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2021 Team Report: Cincinnati Bengals

Last updated: Wed, Aug 25

Offensive Philosophy

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor comes from the Sean McVay coaching tree, which means he tends to prefer tight formations with receivers closer to the line of scrimmage than is typical, which leverages the threat of pick plays and crossing patterns over the middle while leaving the outside of the field vulnerable to outside runs. He also likes quick snaps and varying the offensive tempo to keep defenses off-balance. In his first two years, he hasn't had the personnel to make that offense much of a threat, but with the emergence of receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, the acquisition of top rookie Ja'Marr Chase, the potential for running back Joe Mixon to fill the "Todd Gurley" role, and the hope that sophomore quarterback Joe Burrow is ready to take another step in his development, 2021 might be a different story.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Joe Burrow
Backup(s): Brandon Allen, Kyle Shurmur

Starting QB: Burrow was lost for the year in the team's 10th game but looked the part as a rookie. He showed flashes of brilliance (five games of 300+ yards including one with 406 and 3 touchdowns vs. Cleveland) but also had some rough games (four games with fewer than 215 yards passing). Considering the dearth of weapons in Cincinnati, his status as a rookie starting from Day 1, and a limited preseason program training camp due to COVID-19, Burrow's inconsistency can be explained. But the team also enters 2021 with questions at the skill positions. Joe Mixon returns, providing a three-down playmaker to give the offense balance. At receiver, Tyler Boyd offers consistency but not elite playmaking ability. And Tee Higgins is exciting but still unproven despite a rookie year in which he led the team with 908 yards receiving and 6 touchdowns. The team also added Ja'Marr Chase to the mix, a receiver with elite playmaking ability whose ceiling is being among the top receivers in the NFL in a year or two. Higgins and Burrow have a chance to help each other show progress as second-year players.

Backup QB: Allen got some playing time at the end of last season, starting five games and passing for 925 yards. He's likely to be the primary backup, but he's not a player who will come in and win multiple games in the event of another extended absence for Burrow. Shurmur graduated from Vanderbilt in 2018 and was an undrafted free agent in the 2019 draft. He has bounced around practice squads since then but has never made an active roster.

Running Backs

Starter: Joe Mixon
Backup(s): Chris Evans [R], Semaje Perine, Trayveon Williams
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: After a great 2019 season, Mixon only played six games in 2020 due to a foot injury. As of March, though, coach Zac Taylor said he's fully recovered. With the team's release of Giovani Bernard, Mixon should be expected to be the workhorse in Cincinnati. With only two-down plodder Semaje Perine, unproven Trayveon Williams, and sixth-round rookie Chris Evans behind him, this is not a 1A/1B committee situation that many NFL teams employ. Mixon will be leaned on heavily.

Backup RBs: Despite an obvious need at the position, Cincinnati waited until Round 6 to select a running back. Evans was a four-star recruit out of high school but was a career backup at Michigan. His outlook is difficult to project. He tested as a 96th percentile SPARQ athlete, but a lack of collegiate playing time suggests he has a lot to learn along with the typical college-to-NFL transition that many running backs find difficult. The team showed confidence in Perine and Williams by releasing long-time backup Giovani Bernard and then waiting until late to add a back in the draft. This backfield is shaping up to be all Mixon all the time, but NFL workloads can wear a player down, which could make these players step into larger roles at any given time this season. Perine is a two-down player without game-breaking speed, but Williams flashed burst in the limited time he saw action last year. That included a 74-yard performance highlighted by a 55-yard run in the team's Week 17 game. He could be an interesting name to track in the event of a Mixon injury on an offense lacking playmakers.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Tyler Boyd, Ja'Marr Chase [R]
Backups: Tee Higgins, Auden Tate, Stanley Morgan, Mike Thomas

Starting WRs: 2021 will be the first year in the post-A.J. Green era for Cincinnati, but they'll be injecting new talent into the mix to fill the void. That talent comes in the form of Higgins, who should earn more playing time year, and the team's first-round pick, Ja'Marr Chase. If Chase picks up the offense well, he adds a perimeter threat that would allow Boyd to move inside and play the slot where he's more comfortable. Chase's college stats with Joe Burrow were eye-popping. It's hard to say which of the following is most impressive: 1,870 yards, 21.2 yards per catch, or 20 receiving touchdowns. All of them led to Chase winning the Biletnikoff Award in 2019 before opting out in 2020. With young talent at the other receiver positions, Boyd adds a steady and productive veteran presence to the offense.

