When you think of the Cincinnati Bengals, you most likely think of offense. Whether it be Carson Palmer throwing dimes to prime Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh or Andy Dalton spreading the ball around to A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu, the Bengals have been known to put some points on the board. Based on the current roster the Bengals front office has constructed, it's safe to say this trend will continue to 2021.
The Bengals return second-year quarterback Joe Burrow who, before going down with an ACL injury, showed major promise in his rookie season. Reports came out on Tuesday that Burrow will be all systems go for the start of this season and that should be music to every Bengals and NFL fan's ears. With Burrow back at the helm, this offense has some major upside, especially when you consider who the team added in free agency and in the draft.
Cincinnati was aggressive in adding pieces around Burrow as they signed veteran right tackle Riley Reiff to be the bookend tackle opposite Jonah Williams. The team also went on to draft wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with their first pick and guard Jackson Carman with their second pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Chase projects to be the team’s No. 1 receiver as a rookie and could flirt with Pro Bowl-caliber numbers this season. Carman should be able to win a starting job at one of the guard spots, which was definitely an area that needed to be addressed. With these additions plus a healthy Joe Mixon returning, there is little doubt that Cincinnati has a chance to be explosive on the offensive side of the football.
While offense is great for fans and for TV executives, if you want to win consistently in the NFL you still need to be able to field a competitive defense. The Bengals' defense has ranked near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories in head coach Zac Taylor’s first two seasons, and if the Bengals have any hopes of improving on their 4-11-1 2020 record, it's the defense that’ll need to take a massive step forward.
Did Cincinnati do enough this offseason in free agency and through the draft to improve this defense? Let’s take a look at each position group and find out.
Perhaps no team improved their defensive line more than the Bengals this offseason. The Bengals went ahead and signed one of the best pass rushers on the market in former New Orleans Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson. Hendrickson comes over from the Saints after recording 13.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. To put those numbers in perspective, the Bengals ranked last in the league in sacks with just 17. Hendrickson will be counted on to lead the team’s pass rush efforts and provide the juice off the edge that has been sorely missing in Cincinnati over recent seasons.
Along with Hendrickson, the Bengals also signed defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi from the Cleveland Browns and Ogunjobi should also provide some spark rushing the passer from the interior.
The draft is where we really saw the Bengals add to this unit. Cincinnati added four players along the defensive line and there is reason to believe that at least three of them can have year-one impacts. Starting with third-round pick Joseph Ossai, the edge rusher from Texas.
Ossai was projected to go much higher than the third round for most of the evaluation process and the Bengals must have been absolutely thrilled to see him fall. Ossai is an athletic specimen who offers very good size and length but is also as explosive as they come rushing the passer. Perhaps Ossai’s biggest asset is his versatility, as he has the ability to play as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, a stand-up rush outside linebacker, or even as an off-the-ball SAM linebacker. Ossai’s impact will likely come as a designated pass rusher early in his career and he will allow the team to kick defensive end Sam Hubbard inside on obvious passing situations.
In round four, the Bengals added a pair of defensive linemen in Tulane’s Cameron Sample and LSU’s Tyler Shelvin. Sample is another versatile defender who has the ability to line up as a strong side edge or kick inside to be an undersized but quick 3-technique. Sample is a good athlete with excellent body control and agility to shoot gaps and has the power to set a firm edge. Sample’s versatility will allow him to earn a spot in the rotation sooner rather than later. Shelvin is a player who I really like. He is a massive human being with outstanding strength and anchor at the point of attack. He has a chance to really excel playing next to another mammoth in D.J. Reader, and together the two of them could make life really hard for guards trying to work to the second level.
The Bengals didn’t address the linebacker position this year after addressing it heavily in 2020. The team will hope that the young players they have invested high draft capital in take a big next step and develop into the players the front office thought they would be. Players such as Germaine Pratt, Logan Wilson, and Akeem Davis-Gaither have all of the opportunity in the world to show what they can do—and if these three athletic linebackers do take the next step in their development, this defense could be a force to be reckoned with.
Secondary was another area that the Bengals addressed pretty strongly this offseason. The team lost former first-round pick William Jackson III in free agency but were able to sign Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton from the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers respectively.
In Awuzie, the Bengals are getting a corner with good size and athleticism. Awuzie is best playing tight press-man due to his length and physicality, but did struggle with injuries in 2020—he missed eight games due to a hamstring injury and was also placed on the COVID-19 list. Awuzie is expected to start outside opposite Trae Waynes, who is also returning from injury after missing all of last season with a torn pec.
One of the more underrated signings of this entire offseason was the signing of Hilton, who joins the Bengals after four productive years with the Steelers. Hilton is one of the game’s best nickel defenders with excellent instincts and toughness. A secondary that consists of a healthy Waynes, Awuzie, and Hilton as its top three corners and a safety group led by Jessie Bates III and Von Bell would be one of the more consistent and steady groups in all of football.
All in all, this Bengals defense should be much improved from their 2020 unit and has the potential to cause some major problems for opposing offenses. The unit has athletic and versatile players at all three levels and if the young linebackers take a step forward, look out.
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