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State of the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals: Is turnaround led by Joe Burrow imminent?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Bengals organization, Bengals fans around the world and those who had kind of hoped they were going to roll out those cool "BENGALS" script helmets again:

This is a pivotal year for the Cincinnati Bengals. Cincy made the playoffs in five straight seasons during the Marvin Lewis regime, but the team was looking for a new direction after the 2018 campaign. Unfortunately, that new direction has not been a fortuitous one. But don't despair, Bengals fans. Sometimes it's darkest before the dawn -- and this organization could be building something special.

How the Bengals got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Handling the Titans pretty well in a 31-20 Week 8 victory. Tennessee went on to win the AFC South, but really, this game wasn't all that close.
  • Beating the Steelers in Week 15 on Monday Night Football. Hey, look: You weren't going to make the playoffs or anything. But beating a division rival in a prime-time game is always a good thing. And you followed it up with a win over the Texans the following week.
  • Joe Burrow's performance through Week 10. He looked like the quarterback Bengals fans wanted him to be, throwing for 2,485 yards to go along with 12 touchdowns and five picks. And then …

The lows:

  • Burrow's season-ending knee injury in Week 11. Just as the Bengals were becoming a fun team that people enjoyed watching (even streaming the rookie in fantasy football), he suffered a horrific end to his rookie campaign.
  • Losing the season opener to the Chargers. The Bengals had L.A. on the ropes in Week 1. A.J. Green caught the would-be go-ahead touchdown with seven seconds left in the game, but he was called for offensive pass interference and the play was nullified. Then Randy Bullock missed a 31-yard field goal try that would have tied the game.
  • Getting blown out by the Ravens in Week 17. After back-to-back wins in the previous two weeks, the Bengals had a chance to close out the season on an upswing. But they were beaten by Baltimore, 38-3. The Bengals were outscored 65-6 in their two games against the Ravens in 2020.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Zac Taylor. The Bengals are starting Year 3 of the Zac Taylor Experiment. I don't know where the time has gone. And I really don't have much more of a read on the 38-year-old coach now than I did a year ago, when I lamented not having more of a read on him. He did improve the Bengals' offense last season, taking the unit from 30th in points per game in 2019 all the way up to (checks notes) 29th in 2020.

I'm sure you could give him the benefit of the doubt, considering he was without Burrow after Week 11. The Bengals were kind of a fun team during the first half of the season, losing some heartbreakers and letting Carson Wentz rally the Eagles to a tie in Week 3. But still, every time we saw Zac Taylor on those video pressers, I always thought that he was one of the PR staffers waiting for the coach to arrive before I finally went, Oh yeah, that's Taylor.

And it's not going to be easy for him. The Bengals are tied for the sixth-toughest strength of schedule based on their 2021 opponents' record from 2020. The division-rival Steelers aren't as good as their record from last year might lead you to believe, so that should help. But this is a huge season for Taylor, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone.

Quarterback: Joe Burrow. You know what's funny? The Bengals have never had a really bad starting quarterback. OK, at least not for long stretches of time. From Ken Anderson to Boomer Esiason to Carson Palmer to Andy Dalton, the Bengals have fared pretty well at the position. There was even a year of Ryan Fitzpatrick sprinkled in there (2008). I know the Akili Smith and David Klingler eras were rough, but for the most part, the Bengals have been pretty good at quarterback since the 1980s. It figures you'd get another gem in Burrow.

The first overall pick of the 2020 draft broke the rookie record for pass attempts per game (40.4). His 268.6 passing yards per game were the third-most by a rookie in NFL history. The biggest question now is how quickly he'll recover from the injury. Burrow told Sports Illustrated last month that he used the rehab time to refine his throwing motion and focus on the fundamentals. He also told the Bengals' official website that he was going to add some more weight before the season. His offseason work appears to have served him well, as the reviews from the spring have been fantastic for Burrow. Some of his receivers have reported that he has more zip on the football now, too. I can't wait to see what he's going to be able to do in 2021.

Projected 2021 MVP: Riley Reiff, right tackle. Signing Reiff this offseason was a huge move for the Bengals. He's a big upgrade over his predecessor, Bobby Hart. Some of the Bengals' moves this offseason were kind of like the equivalent of replacing an older couch with a newer one that is basically the same as the old one. But adding Reiff was like getting a TV for the bathroom. The sort of thing you didn't know you needed until you actually did it. Readers who are also parents know what I mean.

2021 breakout star: Logan Wilson, linebacker. Wilson, a third-round pick in 2020, is one of the Bengals defenders generating some buzz this offseason. He played in 12 games as a rookie and made some impressive plays. Wilson missed the last three games of the season with an ankle injury, but he appears to be healthy and ready to go. He's going to get a chance to start for a Bengals linebacker corps that could use a little bit of help. Don't be surprised if you hear his name a bunch this season.