Backup WRs: Higgins emerged to lead the team in receiving yards last year with 908 as a rookie. He likely would have surpassed the 1,000-yard barrier if Joe Burrow hadn't been lost to injury in the team's 10th game. Higgins had 603 of his yards in the team's first nine games. Boyd's consecutive 1,000-yard seasons streak ended last year, but he still led the team with 79 receptions. He'll continue to be a solid, if unspectacular, contributor in 2021, though his spot in the pecking order is likely to be threatened by Chase. The rest of the reserves are a clear indicator as to why Chase was the first-round pick. Tate is most accomplished, but his career highlight is a 40-catch season in 2019. He's a physical marvel (6'5" and 228 pounds), so there's always a chance he'll be a red zone threat. But projecting him for a large piece of this offense is a stretch. Morgan was added as an undrafted free agent following the 2019 draft but has been up and down from the practice squad multiple times since. Thomas is a special teams player with 23 career receptions to his name in five seasons.

Tight Ends

Starters: Drew Sample
Backups: C.J. Uzomah

Tight end is another position where Cincinnati is lacking proven playmakers. Sample is a former second-round pick, but he's not a mismatch nightmare like a typical high draft pick in today's NFL. He's an all-around player rather than someone likely to see 80+ targets and deliver double-digit touchdowns. Uzomah is a long-time presence and is capable of holding down the fort in stretches. But like Sample, he's not going to impress with dynamic athleticism.

Place Kicker

Evan McPherson [R], Austin Seibert: The Bengals essentially moved on from Randy Bullock when he was deactivated in Week 14 for Austin Seibert. Seibert is still on the roster, but the expectation is that fifth-round pick Evan McPherson will be the team's kicker this season. He's extremely accurate on kicks under 40+ yards and could benefit from NFL coaching on longer kicks. If the Bengals offense produces a similar kicker opportunity to last season (34 field goal attempts, 33 extra point attempts), McPherson will at least be a good bye/injury fill-in and possibly even a top 10-12 kicker. Keep him on your waiver wire watch list.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Brandon Wilson, Darius Phillips Brandon Wilson, Darius Phillips

Brandon Wilson was the team's top kickoff returner in both 2020 and 2019, while Darius Phillips backed him up in 2019. For a franchise that has historically prized continuity on special teams, the Bengals are fairly well set up for kickoff returns this coming season.

Punt Returners: Darius Phillips, Tyler Boyd

The Bengals historically haven't been a team to let one return specialist leave without another experienced returner already in the fold, but that's what happened this offseason as Alex Erickson, who has led the team in punt returns since 2016, left for the Houston Texans. Darius Phillips is a relatively inexperienced replacement, or else with new rookie receiver Ja'marr Chase in the fold, third receiver Tyler Boyd might find a chance to contribute some on special teams.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Jonah Williams, LG Jackson Carman [R], C Trey Hopkins, RG Quenton Spain, RT Riley Reiff
Key Backups: C Billy Price, OL Hakeem Adeniji (inj), OL Fred Johnson

Center Trey Hopkins had been playing at a near Pro Bowl level before his ACL tear. Billy Price will get one more chance to win the job while Hopkins recovers. Left tackle Jonah Williams returns from injured reserve to mentor rookie left guard Jackson Carman, the round two selection from Clemson. At right tackle, the team signed Riley Reiff from Minnesota to replace Bobby Hart. With all the rehab, this remains a rebuilding group.

Team Defense

Save for a 103-yard kickoff return vs. the Giants and three takeaways against the Steelers in a Monday night upset, the Bengals D/ST was one of the most toothless units in the league. They swapped out Carl Lawson for Trey Hendrickson in free agency and have a young defense that should get better and could get more favorable game scripts if the offense comes together in Joe Burrow's second season. Cincinnati's D/ST isn't worth drafting, but they could be worth a spot matchup start and potentially even have some streamer value if the team gels this year.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Trey Hendrickson, DE Sam Hubbard, DT Larry Ogunjobi, DT D.J Reader
Backups: DE Cameron Sample [R], DE Khalid Kareem, DE Joseph Ossai [R] (inj), DE Amani Bledsoe, DT Mike Daniels, DT Tyler Shelvin [R], DT Renell Wren, DT Josh Tupou

