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Evaluating the Bengals Offense before OTAs

Don’t look now, folks – football season is right around the corner.  The pads may not be cracking just yet, but practices are being held, rookies are meeting vets, and coaches are getting their first looks at what hopefully amounts to a contending roster in 2024.  For 31 of the NFL’s 32 teams, Organized Team Activities (OTAs) have already begun.  The lone straggler?  It’s your Cincinnati Bengals!

Okay, okay, maybe football isn’t right around the corner.  It’s more like you’ve just pulled out of the driveway on a long road trip with a group of friends, some you know intimately, others you’re meeting for the first time.  There’s still a long way to go – but right now, it’s an open road.  Optimism is high.  The snacks are packed, someone burned a killer mixtape, and we’re singing songs and making plans as the miles begin to disappear behind us.

OTAs mark the “unofficial” official beginning to the NFL season.  I say “unofficial” because, technically, OTAs are voluntary.  In theory, nobody has to show up.  Of course, a great many do.  It’s a rookie’s first chance to make a good impression, a fringe vet’s chance to catch the eye of a position coach, and a star player’s opportunity to become a leader in the locker room.  A championship contender isn’t built in six or seven OTA practices, but the foundations for success are certainly being laid.

With the Bengals first OTA practices just three days away, and the better part of free agency and the draft behind them, now is an excellent opportunity to evaluate the entirety of the roster, starting with the offense.  There are currently 91 players listed on the active roster – the number will be pared down to 53 by Week One.  A little over 40% of the players listed below will not play for the Bengals in 2024, and most probably won’t play in the NFL at all.  But now’s not the time for negativity!  It’s time for blind confidence and unmitigated hope.  Every team is a Super Bowl contender, especially the Bengals – and this roster is getting it done (I hope):

**All names are in alphabetical order; the number in parenthesis is the number of players at that position the Bengals kept on the roster for Week One of the 2023 season**

QB (2)

Jake Browning – projected backup

Joe Burrow – projected starter

Rocky Lombardi

Drew Plitt

Logan Woodside

Joe Burrow is back, baby, and with him at the helm, there’s no limit to what the Bengals can achieve.  As a player, Burrow is on the short-list of best signal callers in the game.  The trick is keeping him on the field.  In his four years in the league, Burrow has ended his season on injured reserve twice – and that doesn’t even count his rocky, injury-riddled play to begin the 2022 and 2023 seasons!

Backup Jake Browning quickly endeared himself to Bengals fans with his gutsy play in relief of Burrow, and he’s now established as one of the premier backup QBs in the entire NFL.  Of course, if everything goes right, he’ll only be seeing the field in garbage time, but it’s reassuring to know the Bengals have a more-than-capable replacement if disaster strikes yet again.

As for the rest, Logan Woodside has the most experience, but that by no means guarantees anything for the fourth-year player.  Rocky Lombardi is an undrafted rookie who’s coming off an impressive senior year at Northern Illinois (maybe a Tony Romo 2.0?), while Drew Plitt will have plenty of fans as a local product out of Loveland High School.  Unfortunately for these three, the Bengals kept just two QBs on the roster last year and will have no reason to even entertain three in 2024 given the NFL’s new emergency QB rule.

Heading into Week One this year, the only QBs on the active roster will be Burrow and Browning, and you can bank on that.  Advantage Woodside for the emergency backup role. But as long as Burrow starts (and finishes) the season, the Bengals are in fantastic shape.

Grade: A

RB (4)

Chase Brown – projected backup

Noah Cain

Elijah Collins

Chris Evans – projected backup

Demetric Felton

Zack Moss – projected starter

Trayveon Williams – projected backup

After a seven-year tenure with the Bengals, including a Pro Bowl invitation in 2021, Joe Mixon is no longer with the club, having been traded to the Houston Texans for a late-round draft pick.  In his place, the Bengals signed veteran RB Zack Moss from the Indianapolis Colts following his impressive season as a backup to Jonathan Taylor.  Moss and explosive second-year player Chase Brown make for an intriguing tandem of backs with versatility and explosiveness.

Last year, the Bengals kept four running backs on the gameday roster for Week One, and if that’s the case again in 2024, look for Trayveon Williams and Chris Evans to reprise their roles.  They both offer value as kick returners, though Evans seems to have fallen a bit in the eyes of the coaching staff after a promising rookie year.  Cain, Collins and Felton all have uphill battles to make the roster, though if the Bengals opt to keep four RBs again, one of these three might have an outside shot of surpassing Evans in the pecking order.  This group has a lot to prove without Mixon in the fold, but the potential is there.

Grade: C+

WR (6)

Cole Burgess

Jermaine Burton – projected starter

Ja’Marr Chase – projected starter

Tee Higgins – projected starter

Andrei Iosivas – projected backup

Trenton Irwin – projected backup

Shedrick Jackson

Charlie Jones – projected backup

Kwamie Lassiter II

Tre Mosley

Kendric Pryor

Do the Bengals still have the best group of WRs in the NFL?  With Tyler Boyd now in Tennessee, the name-recognition of this group has diminished somewhat, but for 2024 at least, this unit could actually be better than it was in 2023.

