Josh Widman previews Bengals’ upcoming season and shares his predictions as Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow aims to change their fortunes.
The Bengals selected the Heisman Trophy winning, national-champion QB Joe Burrow with the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Cincinnati finished 2-14 last season and there’s nowhere to go but up. Burrow is walking into a better situation than most quarterbacks taken number one overall. Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard are two dependable running backs to lean on. Burrow also has some quality weapons to throw to. A.J. Green didn’t play a single game in 2019 but if he’s healthy and does play, having a Pro Bowl receiver should do wonders for the rookie quarterback. Outside of Green, Tyler Boyd had a career season in 2019 and Cincinnati drafted Tee Higgins from Clemson.
There are two major concerns in Cincinnati. One is the ability to protect Burrow. The Bengals surrendered 48 sacks last season. The other major concern is the defense, or lack thereof. In 2019, the Bengals ranked 29th in total defense, last in rush defense and rank in the bottom third of the league for passing and scoring defense. Year two for Head Coach Zac Taylor should be a stark improvement even if doesn’t translate into wins just yet.
The Bengals are the clear fourth-best team in the AFC North. Cincinnati went 1-5 against the division in 2019. Overall, the Bengals were an enigmatic two-win team. Six of their fourteen losses were one possession games but Cincinnati also suffered five losses by more than two touchdowns. The Bengals will show signs of growth but it will be difficult for them to do enough to win games. A shaky offensive line is not something that works well with a young quarterback. Burrow is 23 years old and his maturity will surely help him during his rookie season but even the best veteran quarter backs need time to throw and benefit from staying on their feet as much as possible.
While the Bengals do have capable weapons in the backfield and on the outside, they’re not going to light up scoreboards on a consistent basis. Finally, a defense of Cincinnati’s ability will put even more pressure on Burrow and the offense. Being down by large margins will create obvious passing situations. That will lead to more sacks and turnovers.
Burrow is going to throw the ball a lot. He played in a pro-style offense last season at LSU so the adjustment to the NFL won’t be as daunting or lengthy. As I mentioned, the Bengals are going to need the offense to score and Burrow can make all the throws.
He will have to deal with a questionable offensive line but Burrow is mobile and has shown the ability to use his legs to gain yards and move the chains. That is one way to counteract a deficient offensive line. There are two things separating him from other candidates. First, he will be starting immediately. Presumably, he will have 16 games whereas, at the time of writing, the other rookie QBs won’t be starting right away. Second, there is no one threating his touches. All of the top rookie running backs are in situations with a veteran lurking and the wide receivers must compete with their teammates for targets.
Andy Dalton and Ryan Finley combined to throw 18 TD passes last season. This indicates that below average quarterback play on the Bengals can manage to finish close to this line. A healthy A.J. Green would definitely make this attainable. Right now, he is healthy and Cincinnati is limiting his snaps during practice in order to protect him. Last season, three rookies threw for 20 or more TDs. Daniel Jones threw 24, Gardner Minshew threw 21 and Kyler Murray threw 20. Jones only played 13 games, had to deal with leaky offensive line and a depleted receiving core. Minshew only played in 14 games and only had one dependable receiver. Murray did start all 16 games but had to deal with the worst O-Line in the league, ran for four TDs and had to work out the kinks of the air-raid offense.
The takeaway from these three rookie campaigns is that Joe Burrow will be able to hit the over. If these three can succeed without a great O-Line, two of them can put up these numbers in fewer than 16 games and have weapons on the same level or below those of the Bengals, Joe Burrow can throw for 22 or more touchdowns.
Expect Joe Burrow to have a good season but it will not be without struggle. He plays in a division that features three of the top seven pass defenses in the league. The Bengals will finish last in the AFC North again. This season should be about Burrow getting comfortable and proving he is the guy moving forward in Cincinnati.
If you’re into betting longshots, Cincinnati’s odds of winning the Super Bowl are +17000.