After an abysmal 2019 NFL season, the Cincinnati Bengals are in the spotlight heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. With the number one pick tightly in their grasp, Joe Burrow appears destined to return to Ohio to be the new face of the franchise. However, that move alone won’t be enough to solve an offense whose problems ran deeper than the quarterback position alone in 2019, and targets at wide receiver demand the Bengals’ attention in the draft.
When Roger Goodell puts the Bengals on the clock to open the virtual 2020 NFL Draft, it would be a world-ending, ground shaking, surprise of epic proportions if Burrow isn’t sitting in his home wearing an orange and black cap.
Everything has been leading to this moment since Burrow guided LSU to a National Championship on the back of a sensational offensive masterclass, and the Bengals faltered to 2-14 behind Andy Dalton and rookie Ryan Finley.
It’s been easy to point the finger of blame at Dalton for the Bengals’ lack of success through the 2010s. He has, after all, been the quarterback for 4 of 5 straight NFL Wildcard Round defeats followed by four consecutive losing seasons.
2019 was the final nail in the Bengals coffin for Dalton. That much is obvious.
What isn’t as obvious is the actual problem for Cincinnati. It’s one the Bengals need to solve with wide receiver targets in the draft if Burrow is to succeed in the way that Dalton couldn’t before him.
There’s no denying that the Bengals offense was atrocious and one of the worst in the league in 2019. They were 30th overall in total points and 26th in total yardage. They gave up the 9th most sacks and had the 7th most fumbles. As a team, they had the 14th highest interception ratio in the league.
It doesn’t paint a particularly positive picture for Dalton.
Using Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM) and NFL Next Gen Stats begins to bring the picture into focus a little more.
OSM shows why Bengals drafting wide receiver targets is a must for 2020
Dalton was the 12th overall ranked quarterback by OSM, with an overall grade of 24.66. That falls just shy of the quarterback median average.
The factors that make up that grade include air yard differential (the difference between intended and completed air yards), completion percentage versus expectation, and air yards to the sticks, which shows how far behind the first-yard marker a quarterback throws on average.
Dalton had a better air yard differential than quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, DeShaun Watson, and Russell Wilson. Although on average, he threw 0.9 yards inside the sticks, that was better than renowned chain movers like Tom Brady and Matt Ryan.
His completion percentage versus expectation was particularly low, with a -2.8 differential in 2019. However, Dalton didn’t receive a great deal of help from his wide receivers in 2019, and this will be one of the issues that Cincinnati will need to solve if they are going to give Burrow the chance to succeed.
Not one wide receiver on the Bengals received a grade above the median overall grade at the position. Put simply, the Bengals wide receivers were below average, and that helped contribute to Dalton’s downfall.
They all showed flashes of what they can do, but they couldn’t consistently provide a go-to threat.
John Ross and Tyler Boyd both had great starts to the season, with Boyd recording an elite grade of 48.47 in Week 2. Alex Erikson recorded an elite grade of 41.14 in Week 8. However, all three recorded overall grades in the low 30 range. None ranked in the top 50 wide receivers in 2019, with Boyd ranked 62nd, Ross 65th, and Erikson 66th out of 93 eligible receivers.
Both Ross and Erikson were ranked in the bottom five in the NFL for catch completion percentage. This again shows that Dalton lacked a reliable target in 2019, something that the Bengals will need to address in the draft.
Of course, the wide receiver room was missing their main superstar, A.J. Green, in 2019. The Bengals franchise-tagged Green and hope that he provides a go-to threat for Burrow in 2020. Over the last two seasons, however, Green has only ranked as the 81st and 73rd wide receiver, earning OSM grades of 28.98 in 2018 and 28.01 in 2017.
The Bengals will need to add some more playmakers for Burrow in the 2020 NFL Draft. Thankfully it’s a draft class packed full of wide receiver talent. They should be able to find a contributor as far down as the fourth round, where they hold pick 107.
Some potential Bengals wide receiver draft targets in that range include Penn State’s K.J. Hamler, Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson, and Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk. If the Bengals were to use their second-rounder, pick 33, on a wide receiver, they could feasibly be in the window for someone like Clemson’s Tee Higgins or even Baylor’s Denzel Mims.
Run game improvements are critical to success too
Then there’s the issue with the run game. When you breakdown the total yards, the Bengals ranked 19th in passing yardage but only 25th in rushing yardage.
Joe Mixon has shown the potential to be a force in the ground game, but he regressed in 2019 and received the lowest OSM grade of his career. His 9.11 overall grade saw him ranked 46th out of 48 qualifying running backs and was a long way short of the median average running back grade of 14. This wasn’t helped by three games where he scored a negative grade. Before 2019, he had received grades of 13.87 (2018) and 13.24 (2017).
Mixon’s problem in 2019 was a lack of efficiency, as he traveled 3.95 yards to gain a yard, despite facing the third-lowest percentage of 8 man box defenses. As a result, he only averaged 4.1 yards per carry, which was 33rd out of 46 qualifying backs.
His best games came at the back end of the season, giving some hope that he can carry that into 2020. However, it would still be advantageous to add a running back in the draft to bolster the running back room with a view to potentially becoming the lead back in 2021.
As well as being offensively atrocious in 2019, the Bengals defense was one of the worst in the NFL in 2019. They gave up 6299 yards and 420 points, allowing the most rushing yards in the league. In an unusual move for the franchise, they splashed the cash in free agency. They added several pieces to the secondary, including Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander from the Vikings. They also bolstered the front seven with a defensive tackle in D.J. Reader and a linebacker in Josh Bynes.
After addressing the defense in free agency, they need to overhaul the offense in the 2020 NFL Draft.
It begins with Joe Burrow, but landing some of the Bengals wide receiver draft targets will be just as important to success in 2020.