Cincinnati Bengals: 2015 Outlook

 
 
 
 
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Cincinnati Bengals

By Shawn Childs, Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Bengals have made it to the postseason in each of the past four years and have averaged 10 wins per year with Andy Dalton as their starting quarterback, but they are 0-6 in the playoffs in 12 seasons under head coach Marvin Lewis. In a way, they really overachieved last year as they were only league average in points scored (365) and total offense (348 yards per game). The same could be said of their success on defense (12th in points allowed and 22nd in yards allowed per game). From 2011-13, the Bengals had a top-eight defense.

Cincinnati has made it to the playoffs 13 times in the team's 47-year history and has yet to win a Super Bowl. As Lewis enters his 13th year at the helm, Hue Jackson returns for his second season as the Bengals' offensive coordinator. The team's lack of success on offense last year was due in part to wide receiver A.J. Green missing action with multiple maladies. Paul Guenther will run the defense for a second year after spending the previous nine seasons as an assistant coach in Cincy. The key to the Bengals' success in 2015 will be a solid running game and an improved defense.

Free Agency

The Bengals lost starting cornerback Terence Newman to the Minnesota Vikings. Newman was only league average in pass coverage at age 36. They cut defensive end Robert Geathers and guard Mike Pollak. Geathers was a liability last year in pass protection while Pollak played pretty well as a backup.

Cincinnati added declining linebacker A.J. Hawk. The former first-round pick struggled in run support last year and picked up only one sack. It was his second straight down year. Defensive end Michael Johnson was brought back in to replace Geathers. Johnson is a year removed from being a solid asset on the Bengals' defensive line. He was very good against the run in 2013 and recorded 3.5 sacks, 56 tackles, 17 QB hits and 51 QB hurries. He had 11.5 sacks in 2012. But after getting big money from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last offseason, he didn't perform nearly as well against the run and recorded just four sacks and 27 tackles while being limited by an ankle injury. He should reacclimate well to this defensive system.

Free-agent tight end Jermaine Gresham is still looking for a place to play this season.

Draft

Cincinnati was aggressive in addressing the offensive line with its first two picks in this year's draft, selecting tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher. Ogbuehi suffered a torn ACL in Texas A&M's bowl game last year, which led to him falling a bit in the draft. He will have the most value as run blocker when he returns to full strength. Cedric has the flexibility to play multiple positions, but his lack of technique and weakness in pass protection will lead to him playing guard or right tackle. Fisher has solid speed and quickness for his position and is another quality run blocker. He needs to add more bulk and cut down on his penalties. He tends to grab oncoming pass rushers to make up for his relative lack of strength.

The Bengals continued to throw early picks at the tight end position. They selected Tyler Kroft in the third round. Tyler is a very good blocker who is quick off the line of scrimmage and has plenty of speed to make plays down the deep seam. His catching skills need work, however.

With their next three picks, the Bengals focused on improving their depth on defense in the form of linebacker Paul Dawson, cornerback Josh Shaw and defensive end Marcus Hardison. Although Dawson has some character concerns, he also has solid football instincts. He is very good in pass coverage and even better when he's moving forward. Paul needs to improve his tackling ability and tends to cheat on defense, which leads to him being vulnerable to mistakes.

Shaw showed strength at this year's combine (26 reps on the bench press), but he tends to play soft with poor tackling and some laziness. He has also shown poor technique while in pass coverage. This may lead to him playing free safety in the NFL. Josh flashes some speed, but it doesn't hold up when he is asked to cover deep.

Hardison has first-step quickness created by his anticipation. His mindset is built on attacking the QB, so he tends to give up ground when stalled by run blockers. Marcus needs to add more power to his game by getting stronger in his lower half.

The Bengals added another TE in the fifth round: C.J. Uzomah. He wasn't very productive in college because of Auburn's run-heavy offense, but he is an intriguing, athletic project. He definitely needs help as a blocker.

Safety Derron Smith was drafted in the sixth round. He is very good in pass coverage for his position, but he can fail when matched up against big, physical TEs. Last year, Derron tried to cover too much of the field last year to make up for Fresno State's shortage of talent. He has a feel for the ball and some playmaking ability.

With their last pick in the draft, the Bengals went for ultra-quick wide receiver Mario Alford. Mario is undersized at 5 feet 8 and 180 pounds but has excellent top-end speed and quickness, although it takes him a bit of time to accelerate. Alford could have value in the return game, but he needs to prove he can catch the ball while under extreme pressure.