New face to know: Ja'Marr Chase, wide receiver. A lot of NFL observers felt like the Bengals should have selected an offensive lineman with the fifth overall pick in the draft instead of a receiver. I'm not one of those people. I mean, Penei Sewell (the first O-lineman selected this year at No. 7 overall) is a fantastic prospect who could be great for the Lions, but I believe Chase can be really special. Especially given the familiarity between Chase and Burrow, who won a national championship together at LSU. By now, you're familiar with how dominant Burrow was during that run with the Tigers. You might not be aware that Chase led the FBS in receiving yards (1,780) and receiving touchdowns (20) in 2019. That's right. Chase had more yards and touchdowns than LSU teammate (and 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year runner-up) Justin Jefferson in '19. And when you listen to Burrow and Chase talk about their bromance, it's like listening to Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt talk about each other during the press tour of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And you can bet the Bengals are looking for that Hollywood ending with these two reunited.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH, actually. I mean, they don't have to go to the Super Bowl or anything. But the Bengals need to be competitive for the sake of Zac Taylor's job security.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Minnesota Vikings. The Bengals lost a spirited battle against the Chargers in Week 1 last year, creating a "Here we go again ..." vibe early in the season. This is a winnable game for Cincinnati.
  • Week 6 at Detroit Lions. Not only are the Bengals going up against a team that was in a similar draft position, but this matchup also kicks off three consecutive road games for Cincy. The Bengals are one of three teams with three consecutive roadies on their 2021 schedule.
  • Week 12 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals get three consecutive home games this season, too, beginning with the matchup against Pittsburgh (followed by meetings with the Chargers and 49ers). This seems like the kind of stretch that could determine the fate of Zac Taylor.

Will the Bengals be able to …

Keep Joe Burrow healthy? I already mentioned how I feel about the signing of right tackle Riley Reiff (bathroom TV comp, which is a good thing). I should also mention that the team drafted offensive lineman Jackson Carman in Round 2. Obviously, it's important to protect the investment in Burrow. He was pressured on 134 dropbacks in 10 games in 2020, per Next Gen Stats. That was the third-most pressures of any QB from Weeks 1-11 and does include the play in which he suffered the knee injury. The Bengals would also benefit from a healthy season for left tackle Jonah Williams, the 11th overall pick in the 2019 draft. Williams missed the entire 2019 season with a shoulder injury and he sat out six games due to injury in 2020. I don't know, this seems like an awful lot of wishing. But as a guy who really loves Joe Burrow, I hope this O-line can get it together.

Get a full season out of Joe Mixon? I joked that the Bengals let their best running back go this offseason when they released Giovani Bernard. Although maybe I wasn't really joking at the time? Mixon played in just six games last season, missing 10 contests with a foot injury. And perhaps this is yet another instance where the fantasy football dork in me rises to the occasion. Mixon has long been one of those guys we were promised would be a game-changer, but we haven't seen that monster year from him yet. He's yet to reach double-digit touchdowns in a season and he hasn't put up huge numbers in the passing game. I feel like you're going to be at your fantasy draft six years from now and one of your league mates is going to be telling people that this is the year for Mixon. I need to see it. (And one guy you might want to keep an eye on as training camp unfolds is rookie RB Pooka Williams, who has turned some heads in the offseason.)

Get to the quarterback? I know we've talked a lot about Ja'Marr Chase and the moves on the offensive line in this piece, but the Bengals' best signing of the offseason might have been Trey Hendrickson. He had 13.5 sacks for the Saints last season. The Bengals had 17 as a team. That's right, SEVENTEEN. That's the second-fewest by a team in the last 10 seasons. If Hendrickson can get close to his number from last season again, Cincinnati can't help but improve in that area. The Bengals also brought in former Browns DT Larry Ogunjobi. But the team traded DE Carlos Dunlap to the Seahawks in the middle of last season; Carl Lawson -- the Bengals' sacks leader last season -- signed with the Jets in March; and longtime Cincinnati staple Geno Atkins is currently a free agent.

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: The Bengals did make some moves in the secondary. I'm tempted to say upgraded in the secondary, even. The Bengals ranked 19th in passing yards allowed, and 26th in passing touchdowns allowed in 2020. And they lost former first-round pick William Jackson III in free agency. But they brought in Chidobe Awuzie and former Steeler Mike Hilton. I kind of liked Awuzie in the past, during his time with the Cowboys. But he was injured for much of last season. And when he was playing, he struggled. Hilton is a solid player, though. Never a bad idea to sign a guy with knowledge of the division. The Bengals also added Eli Apple and Ricardo Allen. Not exactly inspiring signings, but two players worth kicking the tires on for a low price.

... people are also overthinking: Spending a first-round pick on a receiver. I feel like a lot of you still aren't on board with this move, even though I tried to spell it out earlier. Reminder: Ja'Marr Chase had 20 touchdowns in 2019. Bengals wide receivers have 22 receiving touchdowns since 2019, which is tied for 29th in the league. But I also need to mention Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. I'm a big Tee guy. He had a great rookie season (67/908/6). Burrow is raving about him. I feel like Chase and Higgins are going to make a great tandem. Seriously, this could be one of the best receiving corps in the league.

For 2021 to be a success, the Bengals MUST:

  • Take a big step in the right direction. Expecting a playoff berth feels a bit aggressive for this team. Especially in a division that includes the Ravens and the Browns. But at some point, we need to see some progress from the Bengals. They need to close out some of those tough games. And if they get to the playoffs, well, that would be wonderful.

In closing

Cincinnati is one of the most interesting teams in the league. The offense has the makings of being something special. I'm kind of bummed the Bengals were given only one prime-time game this season. They might not end up being the best team in NFL history, but I really do believe they are going to be one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in 2021.

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