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State of the Franchise: Bengals trending up with Joe Burrow

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? 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 of you who think that Skyline Chili is the greatest thing ever:

It's an exciting time to be a Bengals fan. This is a team on the rise, potentially heading for unprecedented levels of success, and the Bengals are a proud franchise. They have a history filled with some of the greatest innovators in the game and some of the best who ever played it. The only thing missing is a championship. I'm not going to sugarcoat it and say that a title is within reach this season. But the Bengals are putting together the building blocks to get there one day.

How the Bengals got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Beating the Browns in the season finale, 33-23. There is nothing like beating your in-state rival on the final day of the season. It gives you a nice feeling heading into the offseason, especially after a rough ride that resulted in you ending up with the draft's first overall selection. 
  • Tyler Boyd had his second consecutive season with 1,000-plus receiving yards. Boyd is one of nine players to reach that mark for the Bengals. He's one of six to do it more than once. 
  • Geno Atkins was selected to his eighth career Pro Bowl. That's the most ever by a Bengals defensive player. Anthony Munoz has the club record with 11 nods. 

The lows:

  • A.J. Green missed the entire season with an injury. (We'll dive into that later.) 
  • Andy Dalton's benching. He was replaced by rookie Ryan Finley for a few games and then returned to the starting lineup for the final stretch of the season. I'll have some additional thoughts on this later, too.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Zac Taylor. It's Year 2 of the Zac Taylor Experiment. But it feels like the first year, because I don't know what to tell you about Zac. Like, who is Zac Taylor? I mean, I know his bio is available on the internet and all that, but I didn't learn much about him last year. And it never seemed like he showed us why he should be the coach of the Bengals.

We know one reason why he was hired: Sean McVay, Taylor's former boss with the Rams, dazzled the NFL and everybody wanted their own version. It feels kind of like when Gordon Ramsay got successful yelling at people on his show Kitchen Nightmares, which led network executives to try to find their own version of Ramsay. And most of the time it didn't work out (looking at you, Bobby Irvine). The one thing Zac was supposed to specialize in was offense, but the Bengals ranked 30th in points last season. That's like if Ramsay opened up a restaurant and the food was bad. Oh well. At least the yelling from the kitchen would be entertaining.

But that's the thing. The Bengals lacked a hook -- something that made them interesting -- the aforementioned drama around Dalton's benching and Green's injury notwithstanding. The Bengals had no identity. They didn't give fans a lot of reason to hope, unlike what Brian Flores did with the Dolphins. The Bengals were looking for the next Sean McVay. But it seemed like they had the next Adam Gase.

Now, Taylor acknowledged the need to add players who can bring an edge to the franchise when he discussed Cincinnati's picks on draft weekend. Thank goodness, it looks like he now has a perfect fit for that role ...

Quarterback: Joe Burrow. If you're searching for a hook or identity for this year's team, look no further than the charismatic cigar-chomping champion from LSU. The Bengals have been very fortunate at the quarterback position over the years. They've had some good ones. Guys like Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason, Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton. All of them good NFL players. Anderson and Esiason even won the league MVP award.

But they've never had the dude. You know what I'm saying? A guy who exudes confidence and just has a demeanor that makes him different. It's hard to quantify, but some guys just have it. Kind of like the way The Rock and Roman Reigns are great professional wrestlers. The Rock is on another level, though. Not to knock Roman, who does a lot of things well. He looks the part, certainly. But the Rock just has that something extra. And the ranks of the Bengals quarterbacks, for as much success as they've had over the years, have never included somebody like that. (Palmer was very close to best in the business territory, and if not for Kimo von Oelhoffen, he might have reached that stratosphere. Instead, he's the Magnum T.A. of Bengals quarterbacks.)

But everything we saw from Burrow last season is what the Bengals need. He came to LSU, a program that was chasing Alabama in the SEC, and he engineered the best college football season I've ever witnessed. He earned the respect of his teammates by standing up for himself in practice. He was clutch under pressure. He made all of the big-time throws. And he carried himself with a demeanor that was infectious. That's what is required for the Bengals. And Joe brings it.

