State of the Franchise: Bengals a sneaky sleeper in 2019?

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Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Bengals organization, fans of the team and those who remember Cris Collinsworth as a damn good receiver rather than the dude who slides in next to Al Michaels:

It’s a time of change in Cincinnati. Longtime coach Marvin Lewis has moved on to new ventures. Like a lot of retirees, you can find him in the Phoenix area, where he joined his friend Herm Edwards on the Arizona State football staff.

So before we begin, we really should show some appreciation for Lewis. Obviously, the last couple of years have not played out like one would have hoped. But let’s not overlook what he meant to the organization. When Lewis took over as coach of the Bengals in 2003, the team hadn’t been to the playoffs since the 1990 season. The club finished 8-8 (its best record since 1996) in his first season and he led Cincinnati back to the playoffs in 2005. He led the Bengals to seven playoff appearances in 16 seasons and should be granted your deference for what he was able to do.

How the Bengals got here

Let’s take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:

The highs:

— Started out 2-0 when everyone was healthy and went into the bye week at 5-3. I mean, Randy Bullock kicked a 44-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Bucs in Week 8 and you started thinking, Hey, maybe this team is on to something.

— Geno Atkins was selected to his fifth straight Pro Bowl. Good old, reliable Geno. He continued to crush it as the team fell apart around him.

The lows:

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— Finishing with a losing record for the third straight season. Which is not great, Bob.

— Winning only one game in the second half of the season. Maybe they thought the season had ended after beating the Bucs and were surprised they had more games to play. OK, probably not. But they did lose five consecutive games coming out of the bye.

— Parting ways with Lewis after the season. Although it almost seemed like he was going to return, which would have been wild given the team’s decline.

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Zac Taylor. The Bengals’ hiring of Taylor checked all of the boxes you want to have checked by a head coach these days. And those boxes are: a) He was born in the 1980s. And b) He’s friends with Rams coach Sean McVay. Taylor served on McVay’s staff for the last two years and was the Rams’ quarterbacks coach in 2018. He just celebrated his 36th birthday. Boom, you’re now an NFL head coach. But he does have some other credentials. You might remember Taylor as the quarterback at Nebraska in 2005 and 2006. In fact, he was the 2006 Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.

The early reviews for Taylor are great. Bengals players are reportedly having a lot more fun with Taylor, which seems about right. I mean, I love Marvin Lewis as much as the next person and find him to be delightful. But fun? Loveable curmudgeon, sure. And let me just put this out there about being fun: I seem to remember a time on "Saved by the Bell" when Zack, Slater and Kelly were having a good time with substitute teacher Rod Belding before he bailed on them before their rafting trip. And poor Mr. Belding had to come in and save the day. It’s not going to come to that in this case, though. This looks like a pretty good hire.

Quarterback: Andy Dalton. His best season came in 2015, when he threw for 25 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. That came under the direction of Hue Jackson. Dalton hasn’t quite looked the same since. He was off to a pretty good start last season, although a thumb injury landed him on injured reserve in November. He finished with 21 TD passes and led the Bengals on four game-winning drives as the team got off to that 5-3 start. It looked like it would easily be his best post-2015 season, but there were concerns even before the wheels fell off on Cincinnati’s season. There was the unpleasantness on Sunday night against the Chiefs during a 45-10 loss in which he was held to just 148 yards against the porous Chiefs defense (much to the dismay of those who streamed him in fantasy). There was also the four-interception game against the Panthers a month earlier, too. So we don’t know quite where he stands.

I thought there was a chance the Bengals could look at Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins (who went 15th overall to Washington) in the draft, considering Dalton’s injury and the fact that he turns 32 this season. The team did draft N.C. State QB Ryan Finley in the fourth round, but he shouldn’t be considered a threat to supplant Dalton in the short-term.

This will be a big season for Dalton, who is signed through 2020. He’s certainly not the project Jared Goff was when McVay and Taylor arrived in Los Angeles. But this season will give Taylor the chance to see if this remodel will be worth it, or if he will go in an entirely different direction with a new quarterback in the 2020 NFL Draft. My conjecture is Dalton rebounds with a really strong effort. In fact, I think it will be his best season to date, especially when you look at what Dalton will be working with this year …

Projected 2019 MVP: A.J. Green, wide receiver. Green is going to bounce back this season after a toe injury limited him to just nine games in 2018. He was having a pretty strong campaign prior to the injury, and he’s still the only receiver in NFL history to start his career with seven consecutive Pro Bowl nods. Honestly, they should have given him his eighth trip last year just because his on-pace numbers were pretty good. Green, who’s in his contract year, has given his endorsement of Taylor, as well, comparing the new coach to former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

2019 breakout candidate: John Ross, wide receiver. He was reportedly on the trading block during draft season, but I’m glad he’s going to be given the chance to work in Taylor’s offense. It’s funny. Ross ran a record-breaking 4.22-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2017, and most anticipated he would become the kind of field stretcher the Bengals needed. But he ended up scoring five red-zone touchdowns last season, which tied him with guys like Julio Jones, Larry Fitzgerald and Odell Beckham Jr. In fact, all five of Ross’ red-zone TDs came inside the 10-yard line, which was the second-highest total in the league just behind Michael Thomas, Mike Williams and Davante Adams. Taylor will find a more creative outlet for him.

