When the Cincinnati Bengals finally take the field for their season opener next month, you’re probably going to need a roster in front of you to identify every player, and that’s because this team underwent a lot of change this offseason, which is actually a good thing, because last year, this team finished with the worst record in football. 

Of course, having the worst record in the NFL ended up working out for the Bengals, because it allowed them to land Joe Burrow with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. 

With Burrow leading the way, the totally revamped Bengals could surprise a lot of people in 2020. Not only should their offense be better, but the defense should also see some improvement this year, and that’s because the team did something they almost never do in free agency: They actually participated. The Bengals usually wait until the bargain bin portion of free agency to sign players, but this offseason, they beefed up their defense by making several key signings. 

That being said, this season is going to hinge on how successful Burrow is. By the time the regular season starts, Burrow will only have had roughly five weeks of on-field practice to figure out how to run Zac Taylor’s offense. Although that’s not ideal, I’m predicting big things for Burrow in 2020 and to find out what those are, let’s get to the bold predictions.

1. Burrow leads the AFC North in TD passes, sets rookie record

These are called bold predictions, so I’m going to start as bold as possible: Joe Burrow is going to lead the AFC North in touchdown passes. 

The reason that’s bold is because if Burrow is going to lead the division in that stat, he’s going to have to throw more TD passes than Lamar Jackson, who LED THE NFL in scoring passes last year when he threw 36 during his MVP season. Also, Burrow will have to outgun Ben Roethlisberger, who threw 34 TD passes in 2018 and who has thrown 29 or more touchdowns in each of the past three times he played 14 or more games in a season. 

If Burrow can somehow top both Jackson and Roethlisberger, that almost certainly means he’ll be throwing more than 27 touchdown passes, which is notable, because if he does that, he’ll break Baker Mayfield’s rookie record for most touchdown passes in a season. Mayfield threw 27 scoring passes in 2018 and he did that even though he only started in 13 games. 

As far as the rookie record goes, Burrow is going to have a huge advantage over Mayfield, and that’s because the Bengals quarterback is going to be the starter from Day 1, which means he’ll definitely be starting 16 games this season (barring injury). 

The other advantage for Burrow is that he’s going to have a lot of weapons. Not only will the Bengals have A.J. Green back on the field, but they also have Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, Auden Tate, Alex Erickson and John Ross. 

The biggest upside for Burrow is that he should be able to rack up some big numbers no matter how the Bengals play this year. On one hand, if the Bengals are good, it will likely be because Burrow is having a phenomenal rookie season. On the other hand, if the Bengals are bad, we could see Burrow put up some huge numbers in garbage time, which could help his touchdown total. Remember, Burrow doesn’t have to lead the NFL in touchdown passes, just the AFC North, and that seems like something he can do. 

2. Joe Mixon leads the AFC in rushing

If you watched the Bengals play last year, you may have noticed that they had one of the worst offenses in football, and yet somehow, Mixon still managed to finish the season with the ninth-most rushing yards in the NFL. The running back was one of the few offensive weapons that Cincinnati had last year and although opposing defenses put most of their focus on him, Mixon was still able to rush for 1,137 yards. 

The good news for Mixon is that he shouldn’t have to be a one-man show in 2020. The Bengals offense should be much better this season, and there are two reasons for that: 

1. The Bengals are stacked at the wide receiver position.
2. The offensive line has been totally revamped. 

At receiver, the Bengals are returning four players who went over the 500-yard mark last season in Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate, Alex Erickson and John Ross. To put that in perspective, the Packers only had one receiver who crossed the 500-yard mark last season. Not only are the Bengals returning a boatload of talent, but they’re also adding two guys who weren’t on the field last season in A.J. Green and Tee Higgins.

That’s a lot of offensive weapons, and theoretically, that should help draw some focus away from Mixon when opposing defenses are trying to stop Cincinnati. The other thing working in Mixon’s favor this year is that the Bengals should have a somewhat functional offensive line, which is something they didn’t have last year. 

Mixon managed to rush for more than 1,100 yards in 2019 even though the Bengals lost two starters on the line before the season even started. Not only did the team have to deal with the debacle with Cordy Glenn, but Jonah Williams, the team’s first-round pick in 2019, didn’t play a single down last season due to a preseason ACL tear. 

For the past two seasons, Mixon has thrived under trying circumstances, and now that the offense is loaded, that should open things up for him, which means it’s not too crazy to think that the could hit 1,400 or 1,500 rushing yards in 2020. If he does that, he might not just lead the AFC, but he could end up leading the entire NFL. Mixon’s biggest competition for the title of AFC rushing leader is probably going to be Nick Chubb or Derek Henry. With Chubb, he could lose some snaps to Kareem Hunt, who will be on the field for all 16 games this season (He missed half of 2019 due to a suspension). As for Henry, he’s going to have to face the wrath of every defense he goes up against because they’re all going to be designed to stop him. 

3. Bengals have the biggest win improvement in the NFL

After going 2-14 last season, it’s pretty much a guarantee that the Bengals will improve at least somewhat in 2020, and that’s because winning just three games would be considered an improvement. However, to win the title of the NFL’s most improved team, the Bengals will likely have to improve by six or seven games in the win column, which is why this is a bold prediction. 

Over the past five years, only one team finished with the NFL’s worst record and then followed it up the next season by having the biggest improvement in the win column, and that was the 2018 Browns, who won seven games after going 0-16 in 2017. 

If you look at how the Bengals played last year, all signs seem to be pointing to a team that could have a big year in 2020. 

First, let’s look at the fact that they had the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Over the past 10 years, there have been six quarterbacks — Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray — who have been taken with the top pick and started at least 12 games during their rookie year, and those quarterbacks have combined to go 41-41-1. Even though each quarterback went to a bad team, they still managed to combine for a .500 record. Those same six quarterbacks have averaged 6.8 wins per year during their rookie season. In an ideal situation,a playoff berth isn’t out of the question. Back in 2012, Luck led the Colts to the playoffs and an 11-5 record, which seemed improbable after Indy went 2-14 in 2011. 

One crazy thing about the 2019 Bengals is that they went 0-8 in one-score games, which was shocking because that’s nearly impossible to do. Statistically speaking, NFL teams should win about half of their one-score games. Basically, the Bengals were a better team than their record indicated.

Although they finished 2-14, the Bengals were in nearly every game they played. Not only did they lose eight games by just one score, but they also held the lead at some point during 12 of their 16 games. To put that in perspective, the only other team to lead in 12 games but still manage to lose 14 times was the 1979 49ers, who had Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and I probably don’t need to tell you how things turned out for that tandem. 

The Bengals winning eight or nine games doesn’t seem too far-fetched — OK, it’s kind of far-fetched — but if they can hit that mark, an improvement of six or seven games in the win column from last season should be enough to take home the title of the NFL’s most improved team in 2020. 

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