Offseason to-do list for the Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals broke through in many ways during the 2015 season, finishing with a franchise-record-tying 12 wins, and were on the brink of winning their first playoff game since the 1990-91 season at home versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. A historic comedy of errors left them eliminated once again, remaining on the outside looking in.
Despite the well-documented foibles, however, the Bengals remain one of the more talented teams in the NFL, boasting a roster with superstars Geno Atkins (93.0 overall grade), A.J. Green (92.1), and Andrew Whitworth (88.5), all with top-four grades at their respective positions. Quarterback Andy Dalton took a step forward before an injury forced him to miss most of the final four games of the season, with a PFF quarterback rating (96.23) that finished fourth-best among quarterbacks in 2015. Largely unheard of guard Kevin Zietler (84.6) surrendered zero sacks and just three hits allowed, for a pass-blocking efficiency (97.9) that ranked sixth among NFL guards. Left defensive end Carlos Dunlap (83.5) finished first among 4-3 DEs with 15 sacks, third with 17 hits, seventh with 43 hurries, and ninth with a 10.8 pass-rush productivity. Ace Cedric Peerman finished fourth in the league with 13 special teams tackles, while missing only two tackles and failing to commit a penalty in 2015.
To break further into the ranks of the AFC elite in 2016, the Bengals need to cope with the impending free agency of their top four starters in the secondary, shore up the linebacker corps, and consider other options at the center position. We summarize these issues below:
In 2015, the Bengals were second in points allowed per game (17.4) and fifth in passer rating allowed (78.9), with the secondary playing a large role in this success. However, S Reggie Nelson (84.2), CB Adam Jones (84.0), S George Iloka (82.6), and CB Leon Hall (78.4) are all unrestricted free agents, while the only incumbent starter, Dre Kirkpatrick (38.8), was poor in his first season manning one of the cornerback spots full time. Only Kansas City rookie Marcus Peters (73.3) was targeted more than Kirkpatrick, and while only 63 of the 112 targets against him were completed (56.3 percent), he was charged with 16 missed tackles and surrendered 307 yards after the catch, which ranked second- and 11th-worst, respectively, among corners in 2015.
With an estimated $30 million in cap space this upcoming offseason, resigning either Nelson (eight interceptions—first among safeties in 2015) or Iloka (still only 25 years old) should be reasonable task. In the event that one or both leave, Shawn Williams (73.7), who played 535 snaps in 2015 and finished ninth among safeties with 0.27 yards per coverage snap, would be a solid replacement. At cornerback, Darqueze Dennard (73.4) showed promise in his 191 snaps in 2015, as did Josh Shaw (73.8 in 115 snaps), combining for 10 stops in limited duty. If Jones and/or Hall were to leave, however, additional options exist in free agency, where Sean Smith (83.8) or Trumaine Johnson (82.2) would be solid additions on the outside, and Casey Hayward (82.7) or Patrick Robinson (79.4) would be options that have had success in the slot in their careers.
The Bengals gave significant snaps to Vincent Rey (43.8 in 744 snaps), Rey Maualuga (77.9 in 629 snaps), Vontaze Burfict (84. 0 in 478 snaps), Emmanuel Lamur (39.7 in 342), and A.J. Hawk (61.0 in 293 snaps) throughout the course of the 2015 season. All five of these men come with question marks. Rey and Lamur played much of their snaps in the nickel defense, but both struggled in coverage (42.2 and 41.7 coverage grades, respectively), and will be unrestricted free agents in the offseason, with Lamur coming off a torn ACL. Hawk mostly played in the base 4-3 defense, but finished just 27th among 4-3 outside linebackers with a 5.1 run-stop percentage. Burfict finished first among 4-3 outside linebackers in run-stop percentage (13.3), and third in pass-rush productivity (17.9), but is a something of an enigma from a character and injury standpoint. Finally, Mauluga just had his best season since 2010, holding down the fort until Burfict returned from injury in Week 8. However, he still finished tied for fifth among inside linebackers with 20 missed tackles during the regular season, and would be hard-pressed to play effectively with anything substantially more than the 629 snaps he played in 2015.
Entering 2016 with Mauluga and Burfict as their top two linebackers would be a risky proposition. 2015 third-round pick Paul Dawson (63.3 in 35 snaps) should figure into the mix, but little else on the existing roster is anything close to ready to step into a prominent role on the defense, probably forcing the Bengals to look into free agency and/or the draft. The top linebackers available (Jerrell Freeman, 90.6; Derrick Johnson, 88.3; and Danny Trevathan, 87.6) have been playing in 3-4 defenses, but lesser-known players such as Tahir Whitehead (78.4) or Mark Barron (74.8) may be good fits for the Bengals’ 4-3 scheme. The athletic Whitehead and Barron played significant snaps for their teams because of injury in 2015, and may be allowed to walk this offseason. Potential difference-makers in Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith, and/or Arizona’s Scooby Wright should be available near the Bengals’ first-round draft position, with all three grading positively against the run, in pass coverage, and rushing the passer during the PFF College era.
Whitworth, Clint Boling (79.9), and Zeitler have three offensive line spots locked up, and 2015 high draft picks Cedric Ogbuehi (70.1 in 73 snaps) and Jake Fisher (67.0 in 135 snaps) figure to compete for right tackle Andre Smith’s (39.6) spot, should he leave in free agency. A big concern remains at center, where Russell Bodine fell from 14th in pass-blocking efficiency in 2014 to 25th in 2015, allowing 30 total pressures in 571 pass-blocking snaps. He also committed nine penalties in 2015, which was third-most among centers.
Bodine has played every snap for the Bengals since 2014, leaving little in the way of experience on the roster to push him. Aside from Manny Ramirez (86.3 in 502 snaps), little is available in terms of starting-caliber talent in free agency, possibly forcing the Bengals to either wait another year for Bodine’s development, or roll the dice in the draft. Austin Blythe of Iowa, Nick Martin of Notre Dame, Jack Allen of Michigan State, and Ryan Kelly of Alabama are all prospects that graded positively in 2015. Blythe was PFF College’s highest-graded center in 2015, on the back of the second-highest run-blocking grade. Martin surrendered just five total pressures in 438 pass-blocking snaps in 2015, good for the second-highest pass-blocking efficiency (99.1) among centers.
The Bengals have been a team to reckon with in the AFC since the arrival of Dalton and Green in 2011. To break through and win a playoff game—and possibly more—in 2016, they will have to take steps to fortify the back seven of their defense, as well as their offensive line. Options abound among incumbents, in free agency, and the draft for the Bengals, whose cap space and existing roster should point fans towards a positive outlook going into 2016.