Can the Cincinnati Bengals be a Super Bowl contender in 2017?
The idea of the Bengals making a playoff run this year cooled off considerably after a 6-9-1 season in 2016. Despite five straight playoff appearances from 2011 to 2015, there's a lot of skepticism surrounding the team’s chances this year.
A large part of that perception is because of their offensive line issues. The Bengals allowed 41 sacks last season. That was with Pro Bowlers Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth. Both left in free agency this year.
If the young guys on the o-line take a big step forward and become an average group, is this team a legitimate super bowl contender?
— Jesse King (@JKingCincy) June 9, 2017
Zeitler's replacement is Andre Smith, a longtime right tackle for the Bengals who was not pursued heavily by them and signed with the Vikings for one disastrous season. He played in only four games because of injury. At 30, he is now attempting to make the move to guard for the first time in his career.
Whitworth's replacement is Cedric Ogbuehi, who struggled all of last season at right tackle and was forced to share the role with Eric Winston. He didn’t fare much better in one game at left tackle either, which is where he’ll play this season. Jake Fisher will move into Ogbuehi’s spot, leaving Clint Boling and Russell Bodine as the only full-time starters returning.
But what if the dream scenario happened and the offensive line was able to step up this season? Could the Bengals be a Super Bowl contender, or at the very least, return to the playoffs?
Why they could make it back to the playoffs: The Bengals have appeared to resolve some of their problem areas, at least on paper. Linebackers Rey Maualuga and Karlos Dansby were showing their age last season. They’ve been replaced by Kevin Minter, who is only 26 but has enough experience for the Bengals to feel comfortable signing him in free agency.
Nick Vigil, in his second season, probably will be the strongside linebacker. They’ve upgraded in athleticism at the position, and barring injury, Vontaze Burfict should be there from Day 1 after starting last year on suspension. That could be huge for early games.
It’s highly unlikely the Bengals' kicking situation will be as bad as it was in 2016, when it probably cost them a few games. They drafted Jake Elliott in the fifth round and have him competing with Randy Bullock, but it’s probably Elliott’s job to lose. A better kicking situation last year could’ve meant the difference in at least three games.
If all goes well, A.J. Green won’t be putting so much on his shoulders this year. The Bengals have added two dymanic offensive rookies -- Joe Mixon and John Ross -- in addition to wide receiver Josh Malone. Ross, if he stays healthy, adds a badly needed speed option, and Mixon gives them a versatile running back who also can catch passes. He’s already an upgrade at that position.
What could hold them back: The Bengals are taking a big chance that Ogbuehi and Fisher step up after showing few signs last year, but clearly they felt confident enough in what they have. Despite having 11 draft picks, they didn’t take an offensive lineman until the fifth round. Smith will have to learn to play guard and stay healthy.
The Bengals are taking a lot of chances with their offensive line that could have been avoided if they had been able to keep Whitworth or Zeitler. Their depth at that position beyond the starters is suspect.
It’s still possible Adam Jones could be suspended because of his off-the-field conduct. If that were to happen, Darqueze Dennard, who has struggled to live up to his first-round status, or William Jackson III, a promising second-year player who was hurt his rookie season, would be filling in. Jones is also going to be 34 this fall, which is on the older side for a cornerback.
The Bengals have added several promising players on offense, but what about those players who are coming back from injury? Tyler Eifert, who missed half of last season with ankle and back injuries, is recovering from back surgery. Giovani Bernard is recovering from an ACL tear. If those two regain their previous form, the Bengals could have a formidable offense. If they don’t, that’s two big playmakers the team won’t be able to utilize.
The Bengals added some pass-rushers after registering only 41 sacks last year, but with their recent track record of playing defensive rookies sparingly, it’s suspect as to how much they’ll use them.
There’s also the mental aspect. Marvin Lewis is entering the final season of his contract, which could mean lame-duck status this year. The Bengals haven’t reached their full potential under Lewis, and after seven playoff losses, it could be a make-or-break season for him.