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Exit Interview: Cincinnati Bengals

Not changing their stripes.

Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Cincinnati Bengals.

Record: 7-9

The definition of insanity is making the same mistakes over and over again and expecting the same results. Okay, that cliche is overused (and doesn’t actually fit the definition of insanity), but it most certainly applies to the Bengals.

This question has to be on the minds of most Bengals fans: how can team owner and general manager Mike Brown justify keeping Marvin Lewis as head coach and Andy Dalton as quarterback following yet another mediocre season?

After all, Lewis has never won a playoff game despite making the postseason seven times in his 15 seasons as head coach. Change has to come sometime, right? Apparently not, as Brown inked Lewis to a two-year extension shortly after the final game of 2017.

Before that news broke, there were rumblings that Lewis would potentially transition into a front office, which honestly wasn’t a bad idea. Brown seems to be fixated on continuity, so why not let your longtime coach stay involved (and maybe replace you as GM) while giving someone else a chance? Guess not.

What about Dalton? He’s fallen into the trap that many QB’s fear: “too good to be a backup but not good enough to lead your team to a Super Bowl.” His production this season is highly indicative of that: 3320 yards, 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Not elite, but not awful either. Reaching those marks behind the travesty of an offensive line in front of him was a borderline miracle.

There have been some meaningful moves. With defensive coordinator Paul Guenther leaving to join Jon Gruden in Oakland, the Bengals brought in Teryl Austin, formerly of the Detroit Lions, to replace him, a logical move. The defense was in the top ten against the pass but third worst at stopping the run. The Lions were a lot better in that regard this season, however, and Austin garnered some head coaching consideration as well.

The offensive coordinator to begin 2017, Ken Zampese, was fired following a poor start to the year. QB’s coach Bill Lazor was promoted in his place. He didn’t nearly use the Bengals talented running backs enough (they were second-to-last in the league in rushing yards), but maybe a full offseason of preparation will change that.

But getting stuck in the middle tier rut of the NFL for so long has diminished any hope that the team has of challenging in the AFC. There’s elite talent being wasted on the Bengals, and they’re running out of time to make some noise.

To reference another cliche: can a (Bengal) tiger actually change its stripes?

Current number of draft picks: 7 (#12 in the first round)

Cap space: $33-39 million

Notable free agents

A.J. McCarron, QB: Normally we don’t include restricted free agents in this section, but McCarron is a special case. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, he’s served as Dalton’s backup for most of the time since then. He got a chance to start four games in 2015, including a playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. While he was fairly solid in the regular season games, he was ineffective when facing the Steelers.

Still, it was better than what most backups are capable of, and McCarron’s name has surfaced in trade rumors during the last two years as a result. The Browns nearly completed a deal with the Bengals at the trade deadline this year, but it fell through at the last minute (typical Browns luck).

If McCarron signs an offer sheet with another team, the Bengals have the opportunity to match that to keep him around. However, he may end up out of their price range. Then again, two QB situations were resolved a couple of days ago (and a third by proxy), so he might stay put too.

Tyler Eifert, TE: Injuries can derail a career in the NFL quicker than anything else. Eifert is living proof of that. In five seasons, he’s never played a full 16 games and has appeared in just 10 the last two years, including just two in 2017. When healthy, Eifert is one of the better tight ends in the league. But his continual back problems may never allow him to fully blossom at tight end.

Jeremy Hill, RB: On the other end of the spectrum is Hill, who before this season was a reliable running back for the Bengals, scoring 29 touchdowns in three seasons on the ground. However, he was gradually passed up by Giovani Bernard and rookie Joe Mixon this year before going to injured reserve with an ankle injury after seven games. He’s already signaled his departure from Cincy.

Russell Bodine, C: A fourth-round pick in 2014, Bodine has started every game at center for the Bengals since then but has yet to truly emerge. He’s been erratic as both a pass and run blocker, which has hurt the offensive line more often than not. Still, being able to stay on the field is a plus, and the Bengals may not have a better alternative.

