This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Sometimes when you have a 17-year plan in place, you have to ride it out. That's what the Bengals did by retaining Marvin Lewis, and why expectations should be tempered once again. If Tyler Eifert can't recover from his latest injury, they'll still be one weapon short in the passing game.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
DO THEY EVEN CARE ANYMORE?
The case for and against coach Marvin Lewis used to be at least a little complicated. After each successive playoff burnout, one could still make the case that he rescued the franchise from the wilderness and managed to produce a regular winner. Now 15 years into his tenure with the Bengals, he still hasn't won a postseason game with them and the team hasn't qualified for the playoffs the last two years. This despite having stability at quarterback and a slew of early draft picks. Many observers thought that Lewis would be fired quickly this offseason, but instead there was a drawn-out process, after which it was announced that he would be back for two more seasons. It's the latest indication that ownership cares more about turning a profit than succeeding in the postseason, let alone competing for a championship. The Bengals regularly avoid the free-agent market to fit their needs and let their top players walk without compensation (such as offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler), all without spending up to the salary cap. As of press time, the team has roughly $15 million in cap space, with virtually no dead money on the books. They also employ fewer scouts than any other franchise, doing what's comfortable and no more. Keeping Lewis rather than targeting a sought-after coaching candidate perfectly fits that mold.
Jeremy Hill is the latest Bengals running back to flee to Foxborough in the hope of revitalizing his career. Though the team added Mark Walton in the fourth round of the draft, this is essentially a two-man backfield this year as opposed to last season's three-headed monster (one that annoyingly still saved the first offensive series of each half for Hill). Joe Mixon, a 2017 second-rounder, stands to benefit the most from this development. Despite missing two full games and significant parts of two others with a concussion and an ankle injury, he led the Bengals in rushing last year with 626 yards, albeit at a 3.5 yards-per-carry clip. That said, Mixon was starting to run more effectively late in the season, and the Bengals finally addressed their offensive line woes by trading for tackle Cordy Glenn and spending a first-round draft pick on center Billy Price. Meanwhile, Mixon, who checked in at 238 pounds when he reported to Cincinnati as a rookie, has slimmed down to 218 pounds as training camp kicks off. His upside likely is capped with Giovani Bernard still around to take over most of the pass-catching duties, but Mixon may approach 225 carries this upcoming season under better circumstances. The workload should translate closer to 1,000 rushing yards and perhaps allow him to double his touchdown count.
"E" FOR EIFERT
The Bengals are simply a better offensive team when they have tight end Tyler Eifert on the field, but the sad truth is that he can't stay on it. He was only able to play in two games last season, catching four passes for 46 yards before succumbing to a back injury that required surgery in October. Initially, it looked as if he would land elsewhere this offseason, but the Bengals re-signed him to an incentive-laden one-year deal. Though Eifert was given a clean bill of health following his rehab, he still has been limited from squatting or performing exercises that load the spine. His activity likely will be curtailed at the start of training camp, and there remains a cloud over his potential this fall. No matter, it's worth noting that in early NFFC drafts he's roughly going as the 13th tight end, so there's a contingent that sees the juicy 2015 upside (52 catches, 615 yards and 13 touchdowns) in him. Behind Eifert is Tyler Kroft, who had a bit of a breakout in his third year out of Rutgers, catching 42 passes for 404 yards and seven touchdowns. It's entirely possible that the Bengals will try to preserve Eifert's back and keep him out more often on first and second down, now that Kroft is more viable as an alternative. In the end, the Bengals' best bet to reinvigorate the offense is if Eifert returns close to form.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: A.J. Green
Green is coming off his worst healthy season as a pro, posting career lows in yards per target (7.6), catch rate (52.8 percent) and yards per game (67.4). Yet he will shoulder as much of the receiving load as ever, barring massive improvements from Tyler Boyd and John Ross. The Bengals better hope the updated O-line and playbook help.
RISING: Tyler Kroft
The Bengals have to view anything that they get from Tyler Eifert as a bonus. With a full offseason to prepare under offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, they should have plenty of packages that prominently feature Kroft.
FALLING: Brandon LaFell
LaFell defied the odds and did not fall down the depth chart last year, thanks to the stilted development of Tyler Boyd and John Ross. But LaFell's target share should further decline in his third year with the Bengals.
SLEEPER: John Ross
Last year's first-round bust will be under a lot of pressure to produce after a lost rookie season, and the coaching staff should feel the pressure to involve Ross as well. At least this year, he'll have a full training camp.
KEY JOB BATTLE – NO. 2 WIDE RECEIVER
The Bengals never really recovered from the twin departures via free agency of Marvin Jones (Lions) and Mohammed Sanu (Falcons) during the 2016 offseason, a problem that has been exacerbated by Tyler Eifert's injuries. The team really needs John Ross to take the next step and become that second option in the passing game, taking some pressure off of A.J. Green. Chances are, if Brandon LaFell continues to get the majority of snaps as the second wideout, the Bengals are going to have a disappointing offense. If Ross is out there making plays and Eifert is remotely healthy, the narrative could change considerably for the Bengals.
Cordy Glenn – OT (from Bills)
Woeful line finally addressed with trade for the left tackle.
Preston Brown – LB (from Bills)
Racked up 144 tackles in 2017, which was tied for the league lead.
Billy Price – C (Rd. 1, No. 21 – Ohio State)
Should step into the starting lineup immediately if healthy.
Jessie Bates – S (Rd. 2, No. 54 – Wake Forest)
A ballhawk that addresses another pressing team need.
Jeremy Hill – RB (to Patriots)
Gets a fresh start in New England after getting his ankle fixed.
AJ McCarron – QB (to Bills)
The Bengals didn't want to lose him, but he could start for Buffalo.
Adam Jones – CB (FA)
Unsigned but could still be brought back as a nickelback.
THE INJURY FRONT
Tyler Eifert, TE – Simply put, the Bengals offense is far more efficient with a healthy Eifert, but he's rarely been 100 percent in recent years. After scoring 13 touchdowns in 13 games in 2015, he played in just eight games in 2016 and two last season, the latter due to a back injury that also limited him at OTAs and held him out of mandatory minicamp this spring. Eifert recently tweeted that he's looking forward to the grind of training camp, but that's hardly confirmation that he'll be ready to go, much less at full speed – especially when juxtaposed against comments from executive Duke Tobin expressing uncertainty about his status. Eifert is a great lottery ticket at the end of a draft, especially when you only need one tight end, but far too risky to be the sole player at the position.
John Ross, WR – When we last saw Ross, he was busy being a first-round bust for the Bengals before getting shut down with a previously undisclosed left shoulder injury. He had surgery to repair a torn labrum in that shoulder in December and recovered relatively quickly. Ross got off to a slow start in his rookie season in part because he missed training camp with a similar procedure to his right shoulder and was way behind in learning the playbook. That shouldn't be a problem this year. He was a full participant in OTAs and put on muscle mass this offseason to boot.
Vontaze Burfict, LB – This isn't an injury so much a confirmation that Burfict will begin the season with yet another suspension. The number of games missed by the mercurial linebacker will reach 32 over the last five seasons due to suspensions and injuries. Preston Brown is emerging as the player who will replace Burfict during that stretch.