Starting DL: The Bengals finished 2019 in the bottom third of the league in nearly all defensive categories, including dead last against the run. They were not much better in 2020 under second-year head coach Zach Taylor, finishing 31st versus the run, 21st against the pass, dead last in sacks with a mere 17, and bottom third in takeaways. One thing they did accomplish was to flush out nearly all remaining remnants of the Marvin Lewis defense, including mainstays Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins who are the team's number two and three all-time sack leaders. It remains to be seen if this unit will begin to trend up in 2021, but it has now been rebuilt to fit the scheme of third-year defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. In a move that is rather uncharacteristic for the Bengals, the team had made significant additions via free agency to improve the front-four. Cincinnati added tackle D.J. Reader last offseason to anchor and improve the leaky run defense. Reader played well before landing on IR with a quad injury suffered in week five. He will now pair with this year's free-agent addition Larry Ogunjobi on the inside. Ogunjobi battled through a rash of nagging injuries in 2020 so his numbers were down a bit, but he still managed 13.5 sacks in three seasons as a starter in Cleveland. He is not the kind of dominant player Geno Atkins was in his prime, but Ogunjobi is a strong run defender who will make a solid contribution as a pass rusher. Cincinnati landed one of the best edge rushers in this year's free-agent class in former Saint Trey Hendrickson, who is coming off a 13.5 sack season. It is easy for Bengals fans to get excited about this addition but there are also reasons to be cautious about grand expectations. Hendrickson battled some injuries early in his career, seeing action in 17 games over his first two years with the Saints. When he was healthy in 2019, he totaled five and a half sacks as the third man in the rotation, so he has one year as a starter on his resume. Hendrickson also has some room for improvement versus the run. So the question becomes, was he a one-year wonder in 2020, and is he an upgrade over Carl Lawson who Hendrickson has a lot in common with? One of the few holdovers from the Marvin Lewis era is Sam Hubbard who will start opposite Hendrickson. Hubbard has 16.5 sacks in three seasons with the Bengals, including 8.5 in 2019. His numbers were way down last season, largely due to a lack of supporting cast, with some nagging injuries contributing as well. He may never be a double-digit sack guy, but Hubbard is a quality three-down defensive end that holds up well at the point of attack and will make a good contribution as a pass rusher as well. All in all the Cincinnati defensive line should be much improved in 2021 if everyone stays healthy.

Backup DL: The 2020 season exposed a glaring lack of depth along the Bengals defensive line. Veteran Mike Daniels projects to be the third man in the rotation on the inside, providing he can stay healthy. The 32-year-old was once a quality starter for the Packers but has not played a lot over the past three seasons. Beyond Daniels, Cincinnati is rather young and unproven behind their starters. Josh Tupou and Renell Wren have a few years between them but neither has seen much playing time nor have they shown a reason to believe they deserve more. Rookie fourth-round pick Tyler Shelvin checks in at 350 pounds and will likely backup Reader at the nose tackle position for a while. Shelvin could eventually find his way into the starting lineup and should be on the field in short-yardage situations immediately. Khalid Kareem and Amani Bledsoe saw a fair amount of action at defensive end as rookies last season. Neither was able to make much of an impression. As a result, the Bengals used third and fourth-round picks on Joseph Ossai and Cameron Sample respectively, this spring. Those four players will compete for two or three roster spots with the rookies having an edge going in because they were drafted by the current regime. Ossai and Sample had 22 sacks between them during their college careers. The Bengals defensive line could show significant improvement in 2021 but this unit remains a work in progress in many ways. Ossai won't be contributing this year after suffering a season ending knee injury in the preseason.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Logan Wilson, WLB Germaine Pratt, SLB Akeem Davis-Gaither
Backups: WLB/MLB Jordan Evans, MLB/SLB Markus Bailey, SLB Keandre Jones

Starting LBs: When Zach Taylor took over as head coach, one of the team's top priorities on defense was to add speed and playmaking ability at linebacker. To that end, Cincinnati drafted Germaine Pratt in round three in 2019, then added Logan Wilson in the third and Akeem Davis-Gaither in the fourth last season. All three of these young players saw significant action in 2020 but the Bengals had no linebacker that stayed on the field full time. With veteran Josh Bynes not coming back, that is likely to change this year. Wilson is set to become the centerpiece of Cincinnati's defense. He started his college career at Wyoming as a safety before growing into a linebacker's body/role at 241 pounds. Good size and speed, strong cover skills, and a knack for making both tackles versus the run and big plays in the passing game, point toward a potential breakout year for Wilson. The second-year pro should give Cincinnati's defense the kind of player they have been missing at linebacker for a long time. If things go according to plan, Wilson will be a key component to a Bengals turnaround on defense. Entering his third season as a pro, Germaine Pratt is the elder statesman among Cincinnati's starting linebackers. He is a strong run defender with a good size/speed combination and has solid cover skills. Pratt displayed some big-play potential during his college career, including six sacks, three forced fumbles, and seven takeaways, but thus far that ability has not been on display for him as a pro. He is set to start on the weak side in 2021 but is not guaranteed a three-down role. This could be a prove-it year for Pratt who has not yet distinguished himself as a long-term answer at the position. Davis-Gaither got on the field for 314 snaps as a rookie. Some of his playing time came as an undersized strong side linebacker but much of it came in nickel situations when he was paired with Wilson. Davis-Gaither has the speed and cover skills to stick with most tight ends or running backs and has shown flashes of ability that have Bengals coaches believing he can be a quality NFL starter and a long-term answer. He will get on the field in base packages this year and has a shot at joining Wilson in sub-package situations. The Bengals are exceptionally young at the linebacker positions and may not be completely set for the long term with their current personnel, but they are faster and more athletic at the position than previous Cincinnati squads, which was the goal of the current regime when they took over in 2019.

