In what feels like a long hibernation, we finally have arrived at the end of the road. The NFL season, one that was in jeopardy for most of the 2020 offseason, will kick off Thursday night, bringing normality back to a small part of the world. As for the Cincinnati Bengals, their team might struggle in 2020, but there are always players on the roster that end the year as standouts.
Give credit to Mike Brown and the organization for opening their wallets. They tried to fix their secondary by adding well-rounded defenders and bolstered their run game with rising star D.J. Reader. Starting fresh under center, Joe Burrow will have the chance to breathe new life into a franchise that will be looking for their first postseason victory since 1995.
The impending season will be a building one. So long as Burrow blossoms, Joe Mixon makes magic on his new contract, and the defense develops from a mediocre mess to serviceable, things will be looking up. However many wins or losses are on the board come seasons end, there are always a few names that will be considered standouts among the rest. In the Jungle, these cats will be the ones fans remember by December.
Cincinnati Bengals likely roster standouts in 2020
Top free-agent addition: DL D.J. Reader
Reader was far and away the crown jewel of the free-agency overhaul. He’s coming off his best season in Houston as a nose tackle and displayed great speed for a 347-pound defender. After shedding weight to fit the new scheme, he’ll be tasked to step up alongside Geno Atkins as the main run-stuffer in the 32nd-ranked run defense.
Now the highest-paid nose tackle in football, he’ll be forced to live up to the contract. If he can improve as a pass rusher, it should allow him to explode off the line and create havoc consistently. Atkins and Mike Daniels will make the three-man rotation something to watch, but Reader could be the future of nose tackles if his size doesn’t delay his run-stopping skills.
Offensive rookie of the year: QB Joe Burrow
Let’s make this brief, shall we? The last time there was this much excitement for a quarterback in Cincinnati was during the first season of the Carson Palmer era. With another Heisman winner in the building, Burrow will bring that winning mentality that made him the star of the SEC in 2019.
Will there be growing pains? Yes, of course; he’s playing behind the 28th-ranked offensive line, and there’s little to say they’ll improve. There’s also the chance his wide receivers are inconsistent or oft-injured like their track record would suggest. Still, Burrow needs to show he’s competent to lead a team to victory. Anything over four wins in his rookie year with 3,000 passing yards is a massive win. He should get that locked up by Week 14.
Defensive rookie of the year: LB Logan Wilson
Markus Bailey is going to surprise a ton of people after being drafted in the seventh round, but Wilson likely gets the nod to start early. Josh Bynes will be the first to see action along with second-year prospect Germaine Pratt, while Wilson should find reps in sub-packages in pass-heavy schemes.
The Wyoming product flawlessly transitioned his coverage skills from playing cornerback to linebacker with the Cowboys. The epitome of a wrap-up tackler (409 career tackles), Wilson is a three-down defender who can improve both areas of the defense. His camp wasn’t the strongest, but once seeing action in a live game, those reps should become second nature for the future leader of the defense.
Offensive player of the year: RB Joe Mixon
They say running backs don’t matter, right? Well, Mixon does when it comes to Zac Taylor’s scheme. Fresh off receiving a new four-year, $48 million extension, the 24-year-old is going to have a chance to prove that his value is as much more than a one-trick runner. If late last season is anything to judge by, he’ll be in for another strong year.
Mixon tallied 994 of his 1,424 total scrimmage yards in the final eight games, including a career-best 162-yard performance in the season finale. He also improved as a pass-catcher, finishing with a career-best in yards per catch and receiving touchdowns. Burrow’s offensive line could force him to rely on Mixon and Giovani Bernard more in the passing game. If that’s the case, expect Mixon to lead the team in total yards for the start of the new decade.
Defensive player of the year: FS Jessie Bates III
Reader, Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are all contenders here, but the secondary needs a leader. Enter the third-year rangy safety that will perhaps benefit the most from the recent acquisitions in coverage. Bates is best known for the ability to create turnovers in zone coverage, as seen by his six interceptions in two years.
Bates graded well following his departure from Wake Forest with his Relative Athletic Scores (RAS) coming in at 7.2. His overall speed allows him to make up ground on receivers who win at the line of scrimmage. With Vonn Bell likely playing mid-level and Mackensie Alexander moving more into the slot, Bates can roam deep and continue his dominance in turnovers. It shouldn’t be shocking if the safety leads the NFL in interceptions, similar to Kevin Byard’s 2018 campaign, as the two play a very similar role for their team.
Team MVP: WR Tyler Boyd
The only way Burrow claims the rookie of the year honors is if he has a dependable top target. Despite his status by many as the No.2 option, Boyd has slowly transformed into the team’s most reliable weapon.
In three of his four seasons, Boyd has finished with a minimum of 54 catches for over 600 yards. Last season in Joe Brady’s system, Burrow relied heavily on slot target Justin Jefferson, who led the FBS in receptions during LSU’s national championship run. Rookie quarterbacks rely on their inside target as safety nets, making Boyd likely the go-to receiver. Boyd has yet to make his presence truly felt in the NFL, but that will change with the rookie quarterback targeting him 10-12 times an outing this season.