Projected 2020 MVP: Burrow. Sorry, I really don't want to just list the quarterback as the guy. But he's the guy. If Burrow isn't ready to handle the NFL and can't make up for some of the glaring weaknesses on this team, then it could be a long year. 

2020 breakout star: Drew Sample, tight end. A lot of Bengals fans were not pleased when the club selected Sample higher than many expected him to go (second round, 52nd overall) in the 2019 NFL Draft. (As a Bears fan, I can commiserate with this feeling.) An ankle injury that limited Sample to nine games didn't help that situation. But former Bengals TE1 Tyler Eifert is down in Duval County now, and that means Sample will play a bigger role this season. Even with the presence of Danger Zone alumnus (fantasy enthusiasts will understand that reference) C.J. Uzomah. 

The thing about Sample is that he's a great blocker, and the Bengals certainly need guys who can block. Catching the ball wasn't a huge part of his game in college (46 career grabs at Washington). But where have we heard that before? It sounds like the kind of thing they said about George Kittle when he came out of Iowa. I'm not going to put those lofty expectations on Sample, though. If he can develop into a Jack Doyle-type for the Bengals, that would be a win. 

New face to know: Tee Higgins, wide receiver. Obviously, the Bengals are celebrating landing Burrow with the first overall pick, and they should be. But I also loved the selection of Higgins to start Round 2. I mean, it's pretty unusual for a team to surround its quarterback with talent. Or am I just watching the Packers strand Aaron Rodgers too much? Anyway, I am a huge fan of Higgins. I had him as a first-round talent coming into the draft. He's a bigger receiver, but he can get down the field on those go routes and really do some damage. And when you put him in a room with a lot of other good receivers (more on that in a moment), then I wouldn't be surprised to see him have a productive rookie season similar to what DK Metcalf did last year. 

May I ask: Why did the Bengals keep the same uniforms? I'm not sure if you noticed, but it seemed like half the teams in the NFL unveiled redesigned uniforms this offseason (OK, it was seven, but it felt like more than that). The Bengals were not one of those teams. Which was a mistake. I like the theory of the Bengals uniforms. I feel like they are so close to being among the best in the league. They need something like the current uniforms, but with a little Ken Anderson from the 1970s mixed in. However, I fear they could take this in a drastic direction that could make the uniforms worse. So, I'm not sure what I want.

The 2020 road map

The competitive urgency index is: LOW. BUT ... you've got to show something this season. Even if you're 5-11 or something like that, at least score a lot of points and give the fans a reason to be excited. Be fun. Be interesting. This is a key year for our guy Zac Taylor.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Chargers. The Bengals won two games last year. They are going to reach half that total in the first week of the 2020 season. And this will be a highly anticipated game, as it will mark Burrow's regular-season debut. This just feels like a great opportunity for the Bengals to make some noise, and I except them to.
  • Week 7 vs. Browns. The Bengals play the Browns twice in the first seven weeks of the season. It never makes sense to me to burn prime divisional matchups like this so early. But alas, the point is, the Bengals need to split the season series.
  • Week 11 at Redskins. Burrow against, presumably, the guy who beat him out for the starting job at Ohio State a couple years ago, Dwayne Haskins. Talk about your barometer games. Your revenge games. Whatever you want to call it.

Will the Bengals be able to ...

Protect Joe Burrow? I can sit here and talk about the rookie's moxie and the other things he brings to the Bengals, but it's not going to matter if they can't protect him. Cincinnati has ranked 26th, 24th and 24th in pass blocking over the past three seasons, per Pro Football Focus. And what sucks is that it didn't have to be that way. The Bengals had a low-key good offensive line not too long ago. But once Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler left, it was never the same. It was like when Max stopped appearing on Saved by the Bell. He wasn't the main character or anything, but you missed his presence. There is some help arriving, though. Jonah Williams, the team's first-round pick in 2019, is healthy and ready to play left tackle after missing last season. Guard Michael Jordan played better down the stretch. And I'm really hoping this is the year Billy Price breaks out.

