With the debacle of the 2019 Cincinnati Bengals season behind us at last, we now get to the (potentially) fun part: the roster overhaul that (hopefully) springboards the Stripes back to the top of the AFC North from the depths of 2-14. The most important upgrade, naturally, will come at quarterback now that Andy Dalton has seemingly played his final Bengals game. The team’s most glaring need happens to coincide with the rare opportunity of being able to draft a difference-making quarterback, and for once the Bengals are actually inclined to do just that.
Obviously there is seemingly little drama with the first overall pick. At this point, if Cincinnati doesn’t select Joe Burrow of LSU and Athens, Ohio, with that first choice, there will be uproar. Burrow’s emergence as the clear top prospect in the draft and best quarterback available has been a godsend for the Bengals, especially given Tua Tagovailoa’s injury. Imagine a scenario where Burrow is only a Justin Herbert-level prospect and the team is forced to make a franchise-altering decision on him. Tua’s damaged hip also cleanly removes him from the equation; even if you believe he’ll rebound just fine and become the Steve Young-esque player he might just be, the Bengals haven’t gotten a full season from a top draft pick since Tyler Eifert in 2013. There is zero chance they’ll risk this No. 1 overall pick on a medical maybe.
Instead, we’ve all essentially considered Burrow to be “one of ours” since the day he shredded Alabama back in November. I know when I attended LSU’s semifinal win over Oklahoma, I was as happy about his play as I’ve ever been watching a college kid who didn’t play for my alma mater (Syracuse); with the game well in hand, I was screaming at the LSU coaching staff to sit down my precious baby already.
I’m of two minds concerning the national championship game coming Monday against Clemson. Since it appears Burrow absolutely has to play—and wouldn’t it be a kick to the status quo if he decided to sit out—part of me wants a repeat of the Oklahoma game: unbridled success and an early exit. But another part of me would like to see Burrow feel some pressure from the outstanding Clemson defense and have to fight his way through to a hard-earned victory. Yes, in that scenario every negative moment will get picked over and analyzed to death by draft Twitter, but to me seeing Burrow try to find a path after Plan A and Plan B have been taken away is exciting as realistic preparation for the difficulties of being expected to resuscitate a moribund franchise like Cincinnati.
Given the excitement surrounding the Burrow choice, it’s easy to overlook that the Bengals will have the first pick in each succeeding round as well. Pick 2/33 looms as a crucial one. Will the Bengals opt for more help on the offensive line, especially on the interior? This draft is rich in play-making wideouts, and a hedge against losing A.J. Green and/or John Ross in the near future would be a good option. Of course the defense is desperate for playmakers, too, and several could slip to the top pick in the second round. With the first choice salted away, the team can spend the next couple of months gaming out scenarios for that choice as well as those at the top of the third and fourth rounds. All are selections the Bengals need to hit on, given their recent history of draft flailing.
We’ve all wondered if the new regime meant the team would actually join the modern NFL at long last and spend money on outside free agents—ones who aren’t Buffalo castoffs, that is. Last season the answer was a resounding “no,” but in fairness Zac Taylor came on board late, his staff even later, and there was a sense the team felt a new voice in the locker room would be sufficient.
We know that wasn’t the case, to put it mildly. Will the Bengals actually open up the checkbook this time around for some veterans who might make a difference? Think of how a player like Kwon Alexander or Shaq Barrett improved their new teams—and that’s just a couple of affordable linebackers. No one expects Mike Brown to turn into a high roller, but the Packers changed their ways after running up against the limits of never playing in free agency, and it got them a No. 2 seed in 2019. Certainly one hopes the Bengals will at least be in on guys like Joe Thuney and Cory Littleton who might potentially help them in 2020. The team can’t overhaul the roster merely by adding seven rookies. Free agency is the only way to truly foster a new image and perhaps build on the excitement Burrow will bring to town.
In terms of coaches, the team already took care of the thing I was most worried about. Darrin Simmons had another superb season heading up special teams—indeed, the Bengals actually led the NFL in that phase of the game, according to DVOA. I was a bit worried that Simmons might get poached, possibly even by Bill Belichick, who loves to snag him some Bengals and needs to replace his special teams coordinator after Joe Judge got the Giants’ head job. But Cincinnati stepped up and re-signed Simmons, a key sign they’re not going to let the little things slip.
