When last we met, just a few short months ago, the Bengals had completed their third straight losing season, and change was in the air. As we all know, Marvin Lewis is gone from the sideline at last, replaced by Zac Taylor, the young and unproven (if clearly intelligent and well-regarded) quarterbacks coach from the Rams, whose main qualification, as the jokes have it, was that he worked alongside Sean McVay in Los Angeles. Last seen searching fruitlessly for anything that might move the ball against New England in the Super Bowl, Taylor brings energy, enthusiasm, and a tight Band O’ Brothers culture to Cincinnati.
But will he bring more wins? Since the coaching change didn’t trigger a subsequent move at quarterback, there can only be so much difference—the ceiling with Andy Dalton, after all, is what it is, and no new offensive guru is likely to change that. This is why so many fans were hoping the team would pick Dwayne Haskins (or another quarterback) in this past weekend’s draft. But that was never in the cards; the combination of Taylor’s professed belief in Dalton, a lack of love for Haskins, and better prospects coming in the next couple of drafts meant that 2019 was always going to be on Andy D. The Bengals did select Ryan Finley in the fourth round of this weekend’s draft, a player with some upside, but the sort of prospect you take when you don’t seriously want to threaten the starter.
The hiring of a new coach didn’t mean a change in free agency philosophy—Cincinnati still stayed mostly out of the market, save for a couple of cheap mediocrities. That meant the draft was crucial, and for the most part the team did well, especially with the first pick of the Taylor Era, Alabama offensive lineman Jonah Williams.
Williams would have been a great pick regardless of coach or scheme. He’s a technician with great agility and power beyond his size, a multi-position threat offering versatility and the ability to plug in anywhere and start with no drop off. Perhaps most importantly, he profiles as a future team leader and a replacement for the departed Andrew Whitworth, who is missed in so many ways, not least in the locker room. Like Big Whit (or Willie Anderson before him), Williams is the kind of player you can build a team around.
Drafting Williams does make the re-signing of right tackle/whipping boy Bobby Hart that much more questionable, though I can’t really blame the team for that. Getting Williams was hardly guaranteed, the knock-on effect of the Giants drafting Daniel Jones. Hart as reserve swing tackle, even at that price ($5.5 million guaranteed), is less offensive than as starter.
The second pick gave away more about Taylor’s intentions. Washington’s Drew Sample is a highly effective “Y” tight end, a punishing blocker whose pass catching ability is, to be generous, untested. Naturally, selecting a seemingly one-dimensional in-line tight end in the second round, with a plethora of talent still on the board, raised hackles in BengalsLand. Sample may well turn out to be a solid pass catcher—he did well in limited targets in college—and an upgrade over the departed Tyler Kroft. But in order to justify such a high selection, Sample will have to become a crucial part of the Taylor offense. In other words, the Bengals hope to play smash mouth football in 2019, which Taylor confirmed in post-draft comments. Still, the run game wasn’t where Cincinnati struggled last year; they were a decent 14th in rushing DVOA and eighth in yards per carry.
One has to assume the Bengals will implement much of what made the Rams successful while Taylor was QB coach under McVay, which was running “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) on the overwhelming majority of snaps. By being able to run effectively from this formation, thanks in large part to the stalwart offensive line led by Whitworth and, when healthy, the brilliance of Todd Gurley, the Rams’ play action game was potent. This made Jared Goff highly effective.
Of course, that sort of scheme requires a tight end who can get downfield when the defense steps up to stop the run. Sample will surely help establish the run, but in order for the offense to operate at its peak they can’t be giving the game away. We are all bent in prayer, hoping Tyler Eifert can at last stay healthy. If he can, that reduces Sample’s value, as opponents will know what play is coming merely by his presence on the field. And if Eifert goes down yet again, Sample will have to rapidly increase his pass-catching ability or defenses will stack the box when he’s in the game.
Now that the roster is for the most part complete and we know a bit more about how the Bengals figure to play in 2019, Zac Taylor and staff will be looking to implement their concepts with players who are used to a different style.
Of course, for most of last season and certainly in the pre-draft process, the Bengals’ weakness at linebacker took center stage. Alas, both Devin White and Devin Bush were snagged before Cincinnati drafted—and it’s a fait accompli that new Steeler Bush will haunt us for years. The Bengals’ third-round pick, Germaine Pratt from North Carolina State, has a tremendous amount of promise and will possibly start and play in the nickel defense. Unlike the Devins, however, he doesn’t figure to transform the unit. Cincinnati didn’t select a pass rusher either, which means the front seven will have to stay healthy and have several players improve in order to even maintain their low level of expectations. I mean, they can’t possibly be worse, right?
How will Pratt and the other Bengals defenders be utilized? For the first time in forever, the scheme figures to look different than Marvin Lewis’ preferred 4-3, two-deep zone-heavy look. After about 6,000 rumored candidates for defensive coordinator, Taylor at last hired Lou Anarumo, the Giants’ defensive backs coach. His secondary background is extensive, but not much is known about how the defense will be aligned. Regardless of how they line up, Anarumo had best coach up the ’backers to cover better than they did in years past, or Cincinnati will be looking for a new DC.
Now that the roster is for the most part complete and we know a bit more about how the Bengals figure to play in 2019, the OTAs and training camp become a more crucial time than in years past. Taylor and staff will be looking to implement their concepts with players who are used to a different style. How they’re able to get the team rowing in the same direction will go a long way toward whether we see noticeable improvement on the field. Last year was rough, but the team was racked by a blizzard of injuries. Looking at the two-deep roster, the names look like a team capable of competing for the AFC North crown.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they will. Many fans would be just fine with a dead-end season that results in one of next year’s top quarterback prospects (Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, etc.) wearing stripes. But that would also probably mean our spanking new coach didn’t work out so well. Is that really what we want?
The good news is, we don’t have to decide until fall.
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.