2019 NFL preview: Who is Zac Taylor? Bengals are ready to find out

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, complete with our initial 2019 power rankings.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

The number that might have finally forced the Cincinnati Bengals into a huge change? 50,753.

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That was Cincinnati’s average attendance in 2018. Only the Los Angeles Chargers, playing in a soccer stadium that seats about 30,000, had a lower average attendance. The Bengals had less than 80 percent capacity, ranking near the bottom of the NFL.

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The Bengals shouldn’t have brought Marvin Lewis back in 2018. He had a pretty good run overall, but a change was needed. But Cincinnati didn’t make a change, because they played well in the final two games of the 2017 season. That was enough for ownership to make the decision that Lewis deserved more time. It was very weird. Then last season the Bengals went 6-10. Lewis was finally fired. The fans had already tuned out.

“We had lost some of the faith [from] our fan base — that was clear,” Bengals president Mike Brown said. “That sent a loud message.”

It’s not like the Bengals totally overhauled the franchise this offseason. Many familiar players, most notably quarterback Andy Dalton, remain. But the head coaching hire was a swing from the heels.

Zac Taylor, who just turned 36, has a rèsumè that is surprisingly thin for an NFL head coach. As recently as 2016, Taylor was offensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati, who went 4-8 and were 123rd of 128 FBS teams in points scored. Two years ago, Taylor was an assistant receivers coach with the Rams. Taylor coached quarterbacks with the Rams last season. He did not call plays.

But he is young, has an offensive background and a connection to Sean McVay. That’s pretty much all you need in 2019.

Teams are willing to bet big on young coaches like Taylor, hoping to land the next precocious offensive mastermind.

“That’s the trend in the National Football League these days, and we’ll be following that trend,” Brown said.

Fans can’t complain about the boring Bengals sticking to the status quo, at least when it comes to their new head coach.

The Bengals must feel that Taylor, the last coach hired in the offseason cycle, can lead an instant improvement. Cincinnati didn’t do much to upgrade the roster, which isn’t unusual for the Bengals. Guard John Miller and cornerback B.W. Webb were their two biggest free-agent signings. Neither will sell any season tickets. Nor will first-round pick Jonah Williams, an offensive tackle who was a good pick and fills a need (UPDATE: The Bengals announced on June 25 that Williams had surgery for a torn labrum in his shoulder and will likely miss all of 2019.)

For the most part it’s the same team that was 19-28-1 under Lewis the past three seasons and turned off the fans, except now it is led by a 36-year-old rookie head coach whose rèsumè stands out only because he can list McVay as a reference.

But it is a new start, and maybe that alone will energize the fan base.

“I think we’ll bring an exciting brand of offense, an attacking, creative brand of offense,” Taylor said at his introductory press conference. “I think people will be pleased with what they see.”

Zac Taylor replaces Marvin Lewis as Bengals head coach. (Getty Images)
Zac Taylor replaces Marvin Lewis as Bengals head coach. (Getty Images)

There’s not a lot to get excited about. John Miller was benched by the Bills in 2017, though he was much better in 2018. B.W. Webb is on his sixth team in six years. Those were the only notable additions in free agency. The draft was decent, with Jonah Williams expected to immediately start at left tackle. Tight end Drew Sample and linebacker Germaine Pratt, the team’s second- and third-round picks, could contribute right away too. The most notable move in the offseason might have been finally moving on from linebacker Vontaze Burfict, which was long overdue if Cincinnati wants to change its culture. But it was a typical Bengals offseason, short on spending and excitement.

GRADE: D

The Bengals have three very good skill-position players. A.J. Green has been one of the NFL’s best receivers for a while, and Cincinnati had two breakout players last season. In his third season, Tyler Boyd more than doubled his career totals in catches and yards with 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns. Running back Joe Mixon bounced back from a disappointing rookie season to rush for 1,168 yards, which led the AFC. Assuming Green is back to 100 percent from a season-ending toe injury — he was on a pace for 90 catches, 1,374 yards and 12 touchdowns when he got hurt — that trio is a good foundation for Zac Taylor’s offense.

The Bengals don’t have a ton of roster depth, and the 2014 and 2015 drafts are a big reason. The Bengals drafted 17 players those two years and only two remain: Disappointing 2014 first-round cornerback Darqueze Dennard and tight end C.J. Uzomah, who has 769 career receiving yards. When you whiff on entire drafts, especially in consecutive years — none of the 17 draftees were top-end players during their time in Cincinnati — it ends up crippling the roster down the road.

