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Better, worse or the same? Bengals hoping big moves improve defense

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Burrow doing his best to prepare for rookie season during isolation (0:51)

Even though Joe Burrow isn't physically in Cincinnati, the Bengals rookie QB isn't wasting time in his transition to the NFL. (0:51)

Anyone who watched the Cincinnati Bengals play defense last season could see major improvements were necessary.

In 2019, the Bengals were tied with the Houston Texans for the most yards allowed per play in the NFL. Were it not for a defensive red zone efficiency that ranked in the top five, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, things could have been more grim for the NFL’s worst team last season.

After a 2-14 season, Cincinnati made an extensive effort in overhauling the defensive roster. The Bengals, a traditionally frugal franchise on the open market, shelled out top dollar for players in hopes of improving a unit that ranked 25th in points allowed per game.

The roster additions should bring improved results for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit in 2019. Here’s a position-by-position breakdown for the Bengals’ defense and ratings on whether they are better, worse or the same going into the 2020 season.

Defensive ends

Additions: Kendall Futrell (rookie free agent), Khalid Kareem (fifth-round pick)

Losses: Niles Scott (free agent), Kerry Wynn (free agency)

Returners: Freedom Akinmoladun, Andrew Brown, Carlos Dunlap, Sam Hubbard, Carl Lawson

Better, worse or the same? Same.

For all the work the Bengals did this offseason in retooling the defense, defensive end was the lone position that didn’t receive a significant upgrade. That could be a position the Bengals address either through early waivers or as a primary need in the next offseason. In 2019, Cincinnati didn’t have a single player rank in the top 40 in pass rush win rate, an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen. Lawson, who once again battled injuries, led the Bengals with a win rate of 15.1%, good for 35th in the league last season among all edge rushers. As a team, Cincinnati ranked 27th in PRWR.

The Bengals need more from their edge rushers in 2020. Dunlap quietly finished 2019 with a team-high nine sacks fueled by a flurry at the end. Dunlap, who makes $11 million against the salary cap, will need to increase his consistency throughout the season. If Lawson and Hubbard can stay healthy, they will bolster a pass rush that needs a significant boost.

Defensive tackles

Additions: D.J. Reader (free agent), Tyler Clark (rookie free agent), Trey Dishon (rookie free agent)

Losses: Andrew Billings (free agency)

Returners: Geno Atkins, Ryan Glasgow, Josh Tupou, Renell Wren

Better, worse or the same? Better.

Cincinnati’s biggest offseason spending spree in franchise history started with Reader’s signing. The Bengals landed Reader with a massive four-year, $53 million deal that makes him the next cornerstone of the defensive interior. It’s a lot of money to give someone who has 6.5 sacks in four seasons, but it eases the burden on Atkins, the quiet Bengals legend who might be moving into the twilight of his career.

Atkins has historically been the team’s best pass rusher and an absolute menace in the middle of the defensive line. He flashed signs of dominance, reached the Pro Bowl and showed why he will be a Hall of Fame candidate when his career ends. But because of injuries and a lack of depth, Atkins played more snaps in 2019 than the coaching staff wanted, which could explain why he finished with a mere 4.5 sacks, his lowest total since 2014. If he can have a resurgent season, Atkins and Reader could be a powerful tandem.

Linebackers

Additions: Josh Bynes (free agent), Austin Calitro (free agent), Akeem Davis-Gaither (fourth-round pick), Marcel Spears Jr. (rookie free agent), Logan Wilson (third-round pick), Markus Bailey (seventh-round pick)

Losses: Nick Vigil (free agent)

Returners: Jordan Evans, Germaine Pratt, Brady Sheldon

Better, worse or the same? Better.

To say the Bengals were disappointed with this unit would be a gross understatement. Problems with the linebackers were apparent at the beginning of 2019, when just four of them made the roster by the end of the preseason. In the middle of the season, Cincinnati cut Preston Brown, and after the season, it let Nick Vigil leave in free agency.

Cincinnati made improving the linebacker play one of its main priorities of the offseason. The Bengals targeted Joe Schobert early in free agency. If he had signed with Cincinnati instead of taking a five-year, $53.8 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, it could have changed the entire direction of the Bengals’ free-agency plan.

Still, the Bengals did plenty to address the middle of the defense. They drafted three linebackers, including Wyoming’s Wilson, who has the potential to start in Week 1. Bynes is a much-needed veteran presence, and Calitro brings quality depth. This could be Cincinnati’s most improved unit in 2020.

Safeties

Additions: Vonn Bell (free agency)

Losses: Clayton Fejedelem (free agency), Trayvon Henderson (free agent)

Returners: Jessie Bates III, Shaun Williams, Brandon Wilson

Better, worse or the same? Better.

Cincinnati made a late splash in free agency when it inked former New Orleans Saints safety Bell to a three-year deal worth $18 million. Bell likely will bump Williams from a starting role, even though Williams earned good marks from Anarumo last season.

Last season was a strange one for the Bengals’ safeties. Schematically, the Bengals often relied on Bates to be the last line of defense, while Williams played in the box to help a shaky linebacker unit. If the Bengals’ front seven is improved, it should give the safeties some relief and freedom to play more naturally in 2020.

Cornerbacks

Additions: Mackensie Alexander (free agent), LeShaun Sims (free agent), Isiah Swann (rookie free agent), Trae Waynes (free agent), Tony Brown (free agent), Winston Rose (free agent)

Losses: Dre Kirkpatrick (released), Darqueze Dennard (free agent), B.W. Webb (released)

Returners: William Jackson III, Greg Mabin, Torry McTyer, Darius Phillips

Better, worse or the same? Better.

This was another unit that received a massive overhaul this offseason. Cincinnati signed former Minnesota outside cornerback Waynes to a three-year, $42 million deal that effectively spelled the end of Kirkpatrick’s run in Cincinnati. Alexander, another former Viking, signed a one-year deal that should help fill the void at insider cornerback created by Dennard’s departure.

If the Bengals can get quality play from Waynes and Jackson, the two outside cornerbacks, it will help a secondary that was far from menacing in 2019. Last season, the Bengals were 28th in passes defended and 31st in yards allowed per pass attempt. This will be a make-or-break year for Jackson, a 2016 first-round pick who will be looking to make a statement in the final year of his rookie contract.