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State of the 2023 Cincinnati Bengals: Super Bowl or bust for Joe Burrow and company

Where does your squad stand in 2023? 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 are once again proudly displaying those Eric Davis 1985 rookie cards ...

I went to Cincinnati for the first time last year and absolutely fell in love with the Queen City -- which, it should be noted, is enjoying success across the world of sports these days. The Reds are one of the hottest ballclubs in the MLB. FC Cincinnati might be the best team in the MLS. And the Bengals have been on quite a run over the last couple of years, with back-to-back division titles, consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances and a narrow Super Bowl defeat. Can the 2023 Bengals claim the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy? Good question. But before we look forward to the coming season, it's important to take a step back.

2022 rewind

One high from last season: Making it to a second consecutive AFC Championship Game. Yes, the Chiefs ultimately defeated the Bengals, thanks in part to unfortunate timing on a late-hit penalty. Still, mounting another long playoff run as the defending AFC champs solidified this franchise's standing, proving 2021 was not a fluke.

One low from last season: That AFC Championship Game. I was right there with you, calling Kansas City's home field Burrowhead Stadium. I love that kind of thing; it's what you want from sports. But it would have been a lot cooler had the Bengals not lost. I was pulling for them.

2023 VIPs

Quarterback: Joe Burrow. You know I'm a Joe Burrow guy. I referred to him as the Ric Flair of the NFL last year. Burrow has the poise, the swagger. But beyond that, he's also an excellent quarterback. We often celebrate athletes with spicy personas while conveniently overlooking the fact that they don't routinely win. Burrow, on the other hand, has turned the Bengals into annual contenders.

In fact, I'd argue Burrow is already the best QB in the history of a franchise that has featured some pretty good passers over the years. I'm sure some olds will point out that Ken Anderson was great and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and I'll sign that memo -- but I still say Burrow is better. Burrow has racked up 11,774 passing yards and 82 passing TDs, ranking fourth and fifth, respectively, among NFL QBs throughout history in the first three seasons of a career. And there is a chance Joe takes it to another level this season, for reasons I'm about to explain here right now.

Projected 2023 MVP: Burrow. The other pieces on the roster are obviously important, but in the end, it all comes down to Joe. There's a reason he's on track to land a monster extension. Over the past two seasons, he's helped turn Cincinnati into one of the best teams in football, rising above issues on the offensive line -- he was sacked a whopping 121 times in that span, playoffs included -- to drive serious playoff pushes. Which makes me very excited to think about what he will be able to do with improved protection up front.

New face to know: Orlando Brown Jr., left tackle. Brown's decision to leave the Chiefs and sign with the Bengals this offseason was a delicious old-school heel turn, like when the Macho Man joined the nWo. "But the Bengals aren't heels," you are probably saying right now. My response? The nWo was a group of cool heels, which kind of fits this franchise right now. Brown is the veteran stalwart that this team has missed on the blind side since Andrew Whitworth left for Los Angeles. (And we won't talk about what happened to the O-line in Super Bowl LVI.) I also want to point out that Brown has been interacting with Joey Votto on social media, which means he's probably already the mayor of Cincinnati.

2023 breakout star: Dax Hill, safety. The 2022 first-round pick did not log a ton of defensive snaps as a rookie, with veterans Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell entrenched at safety. Now that Bates and Bell departed in free agency, Hill will get a chance to show what he can do. At least one key person is feeling good about the 22-year-old: Bengals secondary/safeties coach Rob Livingston, who told The Athletic Hill was "a first-round pick for a reason." We'll soon learn whether Livingston's confidence is well-founded.

2023 braintrust

Table inside Article
Head coach Zac Taylor
Director of player personnel Duke Tobin
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo
Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons
  • There was a time when I was making jokes in this space about Zac Taylor looking like a marketing intern during the head coach's video conference pressers. Nobody is laughing now. He's one of the best in the game.
  • The Bengals are rather lucky that Lou Anarumo is back for another season in Cincinnati. I'm not sure how he made it through the head-coaching interview cycle without getting a gig, but his continued presence as defensive coordinator is huge for the Bengals. This is the man who designed a defense that made Josh Allen look like Mitch Trubisky. He's bested Patrick Mahomes. Yes, the Chiefs got the better of Anarumo in last season's AFC title bout, but I'm sure Lou is going to be ready for next time.

Roster reshuffling

Below is a rundown of the Bengals' most notable roster developments for the 2023 season, including this year's draft class, as well as key acquisitions and departures via free agency and trade.

