Cincinnati Bengals 2021 Season Preview: Will Burrow shine in Year 2?

    As we preview what should be a fascinating season for the Cincinnati Bengals, can they defy expectations with Joe Burrow back under center?

    The Cincinnati Bengals are starting to look like an AFC North contender in 2021, but the preview of how their season turns out comes down to how well they protect their franchise quarterback coming off a gruesome knee injury. There’s a lot to like about the offense, but a few fatal flaws prevent this team from competing in 2021. There are also exterior factors that should preclude them from a playoff push this season.

    Cincinnati Bengals 2021 season preview

    The external factor hurting the Bengals chances at a playoff push is their ridiculously difficult schedule. They were a bottom-five team in the league last year, yet the Bengals have the fifth-hardest schedule in the NFL. Their difficulty comes from their seven games against teams projected to have double-digit wins.

    They face the Browns and Ravens four times within the division. Additionally, the Bengals battle the Packers, Chiefs, and the 49ers throughout the year. The difficult thing about their schedule is most of their challenging games are at home, so there is an advantage to the more middling teams on their schedule that they’re forced to play away from Paul Brown Stadium.

    However, Cincinnati also gets a few games they should be favored in. They face the Jaguars, Jets, Bears, and the Lions. All of those games should be winnable for the Bengals as long as Burrow remains healthy.

    Offseason additions and losses

    There was a bit of change in the Cincinnati organization in 2021. The biggest came when the Bengals decided to let Carl Lawson walk in favor of Trey Hendrickson in free agency. Lawson is arguably the better player, and he signed with the Jets for a cheaper price tag than Hendrickson did. Unless he needed a change of scenery, this seems like a bit of a downgrade. Hendrickson broke out last year for the Saints as a part-time pass rusher, but 2020 was his only productive season.

    William Jackson also left in free agency. The Bengals attempted to throw multiple darts at the wall to replace him. They signed Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton to pair with Jessie Bates III, Trae Waynes, and Vonn Bell. The one upgrade they made for the team through free agency was on the offensive line. The Bengals cut offensive tackle Bobby Hart in favor of Riley Reiff, who spent the last four seasons in Minnesota.

    Furthermore, the Bengals lost Geno Atkins and added Larry Ogunjobi. They also allowed John Ross and A.J. Green to sign elsewhere. Losing Green isn’t as significant as it would have been in years past, as that final season was an ugly one for the former superstar receiver.

    2021 NFL Draft

    Boy, there was no lack of controversy about who the Bengals should take at fifth overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. Eventually, it became clear their intentions were on wide receiver, and there was only one name that made sense for Cincinnati and Joe Burrow. The team selected Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick. The Bengals’ receiving corps look impressive with him, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. But can the offensive line protect Burrow long enough for him to deliver the ball?

    Well, they certainly tried with the selection of Clemson offensive lineman Jackson Carman. Carman is a big-bodied blocker best suited for the interior due to footwork and length questions. Still, he has a powerful anchor and can move well in a phone booth. Joseph Ossai was their third-round selection, and that was one of the better value picks of their draft. He’s a versatile pass rusher who’s athletic enough to drop into space in spurts as well.

    Cam Sample also plays on the edge but as a traditional defensive end. He’d be perfect for odd fronts where he plays as a 5-technique. They continued to deal in the trenches with Tyler Shelvin. He’ll offer next to nothing as a pass rusher, but he was one of the best pure run defenders in this draft class.

    The Bengals did address their offensive line again later on with the selections of D’Ante Smith and Trey Hill. Smith has the tools to be an eventual starter in the league. Hill is another big-bodied interior blocker that has the potential to start if he can develop. Their final offensive pick was Michigan running back Chris Evans, who is ripe with upside.

    Where do their players rank in PFN’s Top 100?

    The Bengals only have one player on PFN’s Top 100 NFL Players heading into 2021, but he happens to be one of the best safeties in the league. They also have the potential to add multiple players heading into 2022.

    48) Jessie Bates III

    Bates is the best free safety in the league. It’s only a matter of time before he puts up a ridiculous number of interceptions. When his team improves to the point the opposition is forced to throw against them, he’ll find even more production. He’s begun his career with some unbelievable consistency. Bates has intercepted 3 passes and totaled nearly the same amount of tackles each season.

    Last year, however, he got his hands on 15 more passes. He’s intuitive in coverage and possesses excellent range on the back end, moving from sideline to sideline with ease.

    Bengals 2021 prediction

    The Bengals head into Year 3 with Zac Taylor steering the ship away from icebergs. In 2020, there were a lot of empty offensive sets trying to make Burrow comfortable. That may sound counterintuitive, but it’s something Burrow frequently did at LSU with great success. I won’t claim that Taylor is setting the world on fire as a coach, but his roster hasn’t been good enough to compete.

    This will be Brian Callahan’s third year as the Bengals OC. His offenses haven’t been good, but they’ve battled without much help on the offensive line. And until this year, their receiving corps wasn’t up to snuff.

    Bengals DC Lou Anarumo hasn’t produced an excellent defense yet, but the team has struggled to put a competitive roster together for close to seven years. The defense is still in flux, but they’re trying to piece together parts to fit together and be competent alongside what should be an improved offense.

    Offense

    The Bengals preview as one of the more explosive offenses in the league heading into the 2021 season. With Burrow coming back healthy (according to the team) and the addition of Chase, they should have sufficient firepower. The tricky part comes with implementing an offense that can maximize their skill positions while having an underwhelming offensive line.

    Defense

    Cincinnati’s defense is in an interesting spot. They’re youthful at linebacker with some veterans mixed into their defensive line and secondary. They have a good amount of young developmental talent on the defensive line as well. However, outside of Bates, the high-end talent doesn’t exist on this side of the ball.

    2021 Bengals record prediction

    The Bengals’ roster is improving, but their 2021 season preview doesn’t inspire confidence. There might not be more time for Taylor after this season, but it’s not his fault the team hasn’t built a roster to compete. Of the lower-tier franchises, the Bengals are among the ones with the most to look forward to. If they can make some key additions heading into 2022, they might compete in one of the best divisions in football. Still, this looks like a 6-11 team this year.

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