Time has seemed to stand still since we last got together. Is that due to COVID-19 or the endless nonsense about Joe Burrow not wanting to play in Cincinnati?
Speaking of the pandemic, I’m not sure what’s more earth-shaking: the virus that’s ground the world to a screeching halt or the idea that the Bengals spent in free agency in order to improve the team. Assuming there is a 2020 NFL season, this team is in a nice position to vastly improve upon the disastrous 2-14 of last year. Given the roughness of the AFC North and the preponderance of so many unknowns in Cincinnati, predicting unimpeachable success is folly. But there is something tangible now that’s been in short supply of late around Paul Brown Stadium (and the nation): hope. Hope in the form of a new top-of-the-line quarterback, a remade defense, and healthy cornerstones at left tackle and wide receiver.
It should be stated for the record that, up until very recently, the franchise’s method of sitting out the high-priced free agency period in order to build through the draft was roundly praised. But the new rules restricting practice time caused a sea change in proficient team-building that the franchise was slow to react to. Established vets suddenly became a crucial aspect of the roster. Add to that a few draft misfires and bad injury luck, and the Bengals were bereft of talent at the bottom of the league. The fact that they’ve altered course at last is a good sign.
And, naturally, there is a benefit to the suffering—the ability to get a franchise quarterback. Not Tua Tagavailoa, as everyone assumed up until roughly last November, but Ohio’s own Joseph Lee Burrow, whose emergence as a no-doubt top overall pick spared Bengals Nation the agita of worrying about yet another injury risk in the first round or talking ourselves into Justin Herbert. Burrow’s breakthrough and subsequent drafting by the Bengals have gifted us all an injection of hope that’s strong enough to temper COVID-19.
Obviously, the success of the offseason lies entirely on Burrow’s right arm. I hate to burden our new savior, but he might be the most important figure in the history of the franchise—if he goes bust and the team stinks for the next several years as the stadium lease comes up for renewal, it’s entirely possible the Bengals could leave Cincinnati. That potential disaster is well down the road, but like a pandemic it needs to be prepared for in advance.
Fortunately, Burrow’s incredible college numbers and tape—plus his athletic profile, alpha-male confidence, and the pure awesomeness oozing out of his every pore—would seem to indicate that he’s as safe a prospect to come out in recent years, perhaps since Andrew Luck. Certainly, not since Boomer Esiason have the Bengals had a quarterback whose public utterances have felt so spot on, whose leadership qualities are so stark, and whose self-belief is so apparent.
Of course, a bad offensive line can crush these attributes out of anyone, as they kinda did with Luck. That makes another “first-year player,” Jonah Williams, almost as vital as Burrow. We’re all mentally assuming Jonah will be a whale of a left tackle, despite the fact he’s yet to play a snap in stripes and is coming off the shoulder injury that cost him his rookie season. His immediate impact will be vital.
Teams tell you what they think of their roster in the offseason, meaning Cincinnati clearly feels comfortable with the likes of Bobby Hart, Fred Johnson, and Michael Jordan in key roles, because the only new additions are a pair of low-rated hard-to-spell guards, Xavier Su’a-Filo (free agent from Dallas who could start) and Hakeem Adeniji (sixth-round pick from Kansas who won’t). Unfortunately, self-scouting has been a regular weakness of the Bengals in the past, though in fairness the line was night and day more effective in the final six weeks or so of last year after dumping the outside zone scheme for one that better suited the players’ skills. Joe Mixon, left for dead in mid-season, somehow rebounded to rush for over 1,000 yards, an Adrian Peterson-esque feat given where he started.
Should the line manage to hold up, Burrow is surrounded by perhaps the best group of skill position players any highly-drafted rookie has had in recent memory. In addition to Mixon, the return of A.J. Green changes everything about the receiver corps, allowing the likes of Tyler Boyd, John Ross, C.J. Uzomah, and newcomer Tee Higgins (an out-of-state Bengals fan thanks to A.J.) to assume natural roles and snaps. Of course, by the time he gets on the field, even in the best case scenario COVID-wise, Green won’t have played a lick in nearly two years, and fans will be holding their breath with every step and hit he takes.
Higgins hopefully becomes the latest in a long line of second-round wideouts to flourish in Cincinnati, after Chad Johnson, Cris Collinsworth, Carl Pickens, etc. Hig is reminiscent of Pick with his incredible catch radius and leaping ability. He’s not as fast as you would like, at least in testing, but he played fast at Clemson and was able to break more tackles than his frame would suggest. Certainly Higgins and Burrow provide the NFL’s best 1-2 draft punch in terms of basketball ability.
The new aggressive approach to free agency primarily remade the defensive side of the ball, which is welcome after a season in which the unit ranked 30th in DVOA. The big addition, literally, was tackle D.J. Reader, a highly-effective presence signed away from Houston in a move that made me yelp aloud when I read that it actually happened, that the Bengals actually were changing their mindset. Reader is a run-stopper who can also affect the quarterback, especially on first down and non-obvious passing downs, and he will take an enormous weight off of the Atlas-sized shoulders of Geno Atkins.
Cincinnati also plucked a pair of corners from old pal Mike Zimmer and the Vikings, Trae Waynes and Mackenzie Alexander. They probably spent too much for Waynes and got a bargain in Alexander, so it evens out, but the important quality they share is a willingness to tackle and be physical, which was sorely lacking in the recently-released Dre Kirkpatrick. He was a whipping boy around these parts despite being pretty solid overall in coverage, thanks mainly to his big-play mistakes, but Kirkpatrick’s down-to-down whiffs in tackling made the team lust for the aggressive Waynes, who, it should be noted, won’t be missed much by Minnesota fans.
Another sure hitter, Vonn Bell, came over from the Saints to play safety, while Josh Bynes, a run-stopping linebacker with occasional flashes against the pass, was signed away from the Ravens. And of course the Bengals drafted three—count ’em, three!—linebackers to augment Bynes and lone holdover Germaine Pratt. Logan Wilson (Wyoming) and Akeem Davis-Gaither (Appalachian State), third and fourth round selections respectively, have long been connected with Cincinnati thanks to their position and productive Senior Bowl play while being coached by Zac Taylor and staff. The seventh-rounder, Markus Bailey of Purdue, is an enticing wild-card, a highly athletic and instinctive player who fell into the last round due to regular injury. With luck, Bailey could become another Vontaze Burfict, a talented linebacker who falls to the Bengals (hopefully without the suspensions). Taking three LBs at least increases the odds that one sticks.
Let’s face it: When we look back on this offseason nothing will matter except Joey B. If he’s great or even good, everything will rise around him. If he can’t overcome the Bengals stink, there is no hope for the others—and maybe for us all.
Stay safe everyone, and in every action you take over the next few months think about what it will mean for the NFL starting on time, so we can watch Joe Burrow, the Tiger King, at last.
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.