The Cincinnati Bengals made a surprise Super Bowl appearance last season thanks to their explosive offense and flexible defense. If the Bengals want to compete amongst a reloaded AFC in 2022, their breakout candidates will need to take steps forward. Which Cincinnati role players could see their duties expand next year?
Cincinnati Bengals 2022 breakout candidates
Chris Evans, RB
Samaje Perine is the current backup to starting Bengals running back Joe Mixon, but that could change in 2022. Perine is entering his age-27 season and will be playing on the final year of his contract.
Meanwhile, Chris Evans, Cincinnati’s sixth-round pick in 2021, is 24 and has three years remaining on his rookie deal. He’s a longer-term asset for the Bengals, and the tide should soon begin to turn in his direction — perhaps as early as Week 1.
Evans was a solid contributor at Michigan before academic issues interrupted his collegiate career. The Bengals clearly liked his elite burst and agility testing, and Evans flashed in limited opportunities during his rookie campaign.
With Perine sidelined by COVID-19 in Week 6, Evans was a featured part of the game plan. He managed three catches — including a beautiful touchdown reception from a wide receiver alignment — in a victory over the Detroit Lions. Facing the Cleveland Browns in Week 17, Evans put up 59 total yards and another TD catch in a game where the Bengals rested their starters.
Perine played 27% of Cincinnati’s offensive snaps in 2021, coming in on nearly every third down all the way through the Bengals’ Super Bowl run. The club’s offensive staff seems to prefer taking Mixon off the field on most passing downs. If that’s the case again next season, Evans could provide more dynamism in that role, giving the Bengals the receiving back they’ve been lacking since Giovani Bernard’s prime.
Mixon is not a guarantee to last the entire season, either. He’ll be 26 years old in June and is coming off a season that involved a whopping 419 touches (including the playoffs), by far the most of his career. He’d never even come within shouting distance of that total before, as his previous high was 313 in 2019. If Mixon breaks down, Evans’ path to a breakout would become even more clear.
Hayden Hurst, TE
A former first-round pick entering his age-29 season with his third NFL team is a breakout candidate? We’ll use the term a little loosely here, but there’s no doubt that Hayden Hurst will have the chance to put up a career year in 2022.
Hurst has only been his team’s clear-cut TE1 in one season. That came in 2020 when he posted 56 catches, 571 yards, and six touchdowns for the Atlanta Falcons. Before that, he was behind Mark Andrews on the Baltimore Ravens’ depth chart. And last year, Hurst didn’t get a full complement of snaps playing behind Kyle Pitts.
Now, Hurst is in one of the best situations in the NFL. He’ll be catching the ball from a top-five NFL quarterback in Joe Burrow, who will be protected by a much improved offensive line. Hurst will be flanked by Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd as pass-catching options, so he’s unlikely to see the 15% target share he managed with the Falcons in 2020. But even if he matches C.J. Uzomah’s 9.3% rate from a season ago, Hurst could produce exceptional results.
The Bengals didn’t select a tight end in the 2022 NFL Draft. Thus, Hurst’s only positional competition is Drew Sample, who has proven time and again that receiving is not his strong suit. When Cincinnati is in 11 personnel (which they were on 77% of their plays last year, second-most in the NFL), Hurst will be on the field. Given that he’s not much of a blocker, Hurst will be asked to run plenty of routes — and the targets and receptions should follow.
Joseph Ossai, DE
Joseph Ossai may have had the best coming-out party of any rookie in 2021. After all, it doesn’t get much better than sacking Tom Brady and posting seven pressures in a victory.
Unfortunately, Ossai put up that performance in Week 1 of the preseason — and it was his last game of the year. The third-round pick out of Texas suffered a meniscus injury against the reigning Super Bowl champions and was forced to miss the rest of the season.
Trey Hendrickson was near-elite in his first season in Cincinnati, and Sam Hubbard is an acceptable No. 2 rusher. But Ossai could essentially become Carl Lawson 2.0, a sub-package rusher who eventually develops into a starter — a comparison made all the easier by Ossai taking over Lawson’s No. 58 jersey.
Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo proved last year that adaptability is his best trait as a play-caller. Remember when Cincinnati deployed all those three-man rush looks against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game? Hubbard was often used as a spy in those coverages. Yet, Ossai — a former inside linebacker — would make even more sense in that role if Cincinnati tries dropping eight again.
The Bengals didn’t make any major additions to their defensive end rotation this offseason. That’s a clear indication that Cincinnati’s coaching staff expects Ossai to contribute in 2022. Sure, he may have to nominally compete for snaps with Cam Sample and Wyatt Hubert. But the EDGE3 job is absolutely Ossai’s to lose, and he’s a legitimate breakout candidate.