How the Bengals Improved Around the Edges

After two franchise-altering drafts, Cincinnati added a couple of difference-makers during this offseason and look poised for a huge 2022 season.
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For the first time since the Super Bowl, the Cincinnati Bengals took the field a couple of weeks ago as the 2022 preseason got underway with a game against the Arizona Cardinals. I wasn’t ready for it.

The team wasn’t particularly ready either, as the backups and camp bodies were beaten by the Cards. But that doesn’t matter much, of course. Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and the other stars didn’t even dress for the game. That was for the best, because all these months later, I’m not over what happened the last time those guys were on the field in Los Angeles for Super Bowl LVI.

I’m not sure I’m ready just yet to see real football again. Once the action starts, my neuroses will no doubt be annexed to a remote corner of my brain. Coming so close and failing to win it all, though, will always be a splinter in my skull that will keep waking me up in the middle of the night decades hence.

Fortunately, we have new developments and players to discuss to take our mind off the Super Bowl. Due to the unusual length of last season and the postseason run, this offseason seemed to zip by, which was nice. Before we could even register the big loss it was time for the Senior Bowl, then the combine, and then the draft.

This year’s stocking of the roster didn’t have the outsized interest of the last two, when the Bengals selected their franchise savior and his ultimate weapon, among other details. But given how the team is suddenly in (presumed) championship contention for the foreseeable future, the 2022 draft was fascinating, given the fact that they picked so low for once. How would the team augment its roster?

As we know, the Bengals rolled with the idea that the league has tilted so far toward offense, in particular passing offense, that in order to compete a team has to be able to stop the other team’s receivers. So they drafted a trio of defensive backs (Dax Hill, Cameron Taylor-Britt, Tycen Anderson), all of whom fit what the modern NFL demands from DBs: They can run, hit, and play multiple positions. This was a fascinating, forward-looking approach, one that should pay dividends down the line.

After training camp and a pair of preseason outings, Hill looks to be an instant fit. He’s shown his elite play speed and decision-making ability consistently throughout the summer. He’s also moved all over the place, playing in the box on one snap, in slot coverage the next, and in deep centerfield the third without any noticeable lack of quality. If that versatility and solid play keeps up when the real games begin, the Bengals will have hit a home run at pick 31. (Taylor-Britt has been injured and Anderson was a fifth-round pick, with all that implies, so there isn’t much to go on yet with those two.)

Hill’s emergence, of course, is happening in the shadow of Jessie Bates’ contract negotiations. Unless something unexpected happens, this will be Bates’ final season in Cincinnati, since he’s set to be a free agent next spring. He will play in 2022 under the franchise tag, and he wisely spent the summer away from the team, at last reporting earlier this week. Hill’s presence allows the Bengals to both move on from Bates and use them in combo for at least this year. Personally, I would pay Bates the going rate he desires. He’s the exemplar of what you want: a drafted player who’s at the top of the league at his position and plays his best in big games. The idea that paying Bates will markedly effect Cincinnati’s ability to re-sign Burrow, Chase, et al down the line is overrated. But that die appears cast.

Meanwhile, it’s unusual for an interior lineman drafted in the middle rounds to garner so much attention, but that’s been the case with fourth-round pick Cordell Volson out of the football factory that is North Dakota State. (That isn’t sarcasm; the Bison have won an incredible nine FCS titles in the last 11 years.) Volson was expected to give Jackson Carman, last year’s second-round draft pick/disappointment, a bit of a push at guard, but as of this writing he’s played well enough (and Carman poorly enough) to win the job as a rookie.

Ideally, the Bengals would prefer to ease Volson in, using him as a depth piece until he has some real action under his belt. But with the line remodeled so thoroughly during free agency—center Ted Karras, right guard Alex Cappa, and right tackle La’el Collins are the new pieces—the team can’t afford to have a weak link undo an otherwise strong chain. If the other four guys (including left tackle Jonah Williams) hold up their end, Volson needs to just be decent, which Carman decidedly was not in that opening preseason game against Arizona. (Carman then contracted COVID, setting him back even more.) The most likely scenario is that both guys play and both have their moments and setbacks.

The other camp position of interest is, of all things, punter—a healthy sign that the rest of the squad is basically set. Kevin Huber is the local legend, the McNicholas High and UC alum who’s been a solid punter (if hardly Ray Guy) for 13 seasons. He went from popular to beloved during the postseason run, visiting local sports bars after playoff games to meet and greet the grateful public. That was ironic, given that he kicked his worst during the playoffs.

Drue Chrisman is the new guy, a second-year player who spent last year stashed on the practice squad. He has local bona fides, too, having attended La Salle High and Ohio State University. Reports from camp have given the youngster the slight edge; merely by dint of salary and the constant churn of the league, it seems probable that Huber has booted his last punt in stripes.

Meanwhile, there is no competition for Burrow, save internally. Literally, in this case, as Joey B. missed the first weeks of camp with appendicitis. It was worse than was let on at first—the organ ruptured, and Burrow appeared drawn and thin upon returning. But given his last two offseasons, which were dominated by COVID and ACL surgery rehab, this is a nothingburger.

It’s unfortunate that Burrow has already withstood so much that yet another surgery receives yawns, but he has certainly proven that his toughness is out of this world. The key to a successful 2022 is ensuring he isn’t required to prove his toughness any more.

What a time to be a Bengals fan, am I right? I’ll be back in a couple of weeks in these digital magazine pages with a full 2022 season preview.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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