The Cincinnati Bengals made an improbably run to the Super Bowl last year and have spent the offseason gearing up to make that run again, just more successfully this time. The Bengals had nearly an ideal offseason, addressing areas of need without really losing much talent from last year’s team.
You can’t talk about talent on the Cincinnati roster without first mentioning the duo of quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. The two young former LSU teammates have been just as good in the NFL, developing into one of the best quarterback-to-receiver connections in the league.
Chase was an extremely well-regarded prospect entering the 2021 draft but what he did in his rookie year exceeded all expectations by a mile. He was not only, easily, the best rookie wide receiver in football, but one of the best receivers in general (despite what EA thinks with their 87 overall Madden rating for him). He silenced all doubters with a historic rookie year and then continued that level of play throughout the playoffs, proving that no moment is too big for him.
The only Bengal that might be cooler in big games is Chase’s quarterback. Burrow had one of the most improbable and memorable debut years in the postseason (hence the ‘Brr”-ow nickname). In his first full season and return from a torn ACL, the second-year quarterback proved that he can hang with the likes of Josh Allen, Matthew Stafford, and Patrick Mahomes (Burrow is the only quarterback other than Tom Brady to beat Mahomes in the playoffs).
Burrow and Chase alone would be enough to field an incredible offense, but luckily there is more to the team than just them. But the most intriguing aspect of the Bengals last year was the part of the offense that wasn’t performing so well.
The offensive line was a genuine concern in 2021. Cincinnati gave up sacks at the second-most frequent rate, nine percent, for a total of 57 sacks. The fact that the Bengals were able to make the Super Bowl with that porous of a line is nothing short of a miracle.
The Bengals were aware of their glaring issue at o-line and made sure they improved the unit before this season. They were active in free agency, signing center Ted Karras, guard Alex Cappa, and tackle La’el Collins to come in and start. Those three will join tackle Jonah Williams and whoever wins the second guard spot (likely between Jackson Carman and Hakeem Adeniji) to create a very competent offensive line to protect Burrow.
The better line play will also benefit running back Joe Mixon, who has been consistently solid for Cincinnati. He had his best season in 2021, setting career-highs in rushing yards and touchdowns while making his first Pro-Bowl. After putting up those numbers with a horrendous line in front of him, it will be interesting to see what he is capable of with an improved unit.
Another great year from Mixon would take pressure off Burrow. Secondary weapons always help a quarterback succeed, and the Bengals have a good crop of those.
If it weren’t for Chase then wide receiver Tee Higgins might have been the one with over 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns. Instead, Higgins had to settle for just 1,091 yards and six scores. Higgins is also one of the best young receivers in the game, he just gets overshadowed by Chase sometimes. But that can also be helpful since the defense can only choose one of the pass-catchers to devote their attention to.
The Bengals also have wide receiver Tyler Boyd in the mix, who might be the most overqualified third receiver in the league. He has had two 1,000-yard seasons in his career and hasn’t put up less than 828 receiving yards since 2017. Boyd can operate very effectively as the slot receiver or can fill in for one of the guys ahead of him if they were to miss time, making him the perfect player to round out that exceptional trio.
Tight end was one of the few positions where Cincinnati experienced loss over the offseason, with last year’s starter C.J. Uzomah heading to the Jets in free agency. The Bengals still have tight end Drew Sample who has been a serviceable backup but will be able to keep him in that role as more of a blocker because they brought in tight end Hayden Hurst.
Hurst has had a bit of an underwhelming career and hasn’t quite lived up to his first-round draft status but he is definitely a talented player. He honestly might be an upgrade over Uzomah, even though the numbers may not suggest that. Hurst isn’t going to have to be anything special in Cincinnati, if he can just add around 500 yards and a couple of scores then he will fit in perfectly.
The Bengals’ defense has had even less turnover than the offense this offseason (and yes that pun was 100 percent on purpose). The only big loss they suffered on that side of the ball was defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who was a solid player, but his departure won’t be too detrimental.
It helps that defensive end Trey Hendrickson is still around after his amazing season in 2021. The Bengals took a chance on Hendrickson, signing him to a large deal in free agency, and he made it worth it for them by racking up 14 sacks and making a Pro-Bowl. He is now considered one of the better pass rushers in the league.
Hendrickson has not only gotten improved his own game but has helped defensive end Sam Hubbard develop as well. Hubbard has been a decent pass rusher in the first few seasons of his career but playing with Hendrickson took his game to the next level.
He had his most productive season in terms of pressures but his sack total was still a half-sack behind his best season. This should be the season where Hubbard takes a big leap in the sack department. He is already halfway there by pressuring the quarterback more, he just needs to finish the sack more. If he does get to double-digit sacks then he and Hendrickson could form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league.
Those two guys up front make the job of the secondary a lot easier, although it’s not like safety Jessie Bates was struggling before. Bates has been the leader of the back-half of the defense for a few years and has been the most reliable member of the group.
The 25-year-old is also currently only signed to the franchise tag so he is going to be motivated to have the best season of his career. The Bengals would be smart to lockdown Bates as quickly as possible because he is trending toward being an elite safety for a while.
Cincinnati did draft safety Dax Hill, though he is likely viewed as a complementary piece. He could end up being the replacement for Bates, but the Bengals could end up using them together. Hill is a different type of safety. He is best suited for a versatile role, moving from deep safety to slot corner to in the box. He pairs perfectly with Bates and fellow safety Vonn Bell, who operates as more of a strong safety.
Hill might not be needed in the slot since the Bengals’ cornerback unit is surprisingly productive. None of the corners on the team are very well-known, even after the Super Bowl run, but they do their jobs well. Eli Apple is probably the most recognizable name, but that is more for the wrong reasons, but he is not the best on the field.
Cornerback Chidobie Awuzie is criminally underrated, having been a solid corner for a few years now. He has taken over as the number one corner in Cincinnati and has been able to succeed in the role. With Apple and cornerback Mike Hilton rounding out the rest of the secondary, the group has enough talent to get the job done.
Rounding out a defense with good potential is a linebacker group that does not get the respect they deserve. Linebacker Logan Wilson is an incredibly underrated player who has played exceptionally well in pass coverage. He led the team in interceptions last year with four while also recording a team-high 100 tackles.
Linebacker Germaine Pratt is Wilson’s running mate and he brings more of a thumping play style. Those two play a lot better than they get credit for and are still young enough to improve their game. Another year with that duo manning the middle of the defense will only lead to good things for the Bengals.
I am not a superstitious guy but I do believe in the Super Bowl curse. It is really hard to get back to that game the next season, and even harder if you lost it. I do think that Cincinnati is definitively a better team but I don’t think they will end up with a better result.
For one, I think their division is going to be a lot more difficult this year. The Ravens are going to be a much more staunch competitor this year if they are healthy and the Steelers and Browns could both be a lot more competitive than they appear to be.
The Bengals also have some tough non-divisional games on their schedule, including road games against Dallas, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, and New England. Cincinnati also has to play Kansas City and Buffalo, although they get those at home.
At the end of the day, I don’t think the Bengals repeat as AFC North champions but that is largely due to my belief in the Ravens. I still think the Bengals will finish with a very respectable 11-6 record and grab a wild card spot, though.
We have seen the Bengals surprise us before so I would not be surprised if I end up being wrong about them this year. Especially if Burrow proves he is an elite quarterback and Chase stays on his trajectory toward being a top-tier wide receiver.