As the NFL eyes its return back to normal with full stadiums and the ensuing raucous crowds to follow on what has been the league’s long, winding path back to normalcy amid the pandemic, a sway of the typical norm could come to fruition in Cincinnati, where the Bengals’ offense finds itself in a prime slot to surprise many in head coach Zac Taylor’s potential do-or-die third season in charge.
Following the team’s selection of LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase fifth overall—opting to re-pair the talented pass-catcher with second-year gun-slinger Joe Burrow instead of shoring up the offensive line with Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater—the Bengals look darn impressive if you were to compare Cincinnati’s skill players to any in the entire league.
With Burrow back in form, the dynamic talent in Joe Mixon now healthy, and Chase in line to re-capture the electric relationship he and Burrow had during their time in Baton Rouge, the Bengals are in line to surprise. Let’s take a look, position by position, at how Cincinnati matches up to their inter-division offensive units much better than many are giving them credit for as we approach training camp.
It starts and ends here with Burrow’s ability to stay on the football field. If 2020’s No. 1 overall selection is able to stay healthy, the Bengals’ rebuild back to relevance could enter warp speed due to his acute awareness to detail. Burrow played well in his rookie season before suffering a gruesome season-ending injury against Washington, totaling 13 touchdown passes to just five interceptions in 10 games.
For a first-year talent constantly having to slither his way through an ever-crowded pocket, Burrow displayed more than enough to believe he’ll become more than just your run-of-the-mill NFL quarterback. He has all the weapons to thrive if he’s able to stay upright.
As previously mentioned, Mixon’s electric ability out of the backfield will be a major boost for the Bengals offense, who finished in the bottom of the league in points per game last season. Mixon, a two-time 1,000-yard runner, played in just six games in 2020, hanging Burrow out to dry in a backfield limited in talent with Giovani Bernard and Samaje Perine. Bernard’s departure could be crucial to the overall impact of Mixon if he’s unable to stay healthy, as the journeyman in Perine doesn’t fit the Bengals mold they eye in their versatile backs. Mixon, a three-down back with an excellent combo of speed and power, looks primed for a huge campaign with defensive eyes drawn to the boundary.
The Bengals have a special group out wide, there’s no way around it. You won’t hear many gawk at the talent inside the Bengals facility due to the potential echoes of the Steelers, Browns, and Ravens’ wideout groups, but if it were my argument, Cincinnati’s weapons on the boundary trump all within the division… they have a chance to be that special.
Like Justin Jefferson did just last year in Minnesota, Chase checks all the boxes you look for in a dynamic WR1 in the NFL who has an opportunity to jolt onto the scene in year one. Burrow’s top target during LSU’s National Championship run in 2019, Chase finished with a staggering 84 receptions for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns, all coming from the current Bengals starter.
It doesn’t end there, however, as Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins round out Burrow’s impressive starting pass-catching options on offense. Boyd, a 6-foot-2 target hog, has proven to be one of the most consistent wideouts in football, totaling 3,743 yards in five seasons and appearing in 45 of 48 games over the last three seasons in a physical AFC North. Higgins proved to be one of the most physical, vertical threats of all first-year wideouts in 2020, accumulating 908 yards with six touchdowns (both finished third-most among first-year players). His presence at 6-foot-4 with a year already under his belt could carry massive weight toward a potentially huge sophomore campaign within a dynamic offensive group.
The Bengals passed on Sewell and Slater, yes, and it could prove to be a devastating mistake if the Bengals fail on my first point of keeping Burrow healthy, but Cincinnati's front five isn’t what you’ve heard; they have the pieces necessary to be an average to slightly above average group in due time.
Jonah Williams’ return to protect Burrow’s back will be welcomed with open arms, as will the selection of former Clemson product Jackson Carman, who’s slated to start inside next to Riley Reiff, an experienced tackle with more than 8,000 career snaps who comes over from the Vikings via free agency. Reiff, compared to Bobby Hart, who the Bengals had slotted in at right tackle for the last three seasons, is a massive upgrade in an overall attempt to fortify a rather abysmal unit up front in 2020. Reiff allowed just 21 pressures and one sack in 2020, compared to Hart who gave up 44 pressures and four sacks in just 13 games. It was a position of dire need and director of player personnel Duke Tobin wasted no time in acquiring the hog molly in Reiff to beef up the offensive line.
By no means are the Bengals expected to challenge for a division crown, they have a long way to go as a franchise in that respect. But, if you were to ask me to choose one unit many are ignoring to raise a couple eyebrows this fall, I’d place my bets on the offensive group in Cincinnati, a young, hungry, uber-talented unit that represents the foundation for a future of prosperity for Ohio’s “other team.”