Living in mediocrity is okay for some people. Pay the bills, make a little money, have some fun. Who am I to judge? Live your life the way you want to live it. The Bengals have been doing it for years. Remain in the middle of the pack with a safe quarterback, safe coach, and above-average defense. They are making money and occasionally making the playoffs, so why worry about it?
12 of the past 17 years, the Bengals finished second or third in their division, with 11 of them coming within two losses or wins of 8-8: definition of mediocrity. It's okay, though; they made a little money, paid the bills, and had their fun. They never made it past the wild card round, but they were okay with it.
No need to take risks or spend money: Tracking back to 2011, the Bengals were top 12 in cap space available in all but one year with head coach Marvin Lewis at the helm. During that time, they only signed one free agent from another team which accounted for more than 3% of their salary cap. The Jets signed four free agents who accounted for at least 4.46% last season alone. But it's okay; they made money, paid the bills and had their fun.
By the end of the 2018 season, those bills were harder to pay. From 2016 to 2018, the team had its worst three year stretch of attendance since building Paul Brown Stadium, being second to last in 2017 and 2018. Thus, a new era started in 2019 with head coach Zac Taylor.
Taylor had a unique path to becoming a head coach. He’s only been an offensive coordinator for five games in the NFL and never been a head coach at any level. His journey started as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M. From there he went on to be the Dolphins assistant quarterback coach, then rapidly ascended up the ranks to eventually become the offensive coordinator. Hoping to spark the offense, the Dolphins fired offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and promoted Taylor with five games left. Unfortunately one wasn’t created as his offense declined by over 3.5 points per game. Regardless of the lack of offense created as a coordinator, he was still seen as an up and coming star in the coaching ranks from his work with quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Under Taylor, Tannehill thrived, throwing for the third most yards of a player in his first four seasons and becoming only the second Miami quarterback to throw for over 3000 yards in multiple seasons. After spending a year coaching in college, Rams head coach Sean McVay brought him on as a wide receivers coach then in 2018 promoted him to quarterbacks coach. Jared Goff blossomed, throwing for close to 4700 yards and 32 touchdowns while making a run to the Super Bowl. Bengals owner Mike Brown saw the success Taylor was having with quarterbacks and - knowing quarterback Andy Dalton's time was coming to an end - brought Taylor in.
Taylor had a rough start to his career, not winning his first game until Week 11. However, the lost season wasn't all for naught, as they earned the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Taylor had his sights set on the new face of the franchise: LSU quarterback Joe Burrow.
Orchestrating one of the most prolific offenses in college history, Burrow set NCAA records in 2019 for most passing touchdowns with 60 and total touchdowns with 65. He was also the only quarterback to throw for over 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in a season, not to mention setting dozens of school and SEC records while winning a National Championship. He was the clear consensus first overall pick. However, being the first pick is far from a lock to maintain high-end success. Only 3 out of 14 quarterbacks picked first overall have made it to the Super Bowl in the past 20 years, while none have had the pleasure of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
It doesn't mean Burrow can't do it, as he's accomplished multiple feats in college the others were unable to. We just have to wonder if Taylor and company can provide enough support.
Burrow, at 6'4 and 221 pounds, doesn't come without flaws. There have been whispers about Burrow being a product of LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady. Those whispers shouldn't be ignored entirely as the arrival of Brady brought Burrow from 2,894 yards and 16 passing touchdowns in 2018 to an astounding 5,671 yards and 60 passing touchdowns in 2019. The massive influx of production should be credited to both the groundbreaking system put into Brady's 30-year-old genius and Burrow's increased accuracy and ability to navigate the pocket. In other words, we shouldn't discount the quarterback for performing at a high level even though it was a brilliant offense. However, we want to see the Bengals focus more on surrounding him with more talent than they did with his predecessor.
