State of the Cincinnati Bengals — How Does Jake Browning’s Success Change the Plan for Joe Burrow?

The Cincinnati Bengals will be looking to add a young arm to their quarterback room to eventually supplant Jake Browning as Joe Burrow's backup.

CINCINNATI — With the 2023 season more than a week behind the Cincinnati Bengals, it’s time to take stock of where they are as a franchise and where they are headed.

This will be the first in a series of articles looking at each position group and what it did well, what needs to change, which players are under contract, and which free agents are the most and least likely to be back with the team in 2024.

State of the Bengals Franchise – Quarterbacks

We start where everything starts with the Bengals — and most NFL teams: at quarterback.

Joe Burrow (Signed Through 2029)

For the second time in four seasons, Burrow saw his season cut short by injury.

For the third time in four seasons, he saw it delayed by injury/recovery.

In the two seasons in which Burrow stayed healthy until the end, the Bengals advanced to the Super Bowl and the AFC Championship Game. It’s obvious how important it is to keep him on the field, but it’s less clear how to go about that.

“You can look at every injury and say they’re vastly different on how they occurred,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “Part of our process is making sure we protect all of our players and we’re not putting them in difficult positions, and that’s part of our process with Joe. That’s the best answer I can give you there.”

Jake Browning (Exclusive Rights Free Agent)

Browning authored the breakout performance of the year for the Bengals and one of the top ones league-wide.

MORE: What Are the Important Timelines for Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow in His Recovery?

He went 4-3 as a starter, including a 3-1 beginning in which he posted historic numbers. The backup quarterback position went from one of the biggest perceived weak spots on the roster to becoming a legitimate candidate for team MVP.

And Browning’s performance is directly related to offensive coordinator Brian Callahan receiving twice as many job interviews this offseason as he did last offseason coming off back-to-back deep playoff runs.

No one who works for the franchise or cheers for it wants to see anything happen to Burrow, but if it does, few would see it as a season-killer, which was the near-unanimous sentiment last year the moment Burrow went down with the wrist injury.

Chance of return: 99%

The Bengals can extend a qualifying offer to Browning, and his only choice would be to accept it or not play in the NFL in 2024. A qualifying offer is a one-year contract at the league minimum based on the player’s experience level.

Browning made $750,000 last year, the league minimum for a player with no years of experience. The minimum for a player with one year of experience was $870,000, which is close to what the Bengals can pay to keep Browning in 2024, with the exact number to be known when the salary figures are finalized next month.

AJ McCarron (Unrestricted Free Agent)

McCarron will turn 34 a few days after the season opener, and he knows his time in the league is short.

Would he rather find a team where he could be the backup rather than be a wise savant on the practice squad? Would that opportunity even be offered?

He was, after all, signed off the street in Week 3 when it looked as though Burrow wasn’t going to be able to play in the Monday night game against the Los Angeles Rams.

There would be some value in keeping him around, but it’s much more likely the Bengals will bring in an undrafted free agent to begin grooming in the role of backup once the time comes when Browning has options.

Chance of return: 10%

What’s Next?

The biggest question is how much of the offense we saw Browning run will carry into 2024 with Burrow. The Bengals have said they were planning on doing more of the under-center stuff before Burrow’s calf injury on the second day of training camp rendered that moot.

Once he was healthy and the offense started clicking around midseason, we did see more of it, particularly in the game at San Francisco. The under-center run game and play-action elements off it are something the Bengals have shied away from, deferring to Burrow’s preference for not turning his back to the defense.

“When Jake went in there, he did a great job of executing the under-center stuff,” Burrow said. “He’s good at the play actions and the nakeds, and our run game took a step, I thought.”

There should be a compromise there where they continue to trust Burrow’s elite processing skills and allow him to be in the upper tier of snaps in shotgun, but maybe not at the league-leading-by-a-longshot level it’s been in the past.

The naked bootlegs were a part of the offense with a healthy Burrow in the past, but the Bengals really leaned into them because of how well they suited Browning, so don’t expect a big uptick in those.

MORE: Multiple Factors Point to the Cincinnati Bengals Being a Good Bet for an International Game in 2024

It’s going to be interesting to see how the offense evolves after this most unusual season, and we may get a sense much earlier than in the past.

Coming off the deep playoff runs in 2021 and 2022, the Bengals have not done any team drills in OTAs, spending the majority of time practicing on air or simply working position drills. That could change this offseason.

All the focus turns to Burrow’s recovery. The early estimates set the timeline for late March or early April for him to begin throwing, but he said if there is one takeaway from the calf injury it would be to maybe take his foot off the gas in the ramp-up to training camp. It’s hard not to think that would translate to not pushing too hard to get back on the field for OTAs as well.

It will be three months for now — at the earliest — before we start to see the first glimpses of the plan for the 2024 offense.

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