One of the quickest ways for any team to improve is to develop players already on the roster.
While most of the focus this offseason is on the draft and free agency, here are five position groups already in place to help the Bengals enjoy success under Zac Taylor with development one of the main themes of his first days as head coach.
A.J. Green returns after having his 2018 season cut short with a toe injury. He still recorded 46 receptions for 694 yards and six touchdowns. Complementing him is Tyler Boyd, who enjoyed a breakout third season in Cincinnati with 76 receptions for 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns.
John Ross took a big step in year two hauling in seven touchdowns. Alex Erickson once again showed sure hands catching 69 percent of passes thrown his way. Cody Core (13 catches, 160 yards and one touchdown), Josh Malone and Auden Tate bring that raw talent the coaching staff is looking to develop.
At first glance it might appear odd that a team that ranked last in total defense last season would showcase its defensive line, but the nucleus is there.
The dynamic duo of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap highlight the group. Atkins, a 2018 Pro Bowl selection, led the Bengals with 10 sacks. He also led the team in quarterback hits (19) and tackles for losses (13). Meanwhile Dunlap had eight sacks and a team-best 21 quarterback hits. Both are locked up for the next several years.
A host of second- and third-year players teem with potential. Sam Hubbard recorded the third-most sacks among NFL draft picks with six last season. Fellow end Carl Lawson, who had 8.5 sacks in 2017, returns after an ACL tear limited to seven games.
Tackle Andrew Billings enjoyed a nice jump from his first season of play with 32 tackles, 2.5 sacks and seven quarterback hits. Role players in tackle Ryan Glasgow, coming off an ACL tear, and end Jordan Willis, two sacks and eight tackles for loss in his first 32 games, are looking to take another step in the right direction.
Leading the way is the safety tandem of Shawn Williams and Jessie Bates. Williams enjoyed his most productive season in a Bengals uniform last year with a team-best five interceptions. Bates led the Bengals with 111 tackles to go with three interceptions and graded out as the Bengals’ second-best defensive starter (behind Atkins) according to Pro Football Focus.
Cornerback William Jackson finally found his comfort zone in December and played like one of the top corners in the league. Jackson finished 2018 with 13 passes defended and allowed only one 100-yard receiver in 16 games. Dre Kirkpatrick, the other starting corner, battled injuries all season but still made 41 tackles in 13 games. One under-the-radar player is cornerback Darius Phillips who quietly turned into a key contributor with 22 tackles, two passes defended, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery as a rookie.
There is no question Taylor firmly believes in Andy Dalton.
"I have a high opinion of Andy Dalton going back to 2010," Taylor said at his introductory press conference. "I probably never pictured I was going to coach him, but I’m very fortunate he’s the quarterback here and I’m excited to work with him. I think he’s a great fit for what we’re going to do offensively.”
Dalton produced despite injuries to Green, Ross, tight end Tyler Eifert, running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard and finished his eighth season throwing for 21 touchdowns and 2,566 yards before suffering torn ligaments in his throwing thumb.
Backup quarterback Jeff Driskel started the last five games and threw for six touchdowns and only two interceptions. He’ll provide a solid back-up option, but don’t be surprised if the organization looks to add more depth with a free-agent signing or in the draft.
Mixon emerged as “the guy” in 2018 after leading the AFC in rushing with 1,168 yards to go with eight touchdowns and zero fumbles. He also added 43 receptions for 296 yards and a touchdown. Including him more in the passing game could be an area of emphasis if they use him like the Rams did All-Pro Todd Gurley.
Bernard looks to be a perfect bounce back candidate under Taylor. The seventh-year running back had career lows in rushes (56) and catches (35), but he has shown that he can run between the tackles with a 4.2 career yards per carry average while also serving as a dangerous asset in the passing game with four career catches of at least 41 yards.