Yes, the Bengals stunk once again in 2020. So how do they prevent a repeat performance in 2021? Obviously, the most important element is the health of Joe Burrow’s knee. His recent media appearances have been encouraging, including telling radio personality Colin Cowherd that he’ll be fine come September. Obviously there’s a long way for him to go, but it’s OK to be optimistic on that front.
The recent hiring of old pal Frank Pollack to return as offensive line coach, where he did a solid job in his single year in that position back in 2018, also brought a smile to the collective fan base. It might not erase the fact that perhaps Pollack never should have been let go in the first place. Better late than never, anyway. He’s an intense, commanding figure who doesn’t stoop to the bullying tactics that defined Jim Turner’s dreadful tenure running the O-line. Certainly the players familiar with him sound excited to have Pollack back.
It doesn’t take a line coach of Pollack’s ilk to know that this is the Bengals’ main area of concern going forward. We’ve talked about it seemingly since the day Andrew Whitworth was allowed to blow town. The question of the offseason is what personnel stays, who is brought in, and how that happens. Naturally, it would behoove the Bengals to address the line prior to the draft, and in a more serious fashion than the likes of Xavier Su’a Filo.
Taylor Moten of the Panthers is an easy target. He is this year’s Jack Conklin, whom the Browns signed for three years and $42 million and were rewarded with an All-Pro season. That would be an easy fix at a position of dire need.
Could they also sign a top-money guard? Joe Thuney of New England is the best guard available, and he doesn’t miss games; he’s started 80 straight. But he’s also likely to command $14 million a year, which probably means the Bengals won’t sign him if they zero in on Moten.
If Moten goes elsewhere, surely Thuney becomes top priority. You could argue that he should be anyway, especially given the shoddy play at the position this season. Brandon Scherff of Washington is also a very good right guard—his negative is a checkered injury history, which, given how most Bengals free agent signings go down almost immediately, might be best to avoid. And with Trey Hopkins injured, the team needs to at least consider a center. The likes of Corey Linsley of Green Bay will be too rich and would be expected to start, though you could possibly move Hopkins to guard if and when he returns to full speed.
Defensively, by far the biggest need is edge rusher, with cornerback second. Unfortunately, the two best who might be available are already in stripes: Carl Lawson and William Jackson. This position doesn’t have a ton of draft options, either, especially near the top of the first round, where the Bengals reside. Re-signing them is surely the best play, which of course fits the franchise’s preferred mode of operation anyway. The only question is whether either or both price themselves out of Cincinnati’s range or, if the Bengals pony up for them, what that leaves for other free agents.
If one or both do depart, it would create a hole that could be at least partially filled by the likes of Romeo Okwara, an intriguing option as a 26-year-old coming off a 10-sack, 22-QB hit season. Other free agent pass rushers have question marks, either injury (Melvin Ingram), scheme fit (Jadaveon Clowney), or age (Justin Houston and Everson Griffin). Still, there are opportunities for some low-risk bargains if the Bengals choose to go that route.
Then there is the draft. After Monday night’s incredible first half in the national championship game, Davonta Smith has thrust himself into top five consideration along with Ja’Marr Chase of LSU, Burrow’s former target who sat out the college season and is just 20. Smallish wideouts like Smith and Chase who are tabbed in the top 10 have a dubious draft history, which is where A.J. Green and Julio Jones part company with the likes of Smith and Chase as slam-dunk prospects. I’m not throwing water on the idea of either becoming elite NFL players, and Cincinnati does need speed with the last highly drafted small and speedy wideout, John Ross, due to leave town along with A.J.
Meanwhile, while Smith/Chase and fellow Bama receiver Jaylen Waddle are certainly explosive, wide receiver is the “It” position in the prep and college ranks. There are multitudes of them at all levels of competition. For example, here are the 2020 All-Pro wide receivers, with draft round: Davante Adams (second), Tyreek Hill (fifth), Stefon Diggs (fifth), DeAndre Hopkins (late first), Cole Beasley (undrafted), Calvin Ridley (late first), Justin Jefferson (late first), and DK Metcalf (second).
As we know, the Bengals have a long history of grabbing sensational wideouts in the second round, from Chad Johnson to Cris Collinsworth to current receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. There are plenty of wides beyond the Chase/Smith/Waddle grouping who would be around on Day 2 of the draft, like a Kadarius Toney from Florida, to cite just one example.
I’m more than aware that building a great offense is the key to winning in the modern NFL. I’m also aware that Cincinnati has the most important component already in a franchise quarterback, and that keeping him safe and sound will allow Burrow to make any wide receiver effective. Sure, it sounds nice to have three elite receivers going out for passes, but what good is having Smith or Chase if Burrow can’t throw because he’s under immediate pressure all the time?
Cincinnati has historically been, with rare exceptions, a finesse team more worried about being fancy on the perimeter than being tough in the trenches. It would be nice to take a bit of load off of Burrow by reframing the roster as a team built around power, the way the rest of the division has done.
Much of the Bengals’ draft calculation will depend on what the teams do in front of them, of course. Assuming two QBs go in the top four, that leaves the two wideouts and the man/monster we all covet, Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, as the most likely selections for the other three teams. It would be great for the Bengals if a third QB presents as elite enough to go that high, which would make Sewell more likely to fall to five, or facilitate a trade down, which remains the best option for the Bengals as they need talent in multiple areas.
There are plenty of other good tackles who would be worth looking at in the No. 5 slot, and even more so if the team can manage to trade down; Rashawn Slater of Northwestern and Christian Darrisaw of Virginia Tech are just two. A curveball, Florida’s tight end/mismatch nightmare Kyle Pitts, is also an option, especially if the Bengals can move down a few spots.
So here’s a small wish list for the spring in order to restock the roster. Free agent signings: EDGE Carl Lawson (re-sign), OG Joe Thuney, CB Chidobe Awuzie, WR Josh Reynolds, and EDGE Justin Houston. Draft choices (assuming no trade, which is more likely): OT Penei Sewell (Oregon), WR Kaderious Toney (Florida), and DE Rashad Weaver (Pitt).
These moves would still leave some roster holes, of course, and require a major improvement to compete with the ferocious AFC North. But it would put the Bengals in a strong position to make a Browns-level leap in 2021 or, more likely, 2022. All depending on the healing powers of Joe Burrow, of course.
Enjoy the Bengals’ offseason and the rest of the NFL playoffs. Let’s reconnect around draft time!
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 four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.