On the subject of big things, might the team swing for the fences when it comes to a new defensive coordinator? The Rams’ connection could allow Taylor to bring in the recently fired Wade Philips to run the defense. That’s unlikely, since Lou Anarumo improved as the season progressed, but it’s a possibility.
When Taylor was first hired, it was rumored that his college coach, Bill Callahan, would join his staff. That didn’t happen, though Callahan’s son Brian did, as offensive coordinator. Bill, of course, stayed in D.C., where he took over after our old pal Jay Gruden was fired and finished the season as interim head coach. Callahan had the Skins playing hard, and now that he’s free it would be great if he came to help out in Cincinnati, whether with his specialty, the O-line, or merely as a sage voice in Taylor’s ear. It doesn’t have to be anything official, per se, but merely having Callahan around can only help the team.
Especially along the offensive line, which must be remade after the limited success shown in the second half of the year. Presumably, there are a pair of building blocks already here: Jonah Williams, now healthy at last, will be the left tackle, and newly signed Trey Hopkins mans the center spot. The other three positions are up for grabs, with Fred Johnson impressing in a small tryout at season’s end; Bobby Hart, John Miller, and Michael Jordan being passable bodies in the right scheme; and Billy Price still looking for a role that suits him. One has to assume there will be at least another day two draft pick and hopefully a free agent added to that mix.
Getting the front five right is crucial, because the team should have a good mix on offense (whoa, play on words!). Joe Mixon is a strong likelihood for a holdout, but then again the Bengals may not play hardball if they feel they can overspend some with an incoming quarterback on a rookie deal. That calculation may well affect A.J. Green’s status too; the front office could decide that splashing cash on a wideout who’s missed the last 24 games and is on the wrong side of 30 is worth it given what he could provide for said rookie signal-caller. Tyler Boyd, C.J. Uzomah, Auden Tate, and Gio Bernard are quality pieces to put around the stars, and even John Ross may at last develop if Burrow is the one to throw him passes.
Defensively, we saw what the pass rush is like when Carl Lawson is healthy and Carlos Dunlap engaged. With those two and Sam Hubbard on the field, plus even a lesser but still frosty Geno Atkins, the Bengals’ front is high quality. Adding another pass rusher in the draft couldn’t hurt; if a player the likes of Yetur Gross-Matos of Penn State falls to No. 33, the team would have to grab him.
It is, of course, the back seven that needs to step up. Rookie Germaine Pratt flashed at year’s end, and Nick Vigil improved on a disastrous first half of the season to perhaps save his bacon and return for 2020. Clearly, however, LB reinforcements are required.
So too in the secondary, where William Jackson’s inability to develop into the shutdown corner he seems like he could be is maddening. Dre Kirkpatrick played well before getting hurt but seems like a potential cap casualty. Darqueze Dennard and the two safeties, Shaun Williams and Jessie Bates, were tough but need to make more game-changing plays collectively. That’s why Darius Phillips should play more; he led the team with four picks while playing just 109 defensive snaps, or about one-eighth of what B.W. Webb played. The Bengals also added an intriguing corner in former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Winston Rose, who led the CFL in interceptions this year. He’s not big (6-0, 186) but has excellent ball skills, which the team desperately needs after littering the field with dropped picks all season.
The most intriguing element of the offseason to me will be seeing the impact Burrow’s selection has on the pervasive cynicism that surrounds the Bengals fanbase. Attendance is down and pessimism is high—justifiably—and few believe the brain trust has what it takes to turn this team into an assemblage that can at long last win a playoff game. It takes a special player to overcome that sort of institutional lockjaw. Is Joe Burrow that guy? He checks every box, but of course we have to wait to see how it plays out on the field.
Will the fans get excited at the prospect, or tell Burrow to prove it first? Hey, he seems to do well when doubted and when a large chip is placed on his shoulder, so whatever it takes.
Thanks for reading my columns during this trying campaign, and we will meet again around draft time when the 2020 Bengals begin to truly take shape. Enjoy the offseason! Remember: At least the Bengals can’t lose if they don’t actually take the field.
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.