It’s been a rocky start to the 2019 season for new Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. Injuries (A.J. Green, Jonah Williams) and a retirement (Clint Boling) have sapped the team of leaders and depth on the offensive line. The roster shakeup is also giving some unknown players a chance to make a name for themselves. Here are a few Bengals that could break out in 2019.
Josh Malone, Wide receiver
Josh Malone might be the best-kept secret on this offense right now. The 6’3” receiver runs a 4.40 forty-yard dash and is entering the crucial third year that traditionally serves as the “lightbulb” year for NFL wideouts. Most importantly, he’s getting first-team reps while A.J. Green recovers from ankle surgery.
Malone has impressed head coach Zac Taylor with his consistency in training camp, and he’s admitted to a more rigorous offseason conditioning program. He has the speed to serve as the team’s deep threat and will compete with John Ross for that role when Green returns from injury. Given Ross’ injury history, look for this to be a breakout season for Malone.
Michael Jordan, Guard
The Bengals stockpiled mid-round draft picks this year, hoarding three picks in both the fourth and sixth rounds of the draft. One of those picks, fourth-rounder Michael Jordan, may end up starting by the end of the season. As the revolving door at left guard continues, look for Jordan to eventually step in and provide some stability at the position. He’s already taking first-team snaps in preseason and has received decent grades from Pro Football Focus. Street free agent John Jerry may begin the season as the starter but look for the Ohio State product to end it there.
Alex Erickson, Wide receiver
For now, it looks like Alex Erickson will earn his keep on special teams as a punt returner. As Zac Taylor attempts to install his new offense without A.J. Green and an oft-injured John Ross, it may not be long before Erickson is a regular contributor on offense. If injuries force slot receiver Tyler Boyd to the outside, Erickson is his logical replacement in the slot. The team has already refused offseason trade offers for Erickson, so there’s clearly something there that they like. Boyd appears locked into the “Cooper Kupp” role in the Bengals new offense. As the offense evolves, look for Erickson to get more involved in the passing game.
Sam Hubbard, Defensive end
A mid-round pick from Ohio State expected to contribute heavily in 2019, stop me if you’ve heard this one. A second-year player and former Buckeye, the hope is that Sam Hubbard makes a huge leap this year. He steps in as the starter at right defensive end after a productive rookie season where he logged six sacks, seven tackles for loss, and 39 total tackles.
With longtime starter Michael Johnson out of the picture, expect Hubbard to lead a rotation that includes veteran Kerry Wynn, Jordan Willis, and pass-rush specialist Carl Lawson. After last year’s atrocious defensive performance, any change is good for Cincinnati. New defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is expected to emphasize getting to the quarterback. Look for Hubbard to lead the pass-rushing youth-movement charge on the front seven.
Renell Wren, Defensive tackle
Even though the Bengals defense finished dead last in 2018, the team didn’t appear in a hurry to fix things in the offseason. They hired an offensive-minded head coach and spent their first two draft picks on the offensive side of the ball. They eventually turned their attention to the defense, including a freak from Arizona State in the fourth round.
Last year Renell Wren was named to The Athletic’s Freaks List, which profiles the best all-around athletes in college football. The Bengals are taking a good, long look at the “Freak.” He led all defensive players in snaps in the Bengals week 2 preseason game vs. Washington. For now, the space-eating Andrew Billing is atop the depth chart but look for Wren to work his way into the rotation early. He makes for an intriguing pairing with seven-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins.