2016 cheat sheet: Cincinnati Bengals
To get you ready for the 2016 NFL season, the PFF analysis crew is assembling team “cheat sheets” to catch you up on the latest changes, grades, and rankings of note involving your NFL team.
The best season of Andy Dalton’s career looked as if it would turn the Bengals into legit contenders, rather than a perennial one-and-done playoff team, but a cruel hand injury late in the season caused Cincinnati to have to start A.J. McCarron. Due to an odd turn of events, the Bengals suffered their usual fate, losing 18-16 to the Steelers in the wildcard round. Once again, Cincinnati has a strong roster and will hope to right the wrongs of last year, but will rely on Dalton to remain at the high level he produced pre-injury, and not regress to the “Dalton-coaster” of previous seasons that saw a consistent run of quality play before nosediving into a span of ugly outings.
Three biggest things to know
1. QB Andy Dalton was markedly better in 2015 than any other year of his career.
In 2015, Dalton ended the season with an overall grade of 87.4, a marked improvement over his previous seasons of 70.9, 72.9, 81.0, and 75.6, respectively, from 2011–14. His previous years had been characterized by consistent inconsistency: the seeming inability to string together more than two games of either good or bad play before swinging back in the other direction. 2015 saw a different player, with only really two poor games and a far more consistent baseline. Even under pressure last season, his passer rating was 92.9; when kept clean, his rating was 110.2.
2. CB Dre Kirkpatrick will be playing to keep his starting spot.
Last season, Dre Kirkpatrick played 1,070 snaps and was one of the lowest-graded cornerbacks in the league, with a mark of 39.6, good enough for 104th among corners. Some of Kirkpatrick’s numbers aren’t terrible, with just one touchdown allowed all season and a passer rating of 79.5 when targeted, but he consistently allowed the chains to be moved and was poor against the run game. He also surrendered 14 penalties, the most among cornerbacks last year not named Brandon Browner (23), which mask some very bad coverage plays as penalties. At that level of play, a starting spot is likely unsustainable, though the injury to top rookie William Jackson III bought him some breathing room.
3. The transition along the O-line is worth keeping an eye on.
Andrew Whitworth is one of the league’s most consistent and underrated players at left tackle, and the guard pairing of Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler is one of the best in the league; the other two spots on the line are in question, however. At right tackle, the departure of Andre Smith (Vikings) opens the door for Cedric Ogbuehi to start in his second season, and there is only so much the team can ask from Russell Bodine at center, given his poor play to date. This line has potential to once again be one of the best, but weak performances from those two could cap that potential.
Key arrivals and departures
Top three draft picks: CB William Jackson III (Round 1, pick No. 24 overall, Houston), WR Tyler Boyd (Round 2, pick No. 55 overall, Pittsburgh), LB Nick Vigil (Round 3, pick No. 87 overall)
Signed in free agency: LB Karlos Dansby (Browns), WR Brandon LaFell (Patriots)
Left via free agency: S Reggie Nelson (Raiders), WR Marvin Jones (Lions), CB Leon Hall (UFA), DE Wallace Gilberry (Lions), WR Mohamed Sanu (Falcons), T Andre Smith (Vikings), LB Emmanuel Lamur (Vikings)
Cut (if applicable): LB A.J. Hawk
Rookie to watch
Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh (Round 2, pick No. 55 overall)
With injuries to William Jackson III and Andrew Billings, both of whom I think could have made a bigger impact in their rookie seasons, Tyler Boyd is the next rookie to keep an eye on. With the loss of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu this offseason, Boyd has a starting spot there to be won, and even if he doesn’t start, he could play in three-WR sets, which accounted for 62 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in 2015. Boyd was the seventh-highest graded WR in the 2015 draft class, catching 71.8 percent of the passes sent his way, and could be the reliable No. 2 receiver the Bengals need.
Highest-graded player of 2015
Geno Atkins, DT, 93.0 overall grade
Back in 2012, Geno Atkins was the best defensive tackle in football, posting a grade higher than any we had seen up until that point (since 2007, at the time). Injury then struck, and with Rams DT Aaron Donald now on the scene, Atkins may never have that crown again, but we did at least see the old version of the Bengals DT again in 2015. Atkins is incredibly quick off the line and plays with outstanding leverage. He is one of the most consistent pass-rushing forces in the NFL, notching 82 total pressures last year—actually more than Donald—despite only playing 805 snaps on the season.
Breakout player watch
Shawn Williams, S
With Reggie Nelson now playing in Oakland, the Bengals will be starting a new safety alongside George Iloka. Despite playing only 535 snaps last year and 574 in his entire NFL career, the team thinks enough of Williams to sign him to a five-year, $20.2 million contract in May. He certainly flashed big talent last season when on the field, and had a coverage grade of 78.5, good enough for 20th in the NFL and only narrowly behind Iloka (79.9) and Nelson (84.3). With a full-time starting spot, he could now become a quality cover safety to fill the void left by Nelson.
Nickel defense (2015 season grades shown)
Offense with three receivers (2015 season grades shown)