Kevin Minter, MLB: It took a while, but Minter slowly developed into a solid starter at inside linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals, picking up 175 total tackles in 2015 and 2016. However, they chose to look elsewhere last offseason, forcing him to take a one-year prove-it deal with the Bengals.

He regressed big time, only getting 196 snaps despite starting seven games. Part of the issue was a hamstring injury, but it was disappointing to see. Minter is a two-down linebacker in a league that needs guys who can stay on the field for every play.

Team needs

T: The Bengals tried to rely on two young tackles, Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi, and they were generally… not great. They tried veteran Andre Smith and Eric Winston. They were just as bad, plus they’ll be free agents. Something’s got to give. They should definitely think about drafting a tackle at #12.

C: Bodine going to free agency will leave T.J. Johnson as the only option at center. That’s not a good thing. Bodine could be upgraded anyway, but the Bengals might have to re-sign him on the cheap.

G: Clint Boling had to swing out to left tackle due to injuries and didn’t do very well. When he was at left guard though, he was the best blocker on the line, albeit with just decent play. The right guard spot was mostly filled by Trey Hopkins, who did poorly. Considering all the holes on the line, however, the Bengals might have to keep him stationed there.

LB: Vontaze Burfict is a pretty dependable defender, despite his volatile nature. However, the rest of the linebackers were generally below average. Minter hitting free agency won’t help things. The Bengals have a few younger options they could use, but bringing a veteran guy in isn’t a bad idea.

TE: Eifert’s injury struggles gave way to Tyler Kroft at tight end this season. He flashed at times but would clearly do better as the #2 tight end. If the Bengals decide to let Eifert leave, they’ll need to bring in an additional option.

WR: A.J. Green can’t do everything at wideout. The Bengals stubbornly kept starting Brandon LaFell across from him, and that resulted in mostly mediocre numbers. He’ll be a free agent. First-round pick John Ross only played in three games due to injury, and fellow young talent Tyler Boyd was hit-and-miss. The team should definitely think about bringing in more options for Dalton to rely on.

DT: While the Bengals usually shifted one of their defensive ends inside on passing downs, they mostly used veteran Pat Sims as the starter next to Geno Atkins. He’s a 32-year old free agent though. One of Ryan Glasgow or Andrew Billings could get the job, but they’re unproven.

P: Kevin Huber, who has been an overall solid punter for the Bengals since 2009, is a free agent.

QB: This will only be needed if the Bengals trade McCarron or let him depart as a restricted free agent. If that goes down, Jeff Driskel will be the only backup behind Dalton.

Best player/building block

Geno Atkins, DT: Atkins is one of the best interior defenders in football, and everyone knows it. He’s as balanced as can be, effective in both pass rush and stopping the run. The stats back that up tenfold.

Atkins led the Bengals in sacks with 9, the second most for any defensive tackle behind Aaron Donald. He also picked up 46 total tackles. Pro Football Focus gave him a 91.5 grade for 2017, tied for 2nd with Fletcher Cox behind Donald among all interior defenders. He’s averaged an 88.1 for his entire career.

Atkins was a force from the minute he was drafted, and the Bengals should feel lucky to have him. They should extend him before he hits free agency in 2019.

Underappreciated player

William Jackson III, CB: Maybe it’s because Jackson missed all of what should have been his rookie season in 2016 with a torn pectoral muscle, but his outstanding play this season has been overlooked. His role increased in the secondary as the season went on, as did his performance.

While Jackson only started five games total and notched just one interception, he was second on the team in pass breakups with 13. PFF graded him at 89.2, 7th among all cornerbacks. At just 25 years old, Jackson will be entering the prime of his career in the next few seasons.

 

AFC East: New York Jets; Miami Dolphins

AFC North: Cleveland Browns

AFC South: Indianapolis ColtsHouston Texans

AFC West: Denver BroncosOakland Raiders

NFC East: New York Giants

NFC North: Chicago Bears

NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFC West: San Francisco 49ers

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