Backup LBs: Depth could be a problem for the Bengals at linebacker in 2021. Entering his fifth season as a pro, Jordan Evans is the most experienced of Cincinnati's linebackers. He has made some starts over his career as an injury replacement but has never held a starting job otherwise. Evans is a versatile player that will likely be the top reserve for all three positions. He will do an adequate job if called upon. The team could absorb one injury to a starting linebacker without falling off too far, but two injuries could be devastating. The linebacker depth chart after Evans consists of last year's seventh-round pick Markus Bailey and 2020 undrafted free agent Keandre Jones who signed with the Bears originally, then joined the Bengals last September after being cut by Chicago. Look for the Bengals to add some veteran depth before the season gets underway.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Trae Waynes, CB Mike Hilton, SS Von Bell, FS Jessie Bates
Backups: CB Darius Phillips, CB Eli Apple, CB Tony Brown, CB Jalen Davis, S Ricardo Allen, S Brandon Wilson, S Trayvon Henderson

Starting DBs: Cincinnati's defensive back room will have several new faces this season. None of last year's top three corners are still with the team. Trae Waynes was signed as a free agent before last season but was lost to a pectoral injury in August. Now that he has recovered, Waynes is ready to take on a starting role. The former first-round pick of the Vikings has been a solid NFL starter since coming into the league in 2015 though some will say he has not lived up to the first-round draft status. He is not an upgrade from William Jackson but probably is an upgrade over Darius Phillips who stepped in when Waynes was lost last year. Former Dallas second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie is the guy that will replace Jackson as the Bengals CB1. Interestingly, Awuzie comes with a similar scouting report to the man he will replace. Both he and Jackson are strong cover corners that can stick with the opponent's top receivers but neither player makes big plays. In four seasons with Dallas (three as a starter) Awuzie had four total interceptions, while Jackson had three in four years. This seems like a lateral move when it comes to on-field impact. The addition that could make a considerable difference is Mike Hilton who will take over as the slot/nickel corner. In four seasons with the Steelers, Hilton produced nine and a half sacks, seven interceptions, forced three fumbles, and recovered five. He is solid in coverage but his knack for the big play is something the Bengals have been without for a while at the corner positions. It certainly does not hurt that the Bengals were able to poach him for the division-rival Steelers either. Cincinnati had their share of needs on defense entering the offseason, but safety was not one of them. Jessie Bates has quietly become one of the league's elite free safeties. He tackles well, he covers well, he averages 10 pass breakups per year, and he has three interceptions in each of his first three seasons in the league. Bates is locked in as a starter and the Bengals are better for it. When it comes to on-field play, last year's free-agent addition Von Bell was not a significant upgrade over the guy he replaced, Shawn Williams. That said, Bell is a quality strong safety. He is physical in run support, is not a liability in coverage, and while he does not intercept many passes, Bell has a knack for separating the ball from the carrier. In his first season with the Bengals, he forced three fumbles and recovered three. The Cincinnati secondary is not elite at this stage but barring injuries, they should perform much better than last season, particularly in the area of big plays.

Backup DBs: There are no future stars in waiting behind the Bengals starting secondary but there are some experienced players that can hold down the fort if called upon. Darius Phillips did an adequate job after Trae Waynes went down last season. The fourth-year pro has five career interceptions in 36 games while playing mostly as a sub-package contributor. Eli Apple is a former first-round pick of the Giants (2016) that fell out of favor with the team in his this year. His on-field presence has been solid and includes a starting role in four of his five previous seasons. Apple could pass Phillips on the depth chart and see action in dime packages out of the gate. Ricardo Allen started most of his 81 games with the Falcons at free safety. He will contribute in some three-safety sub-packages and on special teams but can step in as a capable starter if Bates is injured. Brandon Wilson has earned his paycheck mostly on special teams over the last four seasons. With Shaw