And let’s not forget: Tyler Boyd, wide receiver. He had his own little breakout last year with 76 receptions for 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns. The Bengals could have the low-key best receiving corps in the business if things go well. Just putting that out there for all of you fantasy enthusiasts. And it shows you that Dalton has plenty of receivers to work with.

New face to know: Jonah Williams, offensive tackle. He was the first O-lineman selected in this year’s draft. I know it’s never exciting when your team takes a lineman in the first round. You always want a sizzle pick. But this was a great move for the Bengals, who needed help on the offensive line.

The 2019 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: THE LOWEST IN THE NFL. Lewis was on the job for 16 seasons. The Bengals’ front office has the patience of a driver’s ed instructor.

Will the Bengals be able to …

Play some defense? The Bengals were last in yards allowed in 2018 (413.6 per game), including being dead last in passing defense (275.9 yards per game). They also allowed 28.4 points per game last season to rank 30th in the league. But there is some help on the horizon, as second-year players Sam Hubbard and Jessie Bates made some strides during their rookie campaigns.

Stay healthy? Every team has injuries. And every fan of every team feels like their team had it the worst. But the Bengals, man. They had 18 players on injured reserve by season’s end, including some of their most valuable guys: Dalton (thumb), Green (toe), Boyd (knee), TE Tyler Eifert (ankle), DE Carl Lawson (knee), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (shoulder) and LB Preston Brown (knee). Further, 20 of the 46 Bengals players active on opening day missed at least two games.

Improve on the offensive line? This was the second-consecutive year the Bengals used a first-round pick on an offensive lineman (Williams in 2019; Billy Price in 2018). They ranked 24th in pass-blocking efficiency last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Their ranking from Football Outsiders was a little bit higher, but still shows plenty of room for improvement (hence drafting linemen in back-to-back years).

Three key dates:

— Week 3 at the Bills. The Bills are also trying to make a leap after a 6-10 season, so this is the perfect type of barometer game to judge the process. The Bengals are going to be tested away from home right away — they play on the road in four of their first six games.

— Week 8 at the Rams. REVENGE GAME! Wait, does this count for Taylor and McVay?

— Week 17 vs. the Browns. What if the Bengals had a chance to ruin the playoff hopes of the much- (and rightly) hyped Browns? The two teams square off twice from Week 14 on.

One storyline everyone is overlooking: Taylor could be great for the running game. We are no doubt excited about Taylor working with Dalton, but don’t forget about Joe Mixon. He led the AFC with 1,168 rushing yards and was 11th in the NFL with 1,464 scrimmage yards. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him make a leap like Todd Gurley did with the Rams during his third season in the league (his first in McVay’s system). And let’s not forget my guy Giovani Bernard, who is still one of the best pass-catching backs in the league.

One storyline people are overthinking: The Bengals wasted a pick on Drew Sample. Everyone was kind of surprised when the Bengals selected Sample in the second round of the draft. Our own Chad Reuter said they might have picked him a couple rounds too early, and yes, he’s more highly regarded as a blocker than receiver right now. But Sample fits this system as a guy who can block while on the move (and he has a chance to become a nice combo tight end!). With the injuries and bad luck the Bengals have had at the position, this could end up being a standout pick.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the Bengals MUST …

— Get some answers about the future of Dalton. It seems like it’s time to start thinking about the quarterback of the future, but Dalton could alter the narrative with a career year.

— At least be competitive. Finishing .500 would be awesome.

In closing

I’m approaching the Bengals’ season much in the same way I approached going to see "Aquaman" in theaters. I wanted to believe and have optimism, but I didn’t get my hopes up. The good news for the Bengals is the division-rival Browns have taken all the hype and attention away from them. Taylor is not under major pressure in Year 1.

And the Bengals weren’t that bad last season before the injuries piled up. Taylor might be able to mimic the success McVay had right off the bat with the Rams, and the Bengals might just find themselves in the playoff hunt. I mean, stranger things have happened. And I loved "Aquaman."

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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