Table inside Article
Draft class (round-pick) Key additions Key departures
Myles Murphy, DE, Clemson (1-28) Trevor Siemian, QB Brandon Allen, QB
DJ Turner II, CB, Michigan (2-60) Irv Smith Jr., TE Samaje Perine, RB
Jordan Battle, S, Alabama (3-95) Orlando Brown Jr., OT Hayden Hurst, TE
Charlie Jones, WR, Purdue (4-131) Cody Ford, OG Eli Apple, CB
Chase Brown, RB, Illinois (5-163) Sidney Jones, CB Tre Flowers, CB
Andrei Iosivas, WR, Princeton (6-206) Nick Scott, S Jessie Bates III, S
Brad Robbins, P, Michigan (6-217) Vonn Bell, S
DJ Ivey, CB, Miami (7-246)

2023 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Cleveland Browns. The Bengals open the season with back-to-back games against AFC North opponents, following this with a home contest against the Ravens. By now in this series, you should know my feelings on playing division rivals early in the season. If you don't, well, I don't like it. But these are crucial matchups for a team with back-to-back North titles to its name.
  • Week 8 at San Francisco 49ers. A potential Super Bowl matchup! I mean, technically, you can say that for every AFC-NFC showdown. But for real, this could be a Super Bowl. It has been a Super Bowl -- twice! (I bet Cris Collinsworth gives a little first pump whenever the Bengals beat the 49ers.)
  • Week 17 at Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs. The Bengals. On New Year's Eve! Oh, man -- the two best teams in the AFC. I'm not making it to midnight, am I?

Will the Bengals be able to ...

... boast the best receiving trio in the NFL? If there is one thing the Bengals players don't seem to be shy about, it's boasting. And why should they be? Cincinnati is the only NFL team to have three receivers reach the 1,500-yard threshold since the 2021 season (Ja'Marr Chase has more than 2,500); remarkably, Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd all have also topped 10 receiving TDs in that span. You do have to wonder if this is going to be the last ride for the group, with Higgins and Boyd each heading into a contract season. (I'm sure Cincinnati really wants to extend Higgins, just like I would love to lock down a bunch of Elly De La Cruz rookie cards. But sometimes the price is a little high.) Still, that's next year. This year, the Bengals are loaded.

... field a strong offensive line? Yeah, I know. It seems outrageous to think about the offensive line being one of the strengths of this team. I mean, again, after Andrew Whitworth left in 2017, and after the team drafted Ja'Marr Chase over Penei Sewell in 2021 (which I was down with, BTW), the line became something of a sieve, leaving Burrow scrambling far too often. But while we've already talked about how much signing Orlando Brown Jr. will do for this unit, what I didn't mention yet is the idea of former first-round pick Jonah Williams moving to right tackle, a switch the briefly disgruntled vet now says he's "stoked" for. With Brown on the left and Williams on the right, this group suddenly looks pretty good.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overthink: Offseason attrition on defense. We briefly touched on this above, with Dax Hall stepping into the starting lineup in the wake of both safeties leaving in free agency. Cincinnati also lost starting cornerback Eli Apple to the open market. But the Bengals have done a nice job of drafting replacements. Cam Taylor-Britt, Cincy's second-round pick last year, started nine games as a rookie, and now he's poised to take on the full-time job. Not to mention, the Bengals spent a pair of Day 2 picks on the secondary this past April: second-round CB DJ Turner II and third-round S Jordan Battle. Furthermore, Duke Tobin and Co. continue to help the defensive backfield by fortifying the defensive front. Joseph Ossai is a breakout candidate for the Bengals this year. He looked pretty good as a backup to Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson last season. The team also just used a first-round pick on Clemson DE Myles Murphy. Lou Anarumo's unit ranked 16th in total defense last year, but sixth in points allowed. This D bows up when it needs to -- and in the playoffs. Cincy absolutely stifled Buffalo's high-powered offense in the Divisional Round. Then, on Championship Sunday, the Bengals did a nice job holding Kansas City to 23 points. I expect this group to answer the bell again in 2023.

For 2023 to be a success, the Bengals MUST:

  • Get back to the Super Bowl. Cincinnati is a championship-caliber sports town right now, as detailed in the intro. And wherever the Reds and FC Cincinnati go from here, the Bengals are well-positioned to take the ball this fall and run with it. In fact, anything less than a trip to the Super Bowl should be considered a disappointment -- Burrow and Co. are that good.

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