Cincinnati Bengals OT Jake Fisher

Offensive Line

Cincinnati finished sixth in the NFL in rushing yards last year (2,147) and recorded the second-most rushing TDs (19) while averaging 4.4 yards per rush. This line allowed only 23 sacks in 503 pass attempts.

Right guard Kevin Zeitler missed three games last year with a calf injury and four games overall. Still, the 2012 first-rounder finished 2014 as Cincinnati's second-best lineman and had solid success as a run blocker while allowing only one sack.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is coming off an exceptional season in which he allowed no sacks and only one QB hit. He ranked second in the entire league at his position in run blocking.

Left guard Clint Boling showed growth over the second half of the year as a run blocker, but he did allow three sacks, 12 QB hits and 16 QB hurries.

Cincinnati's biggest weakness on the offensive line was fourth-round rookie center Russell Bodine, who struggled in both run and pass blocking while starting every game last season.

Right tackle Andre Smith, a 2009 first-round pick, missed the last five games of the 2014 season after tearing a triceps muscle. When on the field, he graded out as an above-average run and pass blocker.

Overall, the Bengals have a solid O-line and added two possible quality options through this year's draft.

Schedule: Offense

The above chart shows the Bengals' 2015 offensive strength of schedule in terms of rushing attempts (RATT), rushing yards (YDS), yards per attempt rushing (YA), rushing touchdowns (TDs), completions (COMP), passing attempts (PATT), passing yards (YDS), yards per attempt passing (YA) and passing touchdowns (TDS).

This information is based on 2014 stats, which we will work with as our starting point for 2015. We'll look at all the changes on offense for each team in the NFL plus the upgrades and downgrades each team has made on the defensive side. We'll update this table when we finish researching all 32 teams.

2014 Average: The league average of each stat from all 32 teams in 2014.

2014 Results: The results for each specific team in the NFL.

2015 Adjustment: The difference between a team's result and the league average in a certain statistic. This number will show if a team is above or below the league average in each stat and will serve as the basis for the strength of schedule.

In terms of rushing yards allowed, Bengals have the fourth-toughest schedule, with nine opponents being above league average against the run. To make matters worse, Cincy also has the toughest matchups in the league in terms of their opponents' passing yards allowed. Specifically, the Bengals have 10 games against tough pass defenses. Games against the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers rate as the only favorable matchups, but I expect the Ravens' pass defense to be much improved this fall with cornerback Jimmy Smith healthy and returning to their starting lineup.

OFFENSE

The Bengals completed only 48.8 percent of their passes to wide receivers last year. The usage of their running backs and tight ends in the passing game was nearly equal (25.9 and 25.0 percent, respectively).

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After setting career highs with 363 completions, 4,293 passing yards and 33 passing touchdowns in 2013, Dalton tied his career low of 3,398 yards and set a new low with just 19 TDs last season. However, his completion rate (64.2) had never been better. The Bengals know deep down that they are best when they limit Andy's exposure. Dalton had fewer than 30 attempts in nine games last year as the Bengals leaned on their running game. However, Dalton has thrown at least 16 interceptions in each of the past three seasons. Last year, he had three 300-yard passing games but only one game with more than two passing scores. In addition, his best target, A.J. Green, wasn't at full strength for a significant portion of the year, and the Bengals' secondary receiving options still haven't blossomed into viable threats in the passing game. When you see that tight end Jermaine Gresham had the second-most catches on the team while averaging a measly 7.4 yards per catch, you see the downside risk of Dalton as a fantasy option. With a slew of tough matchups on the slate, Andy should be nothing more than a backup fantasy QB in 2015 while producing league-average stats at best. Green gives him a big-play threat, but the volume necessary to post big numbers won't be there for Dalton.


Cincinnati Bengals QB Andy Dalton

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McCarron led Alabama to back-to-back national championships and appeared to be on his way to a third before losing to Auburn as a senior in 2013. He went 36-4 over his last three collegiate seasons with 8,630 passing yards, 74 TDs and 15 interceptions. He played on a team with great talent at every position. A.J. ran a pro-style offense and showed the ability to make pre-snap reads. He's accurate and makes quick decisions. He lacks speed (4.94 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL combine) and quickness (4.34 20-yard shuttle) but is willing to put his body at risk when asked to get a tough first down on the ground. His college stats don't look as attractive as the other top QBs in his draft class, which was a result of Alabama's plus run game and strong defense. He is a winning QB who makes minimal mistakes. McCarron should be a very good game manager in the NFL and has more upside than meets the eye. His biggest negatives are his arm strength and mobility. He didn't attempt a throw in 2014 as he spent most of the year on the non-football injury list due to a shoulder ailment.

