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My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top -- cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures -- and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).
Bengals 2020 Recap
After Joe Burrow’s Week 11 torn ACL, the Bengals’ 2020 season largely didn’t matter. Before it, Cincy looked more explosive than they had in recent years but still only ranked 23rd in EPA per play on offense. The biggest culprit was a bottom-five offensive line. There were injuries and constant reshuffling that forced Burrow into being more of an improviser than what the team would like. Adding talent up front and coach Zac Taylor finding ways to mask that problem will be the storyline of 2021. Defensively, Cincy had a star in FS Jessie Bates but offered nothing up front, especially after free-agent splash DT D.J. Reader went down with an injury. Figuring out solutions for the Bengals’ No. 32 adjusted sack rate on defense will be an offseason priority. Their 26th-ranked passing EPA defense has to take multiple steps forward before competing for a playoff berth.
Bengals 2021 Offseason
Bengals Cap Space
$37.8 million (6th)
Bengals Draft Picks
1.05, 2.38, 3.69, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 7th, plus compensatory picks
Bengals Cut Candidates
Bengals Depth Chart
% of Passes
RB (Early Down)
RB (Third Down)
Offensive Coordinator: Coach Zac Taylor attempted to work around a bottom-five offensive line by spreading out defenses with a league-high 78% rate of 11-personnel, but most pass attempts were vanilla. The Bengals ranked 23rd in play action rate and 16th in percentage of passes with 15-plus air yards, the latter number bringing out the “Baby Arm Burrow” crowd. If Burrow’s lack of arm strength proves to limit the offense -- I think that’s a fair assessment -- Taylor will have to add more creativity at the line of scrimmage, both in the quick pass game and in the ground game. Perhaps the Bengals’ 2020 experimentation of empty sets is the trick moving forward.
Passing Offense: Joe Burrow is tentatively expected to be ready for the 2021 opener despite having a torn ACL and other knee damage. How effective he’ll be right away is a different story because one of his strengths is buying time in the pocket and scrambling. A gimpy knee could make him a pure pocket passer early in the season, and there are legit concerns about his raw arm strength. Burrow is smart and is an accurate passer, however, so his floor remains relatively high. At receiver, the Bengals have a quality slot receiver in Tyler Boyd and a potential alpha in second-year pro Tee Higgins. Finding the third starter will be on the to-do list, but Burrow at least has two receivers plus Joe Mixon to work with going into the offseason. Overall, Cincy is likely to improve upon last year’s No. 23 passing EPA offense even if the ceiling of the unit remains in question.
Rushing Offense: Joe Mixon only played six games due to a foot injury in 2020, but he profiles as a three-down workhorse in 2021 with Giovani Bernard heading into his age-30 season. Cutting Bernard would clear up $4.1 million in cap space, too. Mixon’s problem will not be his workload, but rather his efficiency. The Bengals offensive line is, at best, a work in progress, as evidenced by their No. 26 rushing EPA ranking. The return of former first-round LT Jonah Williams (9.5 games in 2020) and the projected offensive line investments of this offseason are reasons to believe Mixon’s 3.6 yards per carry average from 2020 will take a leap next year.
% of Plays
Defensive Coordinator: 43% of the Bengals’ snaps came in Cover 1 man defense. The front-seven was a stone-cold disaster after a Week 5 quad injury sent DT D.J. Reader to injured reserve, but the Bengals found a defensive centerpiece in FS Jessie Bates. He was arguably the best deep safety last season and has at least 100 tackles in all three of his NFL seasons. Bates does it all on the backend, but Cincy clearly needs more talent alongside him, particularly with top outside corner William Jackson headed for free agency. The Bengals’ No. 22 ranking in points allowed from last year is a good over/under for their 2021 finish. There are a lot of holes to plug at all three levels this offseason.
Passing Defense: The Bengals ranked 26th in passing EPA last season despite Jessie Bates’ herculean efforts at free safety. The primary issue was a lack of pass rush. Cincy was dead last in adjusted sack rate with DE Carlos Dunlap traded midseason and DT D.J. Reader limited to five games. Finding more pass-rushing talent is the Bengals’ second-biggest need behind the offensive line, especially with top sack artist DE Carl Lawson (5.5 sacks) out the door. At corner, the Bengals could lose CB1 William Jackson and slot CB Mackensie Alexander to free agency, making the position an obvious need as well. It’s unclear how much veteran CB Trae Waynes will bring to the table after playing zero snaps due to a September torn pectoral. The pass defense is likely to be very bad in 2021.
