This article is part of our Team Previews series.
It's the beginning of a new era in Cincinnati, with the franchise finally moving on from long-time coach Marvin Lewis to Zac Taylor, formerly the Rams quarterback coach. But how different will things really be, with the same ownership group, front office and miserly approach to free agents?
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
Marvin Lewis made it through 16 years as the Bengals head coach despite never winning a playoff game. That fact in and of itself is revealing. Even accounting for his 131-122-3 regular season record, would any other franchise have stayed with Lewis half that time without a playoff win? Maybe we should factor in the organization's sordid record prior to Lewis's hiring and allow for a couple of extra years of patience, but 16 years? It demonstrates the Bengals' complacency in mediocrity. Now that the long-awaited change of head coaches has occurred and Zac Taylor has been installed, all is well and we should expect improvement, right? Aside from this being a simplistic notion in the first place, the real problem is that the structural impediments that have always held the Bengals back – ownership, front office, the sheer lack of scouts relative to other organizations – still remain. As a case in point, witness the Bengals' activity, or lack thereof, in the free agent market this offseason. Among the notable players from outside the organization the team signed are guard John Miller, cornerback B.W. Webb and defensive end Kerry Wynn. While all three add useful depth at their positions, none of them profile as high-impact players for Cincinnati.
I'M A ROCKET … MAN
The Red Rocket, Andy Dalton, is back for another season with the Bengals, and they have no concrete succession plan in place. His current backup is Jeff Driskel, who filled in when a thumb injury in a Week 12 loss to the Browns ended Dalton's season. The team drafted Ryan Finley from NC State in the fourth round of this year's draft, but he's a 24-year old rookie with average arm strength who projects only to be a backup. Dalton has two more years on his latest contract, a six-year, $96 million deal that he inked prior to the 2014 season. What are the Bengals getting with Dalton? Prior to the injury, Dalton averaged a mediocre 7.0 YPA over 365 attempts, netting 2,566 yards to go along with 21 TDs and 11 picks. The final three games were without top receiver A.J. Green, during which Dalton averaged a mere 6.4 yards per attempt. But even prior to Green's absence, Dalton once again came up small in pivotal losses in big games, notably in back-to-back weeks against the Steelers and Chiefs. It's possible that Zac Taylor's arrival will spark an improvement in Dalton's performance, as not all "11" personnel groupings are created equal. But even though Taylor's Rams used the 11 more than anyone else (87 percent), the Bengals were third in doing so at 77 percent of the time. It's not as if this new offense projects to be a radical new look.
ROSS FOR LESS
One way this offense could improve is in the deployment of its key personnel. Bengals fans have grown restless with the development of 2017 first-rounder John Ross. Between injuries and Marvin Lewis' whims, Ross played in only three games during his rookie season, getting only two targets. Last season was a little better yet still disappointing – in 13 games, he caught just 21 passes for 210 yards, albeit with seven touchdowns. He was great in the red zone, scoring six of the seven TDs from inside 10 yards, but he struggled elsewhere, with six drops on 58 total targets. Trade rumors surrounded Ross at the start of the offseason, but the Bengals shot those down pretty quickly after Zac Taylor was hired. A.J. Green underwent surgery on his toe injury in December. The recovery timetable for such a procedure is typically 3-to-4 months, and while he was available for the start of training camp, he picked up an ankle sprain in the very first practice and may now miss some of the preseason. Beyond Green, Tyler Boyd serves as a reminder why the team needs to be patient with Ross, after Boyd broke out in his third season following two disappointing years. Before missing the last two weeks with a sprained knee, Boyd eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark, averaging 9.5 yards per target in the process.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Joe Mixon
Lost in the wreckage of the 2018 season was Mixon's emergence as a workhorse back. He averaged 4.9 yards on 237 carries, good for 1,168 yards and eight TDs, adding 43 catches for 296 yards. This season, Mixon could benefit more from new coach Zac Taylor's progressive offensive schemes, though his personnel groups won't differ much.
RISING: Joe Mixon
Though we're skeptical that Zac Taylor will cure the Bengals' ills, if anyone will benefit, it's Mixon. If C.J. Anderson can thrive with the Rams, Mixon should be able wreak havoc if Taylor can implement a similar offense.
FALLING: Giovani Bernard
The narrative that Bernard would steal passing-down snaps from top back Joe Mixon proved demonstrably false. Bernard missed four games and saw diminishing returns when available, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry.
SLEEPER: Rodney Anderson
Anderson has a higher ceiling than fellow 2019 sixth-round running back, Trayveon Williams. Anderson carries the higher risk, however, due to the torn ACL the 6-0, 224-pounder suffered last September.
KEY JOB BATTLE – STARTING TIGHT END
After injuries to the TE Tylers on the Bengals (Eifert and Kroft) last year, C.J. Uzomah emerged to catch 43 passes for 439 yards and three touchdowns. That output exceeded his production in all three categories from his first three years in the league combined. The Bengals rewarded Uzomah with a three-year, $18.3 million deal this offseason, but they also retained Eifert (albeit on a one-year deal) and drafted Drew Sample in the second round. Uzomah is the leading candidate to start for the Bengals, but he could easily fall down the depth chart should Eifert prove to be fully healthy or Sample picks up the offense quicker than anticipated.
DREW SAMPLE – TE (Rd. 2, No. 52 – Washington)
Tyler Eifert is signed for just one year and is historically fragile.
JOHN MILLER – G (from Bills)
In the mix to start at right guard.
TRAYVEON WILLIAMS – RB (Rd. 6, No. 182 – Texas A&M)
Competing for depth back role and special teams work.
RODNEY ANDERSON – RB (Rd. 6, No. 211 – Oklahoma)
Fell in the draft due to injury; payoff probably won't occur right away.
VONTAZE BURFICT – LB (to Raiders)
Burfict landing with the Raiders is just ... perfect.
TYLER KROFT – TE (to Bills)
His three-year, $18.75 million deal was a head-scratcher early on.
CEDRIC OGBUEHI – T (to Jaguars)
The Bengals "took the L" on their 2015 first-round pick.
THE INJURY FRONT
A.J. Green, WR – Green missed all but 17 snaps after Week 8 of last season due to a toe injury that wouldn't heal and ultimately required surgery in December. He participated in individual drills with the quarterbacks and wide receivers at the Bengals' mandatory minicamp in June, sitting out the team-wide drills. While Green was expected to be a full-go for the start of training camp, he immediately kicked it off by getting rolled up on by a teammate and spraining his ankle. The severity of the injury is unknown, but Green doesn't have a great recent track record with his health, missing big chunks of two of the last three seasons.
Andy Dalton, QB – Dalton's season ended in late November due to a torn ligament in his right thumb. He resumed throwing in February and was a full participant in OTAs, as well as mandatory minicamp in June. Look for him to get more reps in the preseason than most starting quarterbacks to ensure that he and the offense are on the same page with regard to new coach Zac Taylor's offensive scheme.
Tyler Eifert, TE – Eifert's season ended Week 4 when he suffered a gruesome ankle injury against the Falcons. He signed an incentive-heavy, one-year deal with the Bengals this offseason, and the team has taken a cautious approach since he put pen to paper. After being a full participant in the offseason program and OTAs, Eifert sat out full-team practices during minicamp, which suggests that he might not be 100 percent at the start of training camp. However, he managed to work during team drills on Day 1.