This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Bengals have assembled an impressive array of raw talent in the draft, but is the foundation right? The offensive line struggled and then lost Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler to free agency, while adding just Andre Smith in return. Unless the line improves, the touted draft picks won't help enough.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
THE NEED FOR SPEED
The Bengals clearly made speed their priority at the draft. First-round wideout John Ross ran an NFL Combine-record 4.22 40-yard dash, third-round defensive end Jordan Willis recorded an impressive 4.53 40-yard mark and fourth-round linebacker Carl Lawson logged in at 4.67. Add in Joe Mixon and fourth-round receiver Josh Malone, and you can see the sudden infusion of fleetness on this team. Ross had a monster season at the University of Washington in 2016, catching 81 passes for 1,150 yards and a whopping 17 touchdowns. But durability is a big concern – he has had an ACL tear, two meniscus tears and is now recovering from a torn labrum in his shoulder. Ross could take a while to develop, as he'll miss all of OTAs to recover from shoulder surgery and finish his degree. The team has already said he won't work out of the slot, meaning that he'll have to replace returnee Brandon LaFell to secure regular playing time. Meanwhile, the Bengals' pass rush stagnated last year, dropping from 42 sacks to 33. That's where Willis and Lawson fit in. Willis racked up 21 sacks over his last two seasons at Kansas State. Lawson fell in the draft because of his injury history, but he averaged three QB pressures per game and had nine sacks last year. Both will push for playing time in the team's 4-3 defense.
WHO CARRIES THE ROCK?
With the addition of draftee Joe Mixon, the Bengals have a three-headed monster in the backfield between Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and the rookie. There's not much question about Mixon's talent – at Oklahoma last year he rushed for 1,274 yards while averaging 6.8 yards per carry, en route to scoring 10 touchdowns. He also gets high marks for his pass-blocking skills, which is an important factor for rookies to get on the field. Moreover, he's been clocked at 4.43 in the 40-yard dash, elite among the incoming running backs. He fell in the draft because he punched a woman in 2014, an offense that was caught on camera with the video being released to the public last year. The Bengals have taken on other character risks in the past, so it's not entirely surprising that they picked Mixon. Hill, who is in the last year of his contract, is coming off two underwhelming seasons where he averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry. As a point of comparison with Mixon, Hill's 40-time was listed at 4.66, and he hasn't gotten faster since then. Bernard is recovering from a torn ACL and isn't guaranteed to be ready for the start of training camp, let alone return to his pre-injury form. Bernard might be better suited for third-down duty, in any case, given his pass-catching skills.
WHERE'S THE BEEF?
For all the bandwidth spent on the skill positions, it might not matter. Andy Dalton got sacked 41 times in 2016, and that was with Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler on hand. Both were top-five players at their position, per Pro Football Focus. The team struggled to create running room for Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Now both Whitworth and Zeitler have moved on via free agency. Losing Zeitler particularly hurts, as the Bengals bid aggressively to keep him and instead lost out to division rival Cleveland. One might have thought that the Bengals would have moved aggressively in free agency and/or the draft to replace the two departed starters, but they did very little. Their one key free-agent acquisition was former Bengal Andre Smith, who spent last season in Minnesota, where he landed on IR in Week 4 with a triceps injury. They added center J.J. Dielman in the draft, but the fifth-rounder missed the Combine with a broken foot and will be well behind. Stepping into the breach will be two 2015 second-round picks, Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi, both of whom struggled when given an opportunity last year. Ogbuehi ended the season with a torn rotator cuff and could be behind in training camp. It's hard to be optimistic about the offensive line's performance in 2017.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Andy Dalton
Dalton threw a career-low 18 touchdown passes last season and averaged just 7.5 yards per pass attempt. He was sacked 41 times, as many as the two previous campaigns combined. Though he had to contend with major injuries to Tyler Eifert, A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard, the QB needs to rebound for the Bengals to recover from 2016.
RISING: Andy Dalton
If the offensive line woes can be fixed – admittedly a big "if" – Dalton will have a collection of speedy, early-round skill position players around him. He showed his upside before an injury ended his 2015 season.
FALLING: Jeremy Hill
Hill said all the right things after Joe Mixon was drafted, but the Bengals clearly had replacing him in mind when they selected Mixon. As just one barometer, Hill went undrafted in the RotoWire PPR Mock Draft.
SLEEPER: Tyler Boyd
The Bengals have already said that neither John Ross nor Josh Malone will work in the slot, which means that Boyd, last year's second-round pick, will still have a role in the offense and could take the leap.
KEY JOB BATTLE – STARTING RUNNING BACK
While there's going to be a battle for targets among the Bengals' wideouts behind A.J. Green between John Ross, Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd, the big job battle for the team remains at running back. The consensus in the fantasy community is that Joe Mixon will defeat Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard for the job, at least in terms of where they are being selected early in draft season. Mixon typically goes in the third round, with Hill falling nearly 10 rounds later and Bernard later still. Where there could be some pushback from those expectations is around the goal line, where Hill's size might be considered a bigger asset. If handicapping the job battle, we'll guess Mixon has a 65 percent chance of winning the job, Hill 30 percent and Bernard just five percent.
John Ross – WR (Rd. 1, No. 9 – Washington)
The fastest player at the Combine but had labrum surgery in the spring.
Kevin Zeitler – G (to Browns)
Losing Whitworth was tough, losing Zeitler could prove fatal.
Rex Burkhead – RB (to Patriots)
The Week 17 hero faces a crowded backfield in New England.
THE INJURY FRONT
A.J. Green, WR – A torn hamstring in Week 11 ended Green's 2017 season, though not without some brief hope that he would play the final two games, only to see the the team shut him down. Green was able to participate in OTA's in March, however, and should be fine for the start of training camp.
Tyler Eifert, TE – Eifert missed four games at the start of the season with an ankle injury and then missed the final four games with a back injury that ultimately required surgery in December. He was limited in OTA's and in minicamp, but expects to be cleared for the start of training camp. Watch this one closely to see what sort of activity he's cleared for at the start of camp.
Giovani Bernard, RB – Bernard is eight months removed from ACL surgery on his left knee. He hopes to be cleared for activity at the start of training camp, but it wouldn't be surprising if he were limited in some respects early on. It'll be difficult for Bernard to hold off rookie Joe Mixon for reps if he's anything less than 100 percent.
John Ross, WR – The Bengals' speedy first-round draft pick had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder and missed OTA's as a result. Coach Marvin Lewis said that he hopes Ross will be able to play in the preseason "at some point," which suggests that at best he could be limited at the start of camp.