With Andy Dalton playing the best football of his career, 2015 looked like the season the Bengals could start winning in the playoffs, until injury robbed Dalton of the chance and A.J. McCarron couldn’t quite get it done against the Steelers. The Bengals were once again one and done, but will 2016 be the season that finally changes? A renewed confidence in Dalton’s ceiling plus one of the league’s best offensive lines wills certainly give them confidence, but is the rest of the roster good enough to challenge?
[More: Be sure to check out PFF’s ranking of all 32 NFL QB situations, offensive lines, running back units, receiving corps, secondaries, and defensive front-sevens. Catch up on all the team previews here.]
The Dalton of 2015 can be a playoff-winning quarterback
Quarterbacks: 10th in PFF’s season preview rankings
Before 2015, Andy Dalton’s career was a model in inconsistency. He could show dominant and elite play, or disastrous outings, but rarely more than two consecutive games of either as he would lurch through the season from high to low like a Bengal fan’s nightmare fairground ride: The Daltoncoaster. 2015 was different. He was far more consistent, and consistently good. Even the lows were nowhere near as bad, and there were few enough of them. The Andy Dalton from 2015 can take this team places and win playoff games given the opportunity. McCarron did well enough in his place, but isn’t much more than a placeholder who can win a couple of games if Dalton misses time.
Plenty of talent at RB, but no ceilings have been reached
Running backs: 12th
In theory, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard make up a formidable 1-2 punch, but in practice it has never quite worked out that way, and each player has largely failed to live up to his promise. For the “power” back in the pairing, Hill averaged just 2.0 yards per attempt after contact in 2015, the lowest of any starting back, and has been among the least elusive backs in the game since coming into the league. Bernard looked like a devastating weapon as a rookie, but has failed to match that since. His rushing in 2015 was a notable step up from the previous seasons though, gaining 4.6 yards per carry and earning the best rushing grade of his career.
A poem: After A.J. Green, it remains to be seen (for Bengals' receiving corps)
Receiving corps: 10th
Cincinnati lost their second and third receivers to free agency with the departure of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. In truth, Sanu was a player who had never lived up to his potential in Cincinnati, and when at least two of your best five plays for the team are passes, it’s probably not a huge loss, but Jones was a very useful No. 2. Rookie Tyler Boyd and free-agent signee Brandon LaFell will try to replace that presence opposite A.J. Green, but the player most needed to step up is Tyler Eifert, who flashed elite play in 2015 before injury struck. In his case “stepping up” really does mean just staying healthy, because the Bengals need that second major threat to stop teams just zeroing in on Green.
(PFF Fantasy Insight: Green is still an elite receiver, ranking sixth in our staff consensus ranks, while Eifert is our No. 5 tight end. Pat Thorman wonders how the departures of Jones and Sanu might influence Dalton's value.)
The offensive line might be the team’s single strongest unit
Offensive line: Fourth
Cincinnati has had one of the league’s better offensive lines for a consistent run of years now, and 2016 looks to be much the same. Andrew Whitworth is one of the league’s most consistently impressive left tackles, and there likely remains a second career for him inside at guard when he and the team feels it’s time. Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler are both good guards, while losing Andre Smith isn’t the blow it would have been after the 2012 season when he was playing excellent football. The Andre Smith of 2015 was an entirely replaceable player. The weak link in the chain right now is center Russell Bodine, who allowed 30 total pressures last season, or more than Rodney Hudson, Travis Frederick and Jeremy Zuttah combined.
Atkins is a stalwart up front, but he needs some help
Geno Atkins is one of the league’s most imposing and dominant defenders, capable of destroying plays in both the run and pass game, but he doesn’t have nearly enough help in the defensive front for this to be one of the better units in the league. Rookie Andrew Billings could quickly supplant Domata Peko as the starter at nose tackle, which would likely provide a significant instant upgrade simply by getting Peko out of the lineup. The veteran has been a subpar run defender for some time now and needs replacing. This is a unit filled with largely average players, with Michael Johnson, Rey Maualuga, Vincent Rey all showing little higher than at as a ceiling. Carlos Dunlap is a quality complement to Atkins, but the Bengals need to find some impact players among their young depth.
A whole host of re-signings keeps secondary together
The Bengals did well to return as much of their secondary as they did, given the entire unit was hitting free agency together this season. Adam Jones remains a quality starter despite advancing years, and George Iloka is a fine safety behind him. At the other corner spot, Dre Kirkpatrick is now approaching the category of “bust” and 2014 first-round pick Darqueze Dennard has managed to play just 268 snaps over two years. Rookie William Jackson III might need to be ready to take a starting spot. Jackson was PFF’s top-rated cornerback in the draft this year and had the second-highest coverage grade in the draft class. He has the size and athleticism to be an impact player at corner, and with no Leon Hall anymore and Kirkpatrick struggling on the field, the team could need him sooner rather than later.