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I have to admit I was real close to nailing Hill's final stat line in 2014. My preseason projection had him down for 250 carries, more than 1,200 yards and double-digit touchdowns. Hill developed into the Bengals' power back as a rookie and scored nine times. He really shined once Giovani Bernard was sidelined by hip and shoulder injuries in Week 8. Over the first seven games of the year, Hill took 50 carries for 195 yards and three TDs. Over his last nine games, he took 172 carries for 929 yards and six TDs. He posted five 100-yard rushing games during this time. Hill even caught 27 passes for 215 yards on 32 targets. Over the final five games of the year with Gio back in the lineup, Hill played 247 snaps compared to Bernard's 240. This season, Hill will be heavily involved from the outset. He will have the most value in games where the Bengals have the lead, but there is always the chance Cincinnati rides the hot hand in some weeks. Regardless, Hill has a very good chance of totaling 275-plus touches, which puts him in line for about 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns.


Cincinnati Bengals RB Jeremy Hill

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The Bengals really struggled to run the ball early in the year with Bernard carrying the load. Over his first three games, Gio had 55 carries, 185 yards and three TDs, but he gained only 3.4 yards per carry. In six of his first eight games and in eight of his 13 total games last year, Bernard averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry. For the season, Giovani averaged 4.0 yards per carry while Hill averaged 5.1. Gio is a fine pass catcher who racked up more than 140 receiving yards through the season's first two games. He has run for fewer than 700 yards in each of his first two seasons while averaging 4.1 yards per tote. His lack of success as a runner may lead to him losing touches and becoming more of a change-of-pace back with high upside in the passing game. His bar should be set at 200-225 touches for a maximum of 1,100 yards. He has 70-catch upside with a handful of TDs.


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Green was a real frustrating ride in 2014. He crushed it in Week 1 when he caught six of his nine targets for 131 yards and a TD. A turf toe injury led to him playing just a few snaps in Week 2. He appeared to be healthy in Week 3 when he amassed 102 yards on six catches. Then, despite a solid 5-81-1 line in Week 4, A.J. aggravated his toe injury and missed the next three games. He returned largely as a decoy in Weeks 9 and 10, catching six passes for a total of 67 yards. Green then turned back into the player we know he can be for the next four games (33 catches for 529 yards and three TDs on 47 targets). That stretch included two 100-yard games and one 200-yard performance. A biceps injury knocked him out of Week 16 after four targets and no catches, and he suffered a concussion in Week 17. Green still finished with his fourth straight 1,000-yard season in 13 games. Green has 35 TDs in 60 career starts. His resume makes it pretty clear that A.J. is an elite No. 1 WR who can catch 100-plus passes in any year for 1,500 yards and double-digit touchdowns.


Cincinnati Bengals WR A.J. Green

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Jones had a surprising season for Cincinnati in 2013 as he gave the Bengals big-play ability on the opposite side of Green. Marvin had seven or more targets in six of his last eight games that season, but he played an average of only 42 snaps per contest out of a possible 76. His fantasy value was largely delivered by his scoring ability (10 TDs). He scored seven of those touchdowns at home. His best game of the year came in Week 8 against the Jets when he caught eight passes for 122 yards and four scores. Amazingly, he did all of his damage that day while only being on the field for only 18 plays. Jones was unable to improve upon his 2013 numbers last season thanks to an ankle injury which ended up being a broken bone in his foot and costing him the entire season. He is expected to be the Bengals' No. 3 WR this year and will hopefully provide a deep threat while playing behind Green and Sanu. At best, Jones is a short-term injury cover or bye-week replacement in fantasy.

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Sanu showed nice growth in 2014 while playing his best ball with Green on the sidelines. In Weeks 2, 6, 7 and 8, Mohamed had 21 catches for 424 yards and three TDs on 36 targets. His success had fantasy owners believing he would retain value once A.J. returned to the starting lineup. But over his last eight games, Sanu was worthless to the Bengals and fantasy owners as he caught just 17 passes for 162 yards and one score on 32 targets. His catch rate was only 57.1 percent. Overall, Sanu flashed upside but lacked consistency. The Bengals just didn't throw the ball enough for him to be involved every week, and defensive coordinators found a way to take out of the game plan. It's tough to believe he'll have more upside in 2015 with Marvin Jones expected to be a significant contributor.