Ja'Marr Chase returns as Burrow's top target, while Tee Higgins appears set to fill his usual duties as the Bengals second receiver despite an off-season trade request and subsequent posturing with the front office over a long-term contract.  Rookie Jermaine Burton is the wild card.  He's extremely talented – arguably more talented than Boyd – but fell in the draft due to character concerns.  Boyd was a fantastic player during his tenure in Cincinnati, but his performance last year left a lot to be desired.  Burton may be a rookie, but the threshold for him to improve over 2023 Boyd isn't that high.

Trenton Irwin also returns to provide as a steady, sure-handed backup.  He doesn't excel in any one area, but his rapport with Burrow (and Browning) is invaluable.  Two 2023 draft picks, Charlie Jones and Andrei Iosivas, both project to round out the rest of the receiver room.  Both showed flashes of quality play, but they were few and far between. It's unlikely, but among Cole Burgess, Shedrick Jackson, Kwame Lassiter II, Tre Mosley, or Kendric Pryor, it's not impossible that one manages to impress enough to move ahead of Jones or Iosivas.  As a whole, this group is deep, versatile, and extremely difficult to defend.

Grade: A

TE (3)

Erick All – projected backup

Mike Gesicki – projected starter

Cam Grandy

Tanner Hudson

Tanner McLachlan

Drew Sample – projected backup

The Mike Gesicki signing didn't generate many headlines, but it's a move that could pay huge dividends for the Bengals in their pursuit of a playoff return.   Last year, TE play in Cincinnati was atrocious: Irv Smith Jr. was a complete bust, Drew Sample couldn't do much more than fall forward on a flat route, and the Bengals eventually had to turn to Tanner Hudson as his fifteen career catches for anything resembling production.  This year, the situation is much different.

Gesicki can be the kind of nightmare red zone matchup that the Bengals haven't had since Tyler Eiffert circa 2015.  He has exceptional length, strong hands, and the ability to high point the ball in traffic.  Burrow's going to enjoy his new toy.  Sample, meanwhile, returns for his sixth season in Cincinnati to reprise his role as a premier blocking TE.  He doesn't offer much as a receiver except as an emergency outlet, but his status on the roster is all but secured after signing a three-year extension in the offseason.

The Bengals, though, didn't stop at Gesicki to address their TE issue.  Erick All and Tanner McLachlan were both drafted to give the team more depth and potential at the position, while Tanner Hudson was retained after impressing in limited time.  The Bengals kept three TEs on the roster to start the season last year, but don't be surprised if they elect to go with four this time.  This is a versatile and promising group, but it's still not much more than league average.

Grade: C

OL (10)

Trent Brown – projected starter

Orlando Brown Jr. – projected starter

Alex Cappa – projected starter

Jackson Carman

Devin Cochran

Cody Ford – projected backup

Nate Gilliam

Trey Hill

Ted Karras – projected starter

Jackson Kirkland

Matt Lee – projected backup

Eric Miller

Amarius Mims – projected backup

Max Scharping

D’Ante Smith – projected backup

Cordell Volson – projected starter

It feels like we've been waiting a millennium for the Bengals to field a quality offensive line.  Could it finally happen in 2024?  Possibly, but until we see some hard evidence, it's probably best if we hedge our bets.

At the very least, the Bengals will field one of the largest offensive lines in NFL history, and when it comes to offensive line play, size has a quality all its own.  Orlando Brown Jr. and Trent Brown are an imposing duo, and rookie Amarius Mims brings the complete package, albeit in limited snaps in college.  Expect Cordell Volson, Ted Karras, and Alex Cappa to reprise their roles at left guard, center, and guard, respectively.  None played particularly well last year but given this unit’s experience in big games and prior track record, there's plenty of hope that 2023 was a bit of an aberration.

Mims will be brought along slowly, likely filling a role as a swing tackle.  With Brown's injury history, Mims may have to be ready sooner than we think.  The rest if the offensive line’s depth is questionable at best.  Cody Ford has some versatility at tackle and guard and D'Ante Smith has been a spot starter in the past, while Matt Lee has a great chance to back up Karras at center after being taken in the seventh round.

Max Scharping and Trey Hill have both been with the Bengals for the past two years, but their tenure could be nearing an end, and that goes double for former second-round pick Jackson Carman, who has to have run out of chances with the coaching staff after three discouraging seasons. Devin Cochran, Nate Gilliam, and Eric Miller provide competition during training camp, but are unlikely to make anything beyond the practice squad. The offensive line as a whole should be better than last year (especially with Mims in the picture), but there's still a long way to go before it can be considered "good."

Grade: C+

Stay tuned for Part II, in which we cover the Bengals defense! Coming on Memorial Day...

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