In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the AFC North, concluding with the Cincinnati Bengals today.
Recap of 2015: 2015 saw the Cincinnati Bengals reach new highs for the Andy Dalton era. For starters, “Bad Andy” stayed home for basically the entire season and let “Good Andy” do his thing. Dalton limited turnovers all season by only throwing 7 interceptions, and set a new career high with a completion percentage of 66.1%. He led the Cincy offense to second in DVOA for the season. Dalton and company were cruising along until Dalton suffered a fractured right thumb in week 13 against Pittsburgh setting the tone for the new lows the Dalton era were about to endur. Backup quarterback A.J. McCarron was very serviceable (6 touchdowns, 2 interceptions) in place of Dalton as the Bengals went 2-1 in the final three games of the regular season to finish 12-4, winning the AFC North. As we all know it was the first round playoff game against long-time division rival Pittsburgh where this Bengals team reached its new low. Adam Jones and Vontaze Burfict all but handed Pittsburgh the game in the final minute and Cincinnati suffered their fifth consecutive first round playoff loss in as many seasons. After the playoff disaster, many questioned whether or not head coach Marvin Lewis had lost control of some of his players and if he would return for 2016. I personally am in the camp that feels the Bengals are one of the most talented teams in the league and are in need of a new voice and new leader on the sidelines. However, the Cincy front office decided to stand pat and Lewis will return for his 14th season as head coach of the Bengals.
Significant Additions: LB Karlos Dansby, WR Brandon LaFell
Significant Subtractions: WR Marvin Jones, WR Mohamed Sanu, S Reggie Nelson, CB Leon Hall, OT Andre Smith, DE Wallace Gilberry
Potential Impact Rookies: CB William Jackson III, WR Tyler Boyd, LB Nick Vigil, OG Christian Westerman
Team Strengths: As I previously mentioned this is one of the deeper and more talented rosters in the league. You can make an argument for several different units being the strength of this team. Where the Bengals consistently beat opponents is with the combination of elite talent and depth along the defensive live. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins is one of the best defensive players that no one talks about. Atkins recorded 11 sacks from the defensive tackle position last year which was tied for the 8th most the in NFL. Geno’s 11 sacks would have been good enough to be the leader on most teams in the NFL last season except for the fact that on most down he lines up next to defensive end Carlos Dunlap who finished 4th in the league last season with 13.5 sacks. Atkins and Dunlap on the same line together is enough to give opposing quarterbacks and offensive lineman nightmares, but the Bengals defensive line goodness does not end there. Add in a rotation of Domata Peko (5 sacks in 2015) and Pat Sims (PFF grade of 74 in just 8 games in 2015) at the defensive tackle spot next to Atkins along with defensive end Michael Johnson who is very familiar in the Bengals system after he returned to the Bengals in 2015 after a one year stint in Tampa Bay and you’ve got what might be the best defensive line in all of football.
Team Weaknesses: Is there anywhere to go here besides the obvious? Watching the playoff game against Pittsburgh last year I couldn’t help, but feel embarrassed for Bengals fans. Their team was so close to finally getting over the hump in the playoffs only for them to implode in a way that had never really been done before. At times you will hear fans say their team “gave away a game” usually referring to multiple turnovers or a series of mental lapses, but what Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones did in that playoff game last year was the literally handing the game to Pittsburgh. That could be potentially hard for a team to recover from, especially one with a Harambe (pours one out) sized playoff gorilla already on their back. The Bengals have had issues with on field discipline in the past, although they are usually in the middle of the pack when it comes to total penalties they are seemingly near the top of the league in personal foul penalties every season (per footballdb.com). With the progress Andy Dalton made last season as a passer, this is a team that can be a true championship contender, but can they contain their emotions just enough to reach their full potential as team? It just might take a new head coach to truly find out.
Fantasy Players to Watch: Fantasy wise for the Bengals, look no further than all world wide receiver A.J. Green. 2016 would appear to be the year of the receiver in the fantasy football world as pass catchers ADP’s sky rocket to new heights and PPR leagues become more popular than ever. Green has finished as a top 8 wide receiver in 3 of the last 4 seasons and with the loss of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in free agency, Green could actually see a rise in production. I already have two shares of Green to date and would highly recommend you do the same. The rest of the Bengals is where it gets a little less reliable for fantasy. Running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard are the definition of every fantasy players nightmare, a timeshare. However there is still value to be had from both, I like Hill later in drafts as Cincy appears to prefer using him around the goal line and Bernard is as solid as they come in PPR leagues. There is a lot of buzz around rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd and I see the scenario where Boyd has fantasy relevance, after all someone else besides A.J. Green has to catch the ball right? Owners are also aware of the recent run of rookie wide receivers making a big fantasy impact. I however am treading lightly here, the 2014 receiver class of Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Matthews and Sammy Watkins is an all time draft class (2014 receiver class also included Allen Robinson, Brandin Cooks, Jarvis Landry and John Brown). All five of those players finished as a top 25 fantasy wide receiver in their rookie season, that is just absurd. Do not expect 2014 to be the new standard when it comes to Boyd or any other rookie receiver, 2014 is much more of an outlier than people realize as historically rookie wide receivers struggle at first making the adjustment to the pros. Keep an eye on tight end Tyler Eifert for the second half of the season as he recovers from an ankle injury (Reason #7492025 why the Pro Bowl is stupid) and despite his development in 2015, Andy Dalton remains a bye week fill in or a QB2 in two quarterback leagues.
2016 Outlook: The Bengals should be really good once again in 2016 and if the development Dalton showed in 2015 continues, they stand to be even better. Their offensive line should still be a strength, but with the loss of starting right tackle Andre Smith in free agency and the age (34) of left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the play of the offensive line is something to monitor as the season goes along. The Bengals have achieved as much regular season success as a team could want over the last five seasons, but this is the season where that must turn into some postseason success. If the Bengals were to get off to a bad start, do the demons of last years playoff collapse come to the surface and potentially ruin their season? That scenario is in play here although not likely. There is still so much talent up and down this roster for me to think they will miss the playoffs this season.
Record Prediction: The Bengals 2016 schedule appears to be anything but a cakewalk, especially early in the season. The Bengals open at the Jets and Pittsburgh before returning home to face the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos. They did recently catch a break (no pun intended) as they will travel to Dallas in Week 5 and face what will more than likely be a Cowboys team without Tony Romo. After a trip to New England in Week 6, the schedule would appear to soften up substantially. The Bengals host lesser non division opponents Buffalo and Philadelphia in the middle part of the season and outside of a trip to Houston, there would appear to be no other difficult non division games on the schedule (Sorry Giants, you do not fall under the difficult opponent category). Pittsburgh will still be the biggest competition for the Bengals and the Ravens should be better than 2015 just based on injury luck, but still not a real threat at the division title. Do I even need to mention the current state of the Browns? The Bengals should be able to survive their early season schedule and finish 10-6 and win a very competitive AFC North division.
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