With the NFL season finally seemingly drawing near, ESPN recently made an effort to try to take stock of the offseason comings and goings of all 32 teams in an attempt to assess which teams have improved the most since the end of the 2019 season. It should be unsurprising that the Cincinnati Bengals ended up high on the list.
They were listed second, in fact, behind only the Miami Dolphins, who perhaps were favored because they suffered fewer losses. While the Bengals also had rich draft capital, and spent significantly in free agency, they also parted with some very notable players like Andy Dalton and Dre Kirkpatrick.
But they were replaced by Joe Burrow, the first-overall pick, and Trae Waynes in free agency. With Darqueze Dennard also allowed to leave, he too was replaced by a former Vikings cornerback in Mackenzie Alexander via free agency. D.J. Reader was added to the defensive front and Vonn Bell was brought in at safety as well, four new defensive starters via free agency.
“Dalton took the Bengals to the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, more than anyone in the previous four decades of team history”, Kevin Seifert wrote for the article. “But he slipped enough in the last four seasons that Burrow — and his higher ceiling — is an upgrade at the most important position on the field. The Bengals also revamped their secondary in a much more ambitious manner than most observers expected”.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were successful last season in changing over their secondary by bringing in two new players in Steven Nelson at cornerback and, during the season, Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety. Joining Joe Haden, Terrell Edmunds, and Mike Hilton, they transformed into one of the top secondary units in the NFL.
The Bengals hope that the trio of Waynes, Bell, and Alexander can have the same type of effect on their own secondary, while relying upon a front four of Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Reader, and Sam Hubbard to generate a pass rush.
But of course their real hopes live or die with the quality of play under center with Burrow. They have tried to give him weapons, already with A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, and John Ross at wide receiver, to which they added Tee Higgins at the top of the second round.
The quality of the offensive line will be important. Last year’s first-round pick was Jonah Williams, who was supposed to be their left tackle, but he missed all of his rookie season. This year, Bobby Hart should be challenged by former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Fred Johnson at right tackle, while Trey Hopkins, Michael Jordan, Billy Price, and others figure out what’s going on in between. The loser at right tackle could also start inside.