Count on A.J. Green? He didn't play a game last season, but the team went out and put the franchise tag on him in March. He hasn't signed his tender as of this writing, and while the two sides have until July 15 to negotiate a long-term contract, it looks like he's destined for at least one more season in Cincinnati. I mean, he hasn't drawn any line in the sand to say he won't play under the tag, so we're not expecting him to go anywhere. I know he hasn't played in a football game since 2018, but we like A.J. And when you look at a receiving corps that also includes Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate, our guy Tee Higgins and John Ross (when healthy), this could be one of the best groups in the league. You just have to hope such a long layoff hasn't significantly diminished Green's skills.

Stop people on the ground? The Bengals weren't great on defense last season, ranking 29th in yards allowed. They allowed 400-plus yards in seven games, which was the most in the AFC. And they really struggled to stop the run game. The Bengals gave up a league-worst 2,382 rushing yards, the most allowed by the team since 1998. However, Cincinnati did throw a lot of resources at the defense this offseason. D.J. Reader is in to replace Andrew Billings at nose tackle. The Bengals famously used early draft capital on Burrow and Higgins for the passing game, but don't sleep on the linebackers the Bengals drafted. Third-rounder Logan Wilson isn't a household name because he played outside of the Power Five conferences (at Wyoming), but he's damn good. And fourth-rounder Akeem Davis-Gaither is also going to be a huge addition.

And since we're talking defense, I should point out the Bengals ranked 21st against the pass last season (why would teams throw when they could run?). The Bengals replaced Darqueze Dennard, Dre Kirkpatrick and B.W. Webb with Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Not to go all Pepper Brooks on you, but it's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off. I'll miss seeing Waynes, a former Viking, get beat as a Bears fan. But Alexander was a really nice signing. They also added former Saint Vonn Bell to the mix. This is a revamped secondary.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: We're still waiting for the Joe Mixon breakout season. Mixon has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but he hasn't had that monster, Pro Bowl campaign everyone seems to have promised for the past couple of seasons. Now the enigmatic running back wants a new contract, and it sounds like the Bengals want to give him one. But if there's no new deal by the time camp opens, will Mixon hold out? That was a possibility the Bengals were reportedly preparing themselves for earlier this offseason, and it's a situation to keep an eye on now that Dalvin Cook, in a somewhat similar set of circumstances, is threatening a holdout after talks with the Vikings broke down. It is worth pointing out that Mixon ranked second in the NFL in yards after contact from Weeks 10 to 17 last season, according to PFF, so perhaps his best is yet to come.

... people are overthinking: Assigning blame for last season's offensive woes. Let's not act like this was all Andy Dalton's fault. This was just a bad offense. They scored 25 or fewer points in 14 games, tied for most in the league. Dalton set a career high with 268.6 passing yards per game, but he recorded a career-low 78.3 passer rating. Keep in mind, he did it without Green and with an offensive line that was rated as one of the league's worst by Pro Football Focus. If the Bengals find their footing this season, please be kind to Dalton.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Bengals MUST:

Start closing out some games. The Bengals lost eight games by eight points or fewer last season (and half of those were by four points or fewer). Depending on your level of optimism, that could mean one of two things. It could suggest that the Bengals are close, talent-wise, and that the addition of Burrow is just what they need to get on the right track. Or you can take it as a sign that the Bengals just don't know how to close, Zac Taylor is in over his head and they could find themselves picking at the top of the draft once again in a year. Both answers have their merit.

Figure out who you are going to be. The Steelers are known for defense. What is going to be the Bengals' identity?

In closing

I'm willing to let 2019 go with no future ramifications, Bengals. It's kind of like starting high school. All of your grades in middle school didn't really mean much, but that freshman year is when your GPA is really going to start to matter. I will happily consider this the first season of Zac Taylor's career to go with Joe Burrow's rookie season. The template I would try to follow is the one laid out by the Cardinals last season: Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback joins a team with a veteran receiver ready to take over the world.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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