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After showing upside in his first two seasons with the Oakland Raiders (84 catches for 1,359 yards and 12 TDs on 190 targets in 28 games), Moore fell out of favor with their coaching staff. This led to him totaling just 12 catches on 27 targets for 115 yards last year. Denarius didn't catch a pass after Week 10, was a healthy scratch in some games and saw his season end because of knee and ankle injuries suffered when he fell down some stairs in December. Moore has big-play ability, and the change of scenery should do him some good. Yet he needs to jump a few players on the depth chart to have any fantasy value.

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As a rookie in 2013, Eifert failed to make much of an impact. He had more than five targets in only two games. He struggled as a blocker, had a far lesser snap count than Jermaine Gresham and dropped five passes. Overall, he gained 445 yards on 39 catches and scored twice. His 2014 season lasted only one game due to a dislocated right elbow that required surgery. He then underwent shoulder surgery in December. All signs point to him being ready for training camp this summer. Eifert was expected to be the Bengals' tight end of the future when he was drafted in the first round of 2013, but he has a lot to prove now that more TE talent has been added to the roster. Dalton completed 80 passes to his tight ends in 2014 for 612 yards and six TDs, so Eifert could become a top-10 fantasy tight end if he emerges as the team's main receiving option there. His value for 2015 will be determined by how he fares in training camp


Cincinnati Bengals TE Tyler Eifert

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In his 35 games at Rutgers, Tyler caught 70 passes for 901 yards and five touchdowns. He'll offer solid blocking skills and a possible target in the deep passing game. His resume is short and his upside is limited. Kroft has no real fantasy value this year.

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The Bengals re-signed Nugent to a two-year deal in March. He is entering his sixth season in Cincinnati. His leg has limited upside in length as he's attempted only 13 kicks of 50 yards or more over the past five years. Last year, he missed all three of his chances from that range. Nugent has attempted more than 30 field goals three times during his 10-year career and owns an 80.9 percent success rate. His chances are further limited by the Bengals' adeptness at running the ball in the red zone. Mike is an average NFL kicker with no chance of being a top-10 option in 2015.

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The Bengals' defense will face five quality ground attacks: Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans and the Ravens twice. Their pass defense has the 10th-easiest matchups, but they will have to try to stop the Pittsburgh Steelers twice and the Denver Broncos.

Cincinnati finished last season 20th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (1,861). They permitted about the league average in yards per carry (4.2) and struggled to stop rushing TDs (16). The Bengals don't have one player on their current team from the 2014 roster who graded highly in run defense. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap was their best player in this area, but he barely ranked above the league average in run defense. Dunlap was more successful in that area in 2013.

Defensive end Michael Johnson returns to Cincinnati after spending 2014 with Tampa, where he was a huge bust. Johnson was the Bengals' best run defender in 2013.

Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is the Bengals' best defensive lineman. A torn right ACL ended his 2013 season prematurely and it appeared to limit his play in 2014. Prior to the injury, Atkins was one of the best all-around defensive tackles in the league. Cincinnati is hoping he regains his previous form.

The Bengals had a league-low 20 sacks in 2014, down from their total of 43 sacks in 2013. Even with a weak pass rush, the Bengals allowed 18 passing TDs and grabbed a solid total of 20 interceptions. They gave up the 13th-most passing yards (3,888), but recorded the sixth-lowest yards per attempt average (6.6).

Defensive tackle Domata Peko is now a huge liability in all areas. Cincinnati needs someone to step up and take over his position.

The Bengals lost their best linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, in midseason last year due microfracture surgery on his left knee. He led the league in tackles in 2013, one year after signing as an undrafted free agent. Recent reports give him a chance to be ready for training camp, but I have a tough time believing Burfict will play at his 2013 level. The Bengals have plenty of risk at their other two linebacker spots as well.

Cincinnati needs 2012 first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick to make a huge step forward at cornerback. In his three years in the league, Kirkpatrick has struggled to gain starter snaps. Last season, he allowed 16 completions on 29 pass attempts for 226 yards with three TDs. He also had three INTs.

Cornerback Leon Hall was only league average in pass coverage in 2014 after showing much more upside earlier in his career. However, Hall was coming off a ruptured Achilles from 2013. Cincinnati's safeties, George Iloka and Reggie Nelson, helped in run support and were above average in coverage last year.

This defense didn't play great last year, but it somehow held up well enough for the Bengals to make the playoffs. The key to their success in 2015 is a huge rebound year by the pass rush. The defensive line tends to be Cincinnati's strength as it has below-par talent at linebacker overall. In the past couple of years, Cincinnati has been deep at cornerback while fielding only league-average talent safety. At best, the Bengals have a second-tier fantasy defense. They'll be worthwhile as an occasional matchup play, but I see more risk than reward.