Bengals Roster Construction
The biggest concern for this entire roster is the health of the offensive line. They saw an endless number of injuries, including their 2018 first-round pick, left tackle Jonah Williams. The aspirations of Burrow producing QB1 numbers could land on the shoulders of the health of the offensive line. Just thinking about Browns star defensive lineman Myles Garrett, the Steelers destroying offensive lines while leading the league in sacks, and the Ravens’ absolute defensive dominance might keep Burrow up at night for years to come. Let's hope second-year guard Michael Jordan returning from injury, the addition of former Cowboy guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, and the return of the aforementioned Williams can help slow them down.
Burrow has one of the best receivers of this past decade A.J. Green returning from injury, Tyler Boyd - who most consider to be one of the best secondary wide receivers in the game - and second-round rookie standout Tee Higgins who most see as the heir apparent to Green. This doesn’t include the fastest man in NFL Combine history, John Ross. Together, they could make up one of the better wide receiving corps in the NFL if they can remain healthy. Green missed all of last season, and Ross hasn't played a full season yet. Meanwhile, Boyd only has played two full seasons out of four, and even backup Auden Tate missed games due to an MCL injury. Hopefully, Higgins can provide some stability, but the situation isn't pretty. Even their second-year tight end Drew Sample struggled to stay on the field.
The one guy who was extremely reliable throughout the entire year was running back Joe Mixon. His ability to pick up blocks has only gotten better, and he offers significant fantasy and NFL upside as a back who can catch passes. If the Bengals can sign him to a long term contract, Mixon should be able to take a ton of pressure off Burrow's shoulders.
Direction of Youth
Tethering Higgins to Burrow is a crucial move the organization needed to make. Having a consistent, true alfa receiver is vital for most quarterbacks not named Lamar Jackson. If Higgins can develop into the role Green has held by the start of 2021, it could allow the Bengals to focus on other positions. With the Bengals focused on building their depleted defense, they put the offense on the back burner in the draft following their first two picks. Not focusing on the offense and adding more weapons could prove to be a mistake, but it doesn't mean Joe Burrow is in a lousy situation as there are still potential building blocks on this offense.
In 2021 their primary goal should be reworking the offensive line and adding depth so injuries won't be as big of a concern. Finding weapons deeper in the draft should be the focus following. They need to get Burrow into the best situation possible moving forward so I’m hoping they learn from their past mistakes.
As we reference previous first overall picks’ fantasy production, we notice there are still some stunning fantasy seasons. The Colts Andrew Luck, Falcons Michael Vick, and even former Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer are just a few. The issue with the majority of them is they don't have prolonged fantasy careers primarily because of their team. The oldest first overall pick still in the league is Alex Smith, who was drafted in 2005. Including him, there were eight quarterbacks drafted since who are no longer on their rookie contract. Only two remain on the same team: the Lions Matthew Stafford and Rams Jared Goff.
QB knockdowns (hits + sacks)— Scott Kacsmar (@ScottKacsmar) May 18, 2015
2012 leader - Andrew Luck (122)
2013 leader - Andrew Luck (115)
2014 leader - Andrew Luck (115)
Therein lies my concern with Burrow. We can look at guys like Raiders JaMarcus Russell and say, "he was just a terrible player," but what if the organization would have invested into guys focused on keeping him in shape and on track? You could look and Andrew Luck and say, "he was injury-prone," but he was hit more than any other quarterback from 2012-2014. By the time the Colts built a solid offensive line, it was too late. Even Buccaneers Jameis Winston might have had a better chance if the team stuck with head coach Lovie Smith and left Dirk Koetter at offensive coordinator. Sometimes bad organizations make terrible decisions, which is what led them to the top pick in the first place.
It's not asinine to think Burrow could bust, being with an inexperienced head coach. A shaky, injury-prone supporting cast, having only one year of significant college production, playing in a tough division, and being backed by an organization who has proven their unwillingness to invest in talent around him all make me nervous. However, I'm going to go out on a limb and say Taylor could be brilliant developing quarterbacks, Burrow's skills translate to the NFL, and Brown is sick of just paying the bills, making a little money, and having some fun. Burrow's upside is undeniable, and I, for one, am taking a shot on him.
Find Chase at FF_Intervention on Twitter