The 2020 season may have been another disappointment for the Cincinnati Bengals, but there are signs that the team are heading in the right direction.
Before suffering a season ending injury in Week 11, quarterback Joe Burrow showed why he was the number one pick in the draft. On defence, safety Jessie Bates put in some elite performances on his way to a Second Team All-Pro selection and rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins became a key target on offence.
Despite this, there is still a number of issues to be sorted before this team can look at challenging in a tough AFC North. Here’s three things the Bengals must do this off season.
Fix the offensive line
The offensive line has been an issue for the Bengals for a number of years. This played a part in Burrow’s season ending injury and in truth it could’ve happened much easier in the season.
Credit where it’s due however, in the final weeks of the year there were improvements. Centre Trey Hopkins emerged as a dynamic blocker, and free agency signing Quinton Spain provided much-needed protection at right guard. Despite this, a lot of work is needed and it needs to start now.
The obvious option is to look to the draft and the Bengals look dead set to draft Oregon tackle Penii Sewell. Sewell would be a huge improvement at either tackle, a position of particular weakness on the team.
Cincinnati could also look to free agency to improve the interior with heavy links being made to New England Patriots guard Joe Thuney. An Ohio native, Thuney would be a huge plus to the roster and go a long way in allowing Burrow to reach his full potential.
Compliment Joe Burrow
In the 11 games of his rookie season, Burrow showed exactly why Zac Taylor selected him with first overall pick in the draft. Burrow quickly found receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd as reliable targets and both players were on for 1000 yards seasons before his injury. Despite this, the rest of the Bengals receiving corps didn’t make much noise in 2020.
Free agency is the Bengals best route to bolster Burrow’s weapons. The likely option is 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel, who after a strong rookie season saw limited action this year due to injury, but at 25 still has a strong future at this level.
The draft is also an unlikely route with talk of Burrow reuniting with LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase if he is passed on by the Dolphins.
Tight end is also a position that could use some improvement with Drew Sample struggling to impress for much of the year. Gators star Kyle Pitts could be a generational talent, but it’s likely other needs will take precedence.
Re-sign key players
Perhaps the most important job for the team this offseason is to stop key players drifting into free agency. Some of the shining lights of last season find themselves as free agents in 2021 and the Bengals must resign them if they want to see improvements in the Autumn.
The most significant of which is edge rusher Carl Lawson. Lawson showed flashes of dominance a number of times although his numbers weren’t particularly impressive, they don’t tell the full story.
Lawson is expected to be franchised tagged but another player in consideration is cornerback William Jackson III. Jackson has been a key player for the Bengals over the last five years and would be a huge loss to the team. The Bengals secondary is starting to emerge, and the loss of Jackson would leave a significant weakness in the unit if not replaced.
There is no doubt that a lot still needs to be done before we can see playoff football returning to Cincinnati, but fixing the offensive line, acquiring some new weapons and keeping the core of the roster together could allow Joe Burrow to take this team all the way.