The Cincinnati Bengals have a franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow who they can’t waste any time with, and must make several key moves to optimize their rebuild while the 2020 No. 1 overall pick is still on his rookie contract.
Of course, matters are complicated in Cincinnati since Burrow is recovering from a major knee injury and may not be ready for the start of next season. Nevertheless, these Bengals proved there is some fight in them yet in a dominant 27-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers during Week 15’s edition of Monday Night Football.
With that as a rallying point, along with Burrow’s eventual return and a huge offseason on the horizon, here are four moves that could soon vault Cincinnati into playoff contention.
Land Penei Sewell to kick off Cincinnati Bengals 2021 NFL Draft strategy
The Oregon left tackle is a prospect who you just turn the draft card in for and never look back. Sewell allowed zero sacks in 926 pass blocking snaps during the 2019 campaign before opting out of this year. Safe to say he did a fine job protecting Justin Herbert’s blind side for the Ducks.
Although the team drafted Jonah Williams in 2018 to be the future at Sewell’s position, it’s easy to see the Alabama product sliding inside to play left guard. Really, anywhere the Bengals can upgrade on the o-line, it’s absolutely a top priority. Burrow did well with the scrapheap of players who were in front of him, yet it ultimately cost him a major injury when he was under siege from the Washington Football Team’s dynamic front seven.
Following the Sewell pick — which will also open up more running lanes for talented tailback Joe Mixon — it’s either adding to Burrow’s protection or going with the best available player in the defensive trenches — particularly on the edge.
Someone like Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham Jr. (22.5 tackles for loss, 15 sacks in his last 19 games) or Pittsburgh’s Patrick Jones II (24 TFL, 17.5 sacks in his last 22 contests) could be there for Cincinnati at the top of Round 2. Otherwise, if Oklahoma offensive lineman Creed Humphrey is still on the board, that presents the Bengals with a no-brainer selection to upgrade the protection in front of Burrow.
Whether it’s a high-end pass-rusher to begin Day 2 or someone like Humphrey joins Sewell and a former first-rounder in Williams to bolster the trenches, Cincinnati’s front office doesn’t need to overthink the process. With two premium assets and dire needs at key spots for the rebuild, the Bengals’ big board and most desperate needs should match nicely during the 2021 draft.
Cincinnati Bengals must re-sign Carl Lawson, William Jackson
Lawson has a lengthy injury history, yet he finally appears to be healthy and rounding into form as a Pro Bowl-caliber pass-rusher. Consider his 5.5 sacks through Week 15 of the 2020 season in context: No one else on Cincinnati’s defensive line is even a whisper of a threat to rush the passer. That means Lawson faces frequent double teams, since he’s the only threat. In spite of that, Lawson has had his most consistent, productive year as a pro to date.
The medical red flags give the Bengals a little leverage in contract negotiations, so they won’t have to break the bank quite as much to re-sign Lawson, as opposed to seeking another veteran in free agency.
As for Jackson, he’s clearly the best man cover corner on the Bengals’ roster right now. With Trae Waynes returning healthy in 2021 after missing all of this year, he and Jackson could well form one of the best tandems in the NFL.
One of the few bright spots on the team depth chart is in the secondary. Jessie Bates is the highest-graded safety by Pro Football Focus’ metrics, and Jackson still has the 19th-best coverage grade among qualifying cornerbacks in spite of such a lackluster pass rush leaving him exposed to cover for much longer than most top players.
Sometimes, in-house solutions are the easiest ways to ensure quality play at key positions. More on the Bengals’ free agent targets in a bit, but Lawson and Jackson are absolutely vital to retain.
Cincinnati Bengals need to retain head coach Zac Taylor
Continuity helps a young quarterback more than just about anything. Ask the Bengals’ AFC North rival Cleveland and Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who’s finally coming into his own in 2020 with a competent head coach and play-caller. However, Mayfield endured a sophomore slump and made too many errors as a rookie in part due to having three different head coaches, interim or otherwise. With Kevin Stefanski, it appears the fourth time is a charm.
Taylor hasn’t had a good record to date. Perhaps he was handed a head coaching job too early. Some things to consider, though: he’s knocked off the Tennessee Titans and Steelers in 2020, both double-digit winning teams who are bound for the playoffs in the AFC. When Burrow was healthy, the Bengals were competitive in nearly every game. They had chances to beat Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Cleveland twice and the Chargers in the season opener.
Mind you, Taylor kept Cincinnati in striking distance dialing up plays for a Burrow-led offense that had a woeful line and couldn’t establish the run with any consistency. The Bengals’ defense was of little help, largely due to dealing with drama around disgruntled veterans Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, and injuries to Waynes and defensive tackle D.J. Reader.
Burrow has been a good sport about the beating he took all season. In true franchise quarterback form, he stood up for his teammates and took blame whenever possible. What’s crazy is, it seemed sincere, as has his consistent, steady endorsement of a future with Taylor and his staff. The Bengals took a long time to move off Marvin Lewis before hiring Taylor, so it stands to reason they’ll stay pat again. They should, if only to see how Taylor and Burrow develop in their second year together with all the upgrades that should arrive in 2021.
Cincinnati Bengals free agency: Sign Lavonte David, Shelby Harris
Now, it’s more difficult to say “must” when it comes to the open market, as there figures to be plenty of competition for these players’ services. Let’s start with David, since he’s the more obvious big-name big fish.
David is simply the most transformative, dynamic linebacker in the NFL. With consistently elite production from season to season, Cincinnati couldn’t do better than him to upgrade its linebacker corps. The Bengals have gone the cheap draft route to address this position, but it’s resulted in horrendous run defense. Germaine Pratt is the only one showing true promise in pass coverage to this point, too.
Because of his ability to line up anywhere on the field — really, David can go inside or outside linebacker, slot corner, or up front in subpackages — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers superstar is worth the hefty price tag. Since the Bucs will probably re-sign edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett and already have Devin White to lead their linebacker room, it frees up a chance for David to go elsewhere.
Now to Harris. The Denver Broncos interior big man is a nightmarish matchup for any opponent. He has a knack for getting hands in passing lanes, with 14 pass deflections in his past 26 starts. The 29-year-old is under the radar, but if he were paired with run stuffer extraordinaire D.J. Reader in Cincinnati, the Bengals would have arguably the best run-stopping, pass-rushing complementary defensive tackle duo in the sport.
Harris would eliminate the need for Cincinnati go on a spending spree for upgrades at defensive end, or count on a surplus of youngsters to individually make a splash right away.