The Bengals stood behind Andy Dalton early this offseason and mostly stuck by it. They traded up in the draft to take NC State’s Ryan Finley in the fourth round, but nearly all mid-round picks at quarterback — Mason Rudolph, Kyle Lauletta, Joshua Dobbs, Connor Cook, Cardale Jones, Garrett Grayson, Sean Mannion, Bryce Petty, Logan Thomas, and so forth — are immediate wastes. Teams generally forget about those players as soon as they’re picked and start searching for better options. Maybe Finley is a Dak Prescott, but odds say he won’t be. The Bengals notably passed on Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins to draft an offensive tackle in the first round, which says the Bengals are still committed to Dalton.

Maybe it’s time to give up on receiver John Ross and just count the No. 9 pick of the 2017 draft as a sunk cost. But Ross, who has just 210 receiving yards over two seasons, has a fresh start with a new coaching staff.

Zac Taylor said he watched tape of Ross in every game and practice going back to Ross’ days at University of Washington, according to Cincinnati.com.

"He has all the traits to be a really good player in this league," Taylor said, according to Cincinnati.com.

There were good reasons Ross was a top-10 pick, most notably his speed. Ross set an official NFL scouting combine record with a 4.22-second 40-yard dash. It’s unlikely Ross becomes a good NFL receiver, based on the history of high picks who have produced so little at that position through two seasons, but if a new staff is able to unlock his gifts it would be enormous for the Bengals’ offense.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “A.J. Green still produced at a high level when on the field last year, scoring six times in nine games and fashioning a YPC and catch rate slightly above personal norms. But he also missed a chunk of time for the third time in five seasons, and now he’s entering his age-31 campaign. And while Green was on the sidelines last year, third-year slot man Tyler Boyd spread his wings and had a breakout season (76-1,028-7).

“Green and Boyd are different types of receivers, and Green still figures to command the most defensive coverage from opponents. But Boyd’s also six years younger, and those slot throws are much easier for quarterbacks to make, especially as we navigate the back nine of Andy Dalton’s career. Green’s ADP is still in the low-30s (both on Yahoo and in NFFC formats), but perhaps the guy to get is Boyd, several rounds cheaper. Boyd is available about three to four rounds later than Green in early NFFC results, and that gap spreads to five to six rounds in Yahoo leagues. The thrifty play looks like the right play for 2019.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: Cincinnati Bengals]

Full seasons that Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan or defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo have spent as NFL coordinators: 0. Anarumo was interim defensive coordinator for the 2015 Dolphins, and that’s it for either coach as a coordinator at the NFL or major college level. It was curious that Taylor, a rookie head coach, didn’t seek a more experienced staff. Frank Reich’s coordinators didn’t have any experience in those roles for Reich’s first season as head coach, and the 2018 Colts were very good. So it can work. But Taylor’s hiring process was criticized in Cincinnati, especially the long defensive coordinator search that had at least six names attached to it before Anarumo got the job. Not only is Taylor under some first-year pressure, so are his coordinators.

WILL ZAC TAYLOR’S OFFENSE LOOK LIKE THE 2017-18 RAMS?

The Bengals aren’t going to be as productive as the Rams, but one would assume Taylor will use many concepts he learned under Sean McVay.

“Well, it works. I think we can all agree,” Taylor said with a laugh when asked about mimicking the Rams’ offense. “It would be silly not to have that as the basis of what we do on offense.”

That would mean a lot of three-receiver sets (hello, John Ross), a lot of play-action passing and creative ways to disguise plays through pre- and post-snap movement.

A.J. Green talked this offseason about the offense using a lot of deep passes, as was the case when Jay Gruden was Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. But it starts with the run game, and perhaps that makes Joe Mixon the Bengals’ version of Todd Gurley?

“We’re going to place a strong focus on the run game, and it all plays off of that,” Taylor said. “If you can’t get the run game going, then the rest your offense struggles.”

Anytime a team changes coaches, there’s hope that can lead to an extreme, immediate turnaround. The Bengals have a flawed roster but there is some good blue-chip talent. It’s tough to envision the Bengals winning a tough AFC North, but maybe Zac Taylor really is the next Sean McVay. It’s not like anyone expected much of McVay’s first Rams team, which won a division title.

It’s at least possible the Bengals end up as the worst team in the NFL, or close. Though, would it be the worst thing to end up as the NFL’s worst team? At least they could start over at quarterback in next year’s draft. It could be a very long season. The roster has holes, and we simply have no idea Taylor or his coordinators are ready for this opportunity.

Under Marvin Lewis, the Bengals went to the playoffs five straight seasons from 2011-15. They didn’t win a playoff game, but those seem like glory days now. The offense could be transformed with Zac Taylor and that stops the streak of three straight losing seasons, but it seems more likely that the Bengals miss the playoffs again, even if Taylor proves to be a good hire.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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