Rushing Defense: For years, the Bengals’ linebacker crew has been a bottom-five group and that remains the case heading into 2021. Josh Bynes is a free agent, 2019 third-rounder Germaine Pratt looks like a fringe starter through two seasons, and 2020 third-rounder Logan Wilson is a total mystery. Their combined sub-standard play led to Cincy allowing the second-highest yards per carry (5.1) last season despite playing a lot of single-high looks. Up front, Reader’s return to nose tackle will be a big upgrade, but the rest of the defensive line lacks firepower, especially with DT Geno Atkins expected to be a cap casualty. Unless the two youngsters at linebacker take leaps, it’s likely that Cincy will continue struggling against the run in 2021.
Bengals Team Needs
1. Offensive Guard(s) - The Bengals rotated bodies at both spots with no success in 2020. With Joe Burrow coming off an ACL tear and with Joe Mixon signed to a large contract, Cincy needs a better interior presence immediately. Xavier Su'a-Filo and Michael Jordan are fringe starters, and starting center Trey Hopkins tore his ACL in the final week of 2020. The Bengals just have to hammer this need in free agency and the draft. Give me two or three additions.
2. Offensive Tackle - Jonah Williams could be a building block at left tackle if he stays healthy, but the short-term issue is at right tackle with cut-candidate Bobby Hart currently projected as a starter and backup options Fred Johnson and Hakeem Adeniji looking like low-probability projects. Not finding a Week 1 upgrade at right tackle this offseason would be malpractice.
3. Edge Rusher(s) - The Bengals were 32nd in adjusted sack rate last season. It’s as big of a need as the offensive line, aside from the offensive line protecting their franchise quarterback. Right now, Sam Hubbard (2.0 sacks) is their best pass rusher with Carl Lawson (5.5 sacks) headed for free agency. It’s impossible to have a good defense without at least one quality pressure artist.
4. Corner(s) - Already in need of more reinforcements, the Bengals are set to lose both CB1 William Jackson and slot CB Mackensie Alexander to free agency. One-for-one replacements at both spots are needed even with CB Trae Waynes entering the mix after a zero-snap 2020 season. Cincy was 26th in passing EPA defense. It’s tough to play Cover 1 man defense with bad corners.
5. Defensive Tackle - D.J. Reader is a plus starter at one-tech when healthy (5 games in 2020), but the Bengals are projected to cut three-technique Geno Atkins to clear up $9.5 million against the cap and Cincy ranked 16th in rushing EPA defense last season.
6. Outside Receiver - Slot man Tyler Boyd and standout rookie Tee Higgins are under contract long term but an A.J. Green replacement is necessary, otherwise Auden Tate will be starting. Burrow has been at his best with four receivers on the field, so stacking this position up would create the Bengals’ easiest path to fully unlocking their franchise quarterback.
2021 Fantasy Football Rankings
Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.
Joe Mixon (RB1/2) - A lingering foot injury limited his 2020 season to just six games. In them, Mixon averaged 16.8 PPR points (RB10 per game) on 19.2 expected PPR points (RB6). A full offseason should make his foot injury a thing of the past, and there are reasons to buy the inevitable dip of his ADP. The Bengals are a lock to improve their offensive line, and Mixon has a clean path to a three-down workload with Bernard being a cut candidate. In his final two healthy games, Mixon had carry totals of 25 and 24 and target totals of six and eight.
Tee Higgins (WR2) - It was odd to see a productive early-declare from Clemson go overlooked last season, but Higgins’ WR28 per-game finish from last season shows just how high his ceiling is. He profiles as a slightly less explosive A.J. Green, and he should see vintage Green-like volume in 2021, even if Cincy finds a capable No. 3 receiver. Higgins averaged 14.7 PPR points with Burrow. That’s a reasonable floor, and he has a WR1 ceiling with the Bengals likely continuing to be an empty set, pass-heavy offense. Higgins was the WR14 in air yards per game (90).
Tyler Boyd (WR2/3) - Boyd’s splits with and without Burrow were massive last year. He went from averaging 16.2 PPR points to 9.3 without his signal caller. A reliable slot receiver, Boyd’s floor is high in what should remain a pass-heavy offense assuming Burrow returns on time. Cincy was sixth in neutral pass rate last season and found some success using five-receiver sets. He’s under contract through the 2023 season and will only be 27 years old next year.
Joe Burrow (QB2) - Through Week 11 when he tore his ACL, Burrow was the QB15 on the second-most pass attempts and 12th-most carries among quarterbacks. Elite volume is likely to return given the Bengals’ iffy defense and weapons shouldn’t be an issue with their cap space and current roster either, so the primary concern for Burrow’s QB2 status is how effective he’ll be in the beginning of next season coming off injury. If some of his rushing production is compromised, his ceiling is forgettable, but Burrow’s floor seems reasonably high assuming there aren’t setbacks in his rehab.
Giovani Bernard (RB6) - In addition to being an insurance-only asset, Bernard will be 30 years old and is a potential cut candidate ($4.1 million in savings). Plus, he only averaged 61.2 total yards in 10 games as a starter last season.