After the season ending injury to elite quarterback Joe Burrow, the Cincinnati Bengals turned around what could have been a tank season and still managed to end the year with a winning record. After the bizarre season ending wrist injury to Burrow, backup quarterback Jake Browning stepped in and (with Burrow’s expert tutelage) played remarkably well to close out the season at 9-8. While Browning was a huge part to the success in Cincinnati, he certainly doesn’t deserve all of the credit.
Cincinnati Bengals Secondary Problems May Help Them in the Future
While the inconsistencies at the quarterback position were a huge story for Cincinnati, another major issue for Cincinnati was how poorly the defensive secondary played all season. Now don’t get me wrong, everyone knew there would be a step back when the team allowed All Pro free safety Jessie Bates to leave in free agency due to salary cap restrictions. While I didn’t expect the secondary to be elite, I also didn’t expect the group to regress to the fifth worst passing defense in the National Football League.
After both starting safeties Bates and strong safety Vonn Bell left the team in free agency this off season, the team left the deep defensive back positions to 2022 first round pick Dax Hill and a bargain free agent signing Nick Scott. While there were some growing pains, Hill performed fairly well in his role as the free safety while Scott was a complete disaster. Early on in the season, Cincinnati gave up big play after big play and Scott seemed to be the common denominator on the defense.
The team also had issues with usual Pro Bowl caliber safety Chidobe Awuzie as it appeared the teams starting corner struggled to lock up opposing receivers the way he usually does. While Awuzie scored an acceptable coverage score of 62.3 on Pro Football Focus (PFF), that score is far too low to be considered a starting cornerback. Given that it is a contract year, it is likely that the team will move on from him completely.
Bengals 2023 Rookie Class and Where they Fit Moving Forward
Now after we looked at the problem children in 2023, lets look at who did well and how the team will stack up in the future. To start with, first round pick defensive end Myles Murphy played well down the stretch as he finished the season with a PFF pass rush score of 64.3. Given that incumbent right end Sam Hubbard finished the season with a lesser score of 57.5, it is likely that Hubbard will be released in the offseason to provide more playing time for the rising star on the Cincinnati defense.
After the Murphy decision, the next draft pick in 2023 was second round speedster cornerback D.J. Turner II. Turner struggled coming down the stretch last season as the team struggled with injuries in the secondary but played had moments where he shined last season. While he finished the season with a rough PFF coverage grade of 48.4, the coaching staff saw enough to essentially bump him to the number two cornerback spot, promote emerging star cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and release aging starter Awuzie. There may be some growing pains similar to last season but it is likely that Turner would improve dramatically in a full season as a starter.
Next on this list is arguably the best draft pick of the past year as Cincinnati managed an absolute steal with Jordan Battle in the third round. After the realization of the teams mistake with Scott at safety, the team benched him halfway through the year in favor of the rookie from Alabama. In his first season as a starting safety, Battle finished the season with an outstanding PFF overall rating of 82.5 which is good enough for ninth in the NFL. When Battle entered the starting lineup, the quality of the secondary improved dramatically and the team went on a winning streak during the second half of the season.
With that being said, the defensive secondary will consist of Taylor Britt, Turner and elite slot corner Mike Hilton at the cornerback position with emerging superstars Hill and Battle at the safety positions. This group played fairly well last season and would be one of the youngest groups in the NFL. It wouldn’t be outside the realm for this to be one of the best secondaries in the NFL in another season or two.
Offensive Improvements in Cincinnati
On top of those major defensive acquisitions, Cincinnati also found viable insurance at the wide receiver positions. In the fourth and sixth rounds, Cincinnati respectively took wide receivers Charlie Jones and Andrei Iosivas. Both players graded out with solid PFF in the 60s during their rookie season as the team found viable options at wide receiver if they do decide to move on from elite incumbents Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. On top of that, Jones appears to be a solid option as a returner in Cincinnati for the near future as he managed to return a punt return for a touchdown this season.
On top of the receivers, Cincinnati managed to find talented running back Chase Brown in the fifth round this season as an alternative to long time incumbent Joe Mixon. Brown certainly showed sparks and he showed that he could make an impact in the passing game as he finished the season with a PFF grade of 81.1. While Mixon may still be the favorite, Brown gives them an option if they wanted to save the cap space by releasing their former back.
If you look at all of the players piece by piece, Cincinnati had an excellent 2023 draft as of the end of their rookie seasons. Every single player the team drafted made a solid impact to the team throughout the season and more significantly, they have the option to let go of six major contracts to extend the Super Bowl window with Joe Burrow. With solid draft acquisitions, Cincinnati can avoid overpaying on free agents and can maintain an elite roster.
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