CINCINNATI -- There's not much to be excited about these days with the Cincinnati Bengals headed for their third straight season without a playoff berth.
The Bengals have a lot of work to do before they can be considered a playoff-caliber team again, with their linebackers and offensive line needing an upgrade and decisions to be made at tight end.
But it's not all dire. The Bengals have some budding superstars on their roster, and some players that could have the potential to be very good in the future.
Here are five players from the last three drafts who could potentially be the next generation of Bengals stars:
Tyler Boyd, WR (2016 second-round pick)
Boyd looked like he was headed in the wrong direction for most of last year. Now he’s about to become the first Bengals receiver other than A.J. Green to reach the 1,000-yard mark since 2009.
Boyd has 990 yards and will surely get to that benchmark early in Sunday’s game against the Oakland Raiders. It’s a total turnaround from last season when he finished with only 225 yards (130 in the last two games alone).
"Tyler has been having a great season. To me, he is one of the best receivers in the league, and he's definitely one of the best slot receivers in the league," said running back Joe Mixon. "He's undervalued but the more he starts getting the ball and the more he does, the more people start noticing. Tyler does a great job and he's going to get 1,000 yards this game, and I can't wait to be there to witness that."
Boyd has become the most reliable receiver on the team with Green out, and it bodes well for the future. His first drop out of his 72 catches didn’t come until last week. He's someone who can man the slot for years to come if he ends up re-signing with the Bengals after next season.
Joe Mixon, RB (2017 second-round pick)
A few outside factors might have held Mixon back from reaching his full potential.
The offensive line, especially the right side, has struggled, and his usage has been sporadic. The Bengals tend to use Giovani Bernard as their third down and two-minute back since he's considered the better pass blocker. At times, the Bengals appeared to go away from Mixon. At other times, they were too far behind to run the ball.
The Bengals are 3-1 when they have given Mixon at least 20 carries in a game. The highlight came in a 37-34 victory over the Buccaneers on Oct. 28 when he had 21 carries for a season-high 123 yards and a touchdown.
Mixon got 26 carries and rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown in a loss to the Chargers last week. He said the reason for his success was simple: He got an opportunity.
"Coach stayed true to the run and I feel like that's how he wants to call the game and I feel that's probably how he will call the game," Mixon said. "But by staying true and not getting negative gains, not playing behind the chains, the game could definitely be played like that. And I feel like if we do that, we'll be successful."
If the Bengals can figure out the right balance of run and pass next year and fix their offensive line woes, Mixon might just become a name that's put in the same conversation with the league's top backs. He leads the Bengals with 866 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns.
William Jackson III, CB (2016 first-round pick)
Jackson hasn't quite lived up to the high expectations he generated after last year, but he's certainly been solid.
It hasn't been perfect. Jackson has struggled in coverage at times and perhaps never adjusted to former defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's system. But there's no doubt he's the brightest star in the Bengals secondary.
"William over the last three or four weeks is really understanding what playing cornerback is all about," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis in early December.
That showed last week, when Jackson had one of his best games against the Chargers, allowing only two receptions for 9 yards on five targets, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Bengals have a lot of sorting out to do regarding their defense, but if all goes well for Jackson, he's certainly the one who will be expected to lead the secondary.
Jessie Bates, S (2018 second-round pick)
Things could have been very different for the Bengals this season if they had been able to sign free agent Kurt Coleman like they wanted to in early spring. Coleman signed with the Saints instead, where his snaps have been steadily declining.
The Bengals, despite having starter George Iloka, took a leap of faith and selected Bates in the second round. He was good enough in training camp for the Bengals to send Iloka packing, and he’s been solid ever since.
Bates was named Pro Football Focus’ Defensive Rookie of the Month in October after allowing only three catches in coverage that month. He is also the website's second-highest graded rookie safety.
He leads the Bengals in tackles and has three interceptions and five pass deflections. Bates was drafted with the idea that the Bengals could force more turnovers with him than with Iloka. While the turnovers have come and gone this season, Bates' play is certainly encouraging.
John Ross, WR (2017 first-round pick)
Ross’ career has certainly not been what anyone hoped after the Bengals’ selected him with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 draft. Nobody can deny his raw talent and speed, and he’s one of the fastest players in the league. But he just hasn’t been able to put it all together.
Ross has admitted that he tends to get inside his own head too much and that has led to mental errors on the field, one of which caused an interception.
But things have started to click for him over the last month or so.
"I definitely got better," he said. "It's not exactly where I want to be, but I'm still learning."
He has scored touchdowns in four of the past five games, which is tied for the team lead even though he only has 200 receiving yards.
He’s had touchdowns in four of the past five games, although his touchdowns have mostly come in the red zone -- he only has 200 receiving yards on the season. His six receiving touchdowns are tied with Green and Boyd for the team lead.
If Ross can follow the Boyd's path, he could potentially have a very special 2019 season with the right guidance.