STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
For the third year in a row, the Bengals' season ended in a first-round playoff loss. This one was more disappointing than the previous two, as they were the home favorites entering the contest. Instead of losing to the Texans, they lost to a Chargers team that they had defeated on the road earlier. Once again, quarterback Andy Dalton came up short in a big game, turning the ball over three times. A key injury to cornerback Leon Hall was exploited for big plays by the opposition. The bitter ending to the game led Bengals fans to do a lot of soul-searching. Does Dalton have another level of development in him after three years, or is this as good as it gets? Is this as far as coach Marvin Lewis can take them?
Let's start with Dalton. An 11-touchdown outburst over Weeks 6-8 led us to believe that maybe the Red Rifle had transformed from a game-manager into an asset. Alas, he threw eight interceptions over his next three-game span. Though he had other big games down the stretch (home games against the Colts and Vikings, for instance), he also threw four interceptions against the Ravens in Week 17. At the end of the season he wound up with a career-high 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns, but also 20 interceptions. His yards per attempt have crept steadily higher from 6.6 to 6.9 and then 7.3 last year, but so have his interceptions, from 13 to 16 and then to 20. Now that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is the Redskins' head coach, will the Bengals be more of a run-first offense under Hue Jackson? Our guess is that they will, with the team's second-round pick of running back Jeremy Hill pointing towards that.
Dalton still has a good set of skill players around him, starting with wide receiver A.J. Green. As befitting the top receiver for a signal-caller that set highs in attempts, completions and touchdowns, Green set highs in receptions (98), yards (1,426) and targets (178) while scoring 11 touchdowns in 2013. He was a little less efficient per attempt, but that's normal for a receiver with that sort of volume. Second-year receiver Marvin Jones enjoyed a 712-yard, 10-touchdown breakout season. Jones's upside is likely capped around that level while Green is healthy, simply because he won't get that many targets. In the backfield, Giovani Bernard had over 1,200 combined rushing and receiving yards in his rookie season and is likely to get more work in Year 2.
The defense might be a question mark this year, as the Bengals also lost defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer who became the head coach of the Vikings. They were considerably hurt by two major injuries last season to Hall and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Those two return, but defensive end Michael Johnson signed a big deal with the Bucs in free agency. It's still a talented defense as a whole though, led by linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
Jeremy Hill – RB, LSU (Round 2, 55th Overall)
The rookie should take over the Law Firm's role in the backfield immediately.
Darqueze Dennard – CB, Michigan State (Round 1, 24th Overall)
Fills an immediate need in a secondary that was exposed by Leon Hall's injury last season.
Jason Campbell – QB, Browns
Andy Dalton insurance that the Bengals hope they don't need to utilize.
Marshall Newhouse – OT, Packers
Essentially takes over the role of Anthony Collins as the top OL backup.
Will Clarke – DE, West Virginia (Round 3, 88th Overall)
Had 17 tackles for loss in his senior year.
Michael Johnson – DE, Buccaneers
Losing a "franchise player" hurts, but at least the Bengals are deep at defensive end.
Andrew Hawkins – WR, Browns
The Bengals opted against matching the Browns' four-year offer for the slot receiver.
Anthony Collins – OT, Buccaneers
Signed a five-year deal to be Tampa Bay's starting left tackle.
BOOM AND BUST
Giovani Bernand's workload should increase from his rookie season, but it might not be to the extent that he justifies his draft costs in fantasy leagues this year. If early mock draft results are any guide to where he's going to go in 2014, you'll need to spend a late first-round or early second-round pick on him to land his services. But the Bengals spent a second-round pick in this year's draft to get Jeremy Hill, and Hill almost certainly will get the lion's share of goal line carries along with plenty of other carries. In fact, Hill has already surpassed BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the Bengals' depth chart before training camp has started. Our initial projections have Bernard getting more carries overall than last season, but fewer receptions and no additional scoring. You should expect improvement but not a quantum leap forward from Bernard.
SPREADING THE WEALTH
Marvin Lewis is a notoriously conservative head coach, but during the 2013 regular season the Bengals had 21 fourth down attempts, fourth in the NFL, converting 12 times. Alas, he reverted to his conservative ways in the playoff loss with immediately regressive results. Former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is in D.C. and has been replaced by Hue Jackson. Will Lewis elect to dial back the fourth down attempts and try to win with defense and ball control more often? The Bengals have patiently stocked up on offense in the draft with the likes of A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham and Jeremy Hill, all with early-round picks, but it's hard to count on them spreading the wealth (and the field) with Lewis at the helm. Early reports from OTAs have hinted at a more wide-open offense, which is all well and good, but what happens when Andy Dalton has his next bad game? Will all the talk from OTAs and training camp fade away? In particular, Jones seems like an exceptionally good bet to regress from his 10-touchdown total from 2013.
A TIGHT SQUEEZE
Jermaine Gresham will be in his age 26 year and was a former first-round pick, but he's close to being yesterday's news. The Bengals spent another first-round pick in 2013 on Tyler Eifert at the tight end position, and he'll likely surpass Gresham in targets and snaps in 2014. Gresham had three costly lost fumbles in 2013 along with a handful of drops in addition to career lows in catches, targets and yards. Working in his favor is his blocking ability and that it's a contract year (though in the NFL, every year is a contract year), but look for Eifert to clearly surpass him in 2014.
Rising: Giovani Bernard had a combined 1,209 rushing and receiving yards in his rookie season. His workload increased over the second half last year and should increase more in Year 2.
Declining: Don't buy into Andy Dalton's 2013 breakout season, one that was fueled by a spike in attempts and not proficiency. With a new offensive coordinator, look for those attempts to decline.
Sleeper: The Bengals didn't spend a second-round pick on Jeremy Hill just have him languish on the sidelines. The RB platoon will be in full force, and Hill will lead the Bengals in rushing touchdowns.
Supersleeper: Rookie tight ends rarely dominate, but we often underrate them in Year 2. Don't forget about Tyler Eifert, the Bengals' first-round pick in 2013.
Vontaze Burfict - LB
Racked up 171 tackles in 2013 and should be among the league leaders again.
Geno Atkins - DT
Recorded six sacks in nine games before tearing his ACL last year.
Carlos Dunlap - DE
Hasn't yet matched his rookie season sack total but had more tackles last year.
RotoWire Rank: 4