Dalton was placed on injured reserve after Week 12. Depth remains a problem at most positions in Cincinnati this year and injuries could have a similar devastating effect in 2019. If the Bengals can miraculously remain injury free, beating a season win total of 5.5 games is realistic.
Cincinnati was 1-5 against the rest of the AFC North in 2018 and are expected to struggle again this year having failed to close the gap on any of their rivals this offseason. If anything, they may be even further behind. Until they can contend against the teams in their own division, the Bengals have little chance of making the playoffs.
Oddschecker spokesperson Pete Watt: “The win line suggests things won’t be improving in Cincinnati this year. AJ Green will return to the field but even one of the most talented receivers in the game might not be enough to make the difference when the other three AFC North teams have improved on last year.”
Based on the 2018 record of their opponents, the Bengals will theoretically have the 27th ranked schedule in terms of difficulty in 2019. They will face teams that accumulated a combined record of 119-133-4 last season for a winning percentage of .473.
Opening the season with three out of four games on the road will not help the Bengals get off to a good start. With the air of pessimism surrounding the team, and 0-4 start could send them on a downward spiral that is hard to recover from. Just one primetime game this season is arguably a blessing for a team that has struggled when paying in the spotlight. Unfortunately for them, the one game they do have on Monday night is against a Steelers team that have not beaten since 2015.