This is part two of a four part series for all four teams in the AFC North.
It is the rookies versus the veterans this year in the AFC North. Rookie head coaches Freddie Kitchens for the Cleveland Browns and Zac Taylor for the Cincinnati Bengals will be looking to battle playoff experienced coaches Mike Tomlin for the Pittsburgh Steelers and John Harbaugh for the Baltimore Ravens this season. With Ben Roethlisberger nearing the end of his career and Andy Dalton’s future in question, can Baker Mayfield as well as Lamar Jackson compete for the AFC North crown in their sophomore years in the NFL?
With preseason training camps underway, each AFC North team has questions to answer on both sides of the football. I will give my opinion on two questions for each team (one concerning the offense, one concerning the defense) to keep an eye on during the regular season this year.
- Can new head coach Zac Taylor turn Andy Dalton back into a Pro Bowl quarterback and will Joe Mixon be able to repeat his success from last season?
When Zac Taylor earned his first NFL coaching stint in 2012 as the Miami Dolphins assistant quarterback coach, Andy Dalton was entering his sophomore season in the NFL after leading Cincinnati to the playoffs and earning his first Pro Bowl selection. Over the next six years, Taylor worked with Ryan Tannehill in Miami before moving to Los Angeles to work with Pro Bowl quarterback Jared Goff in 2018 while Dalton led the Bengals to five straight playoff appearances from 2011-2015 and earned two additional Pro Bowl selections in 2014 as well as 2016. After missing five games last season due to a thumb injury, Dalton is ready to work with Taylor as they will try to turn the Bengals around after Marvin Lewis was fired last December.
With Zac Taylor preparing for his first head coaching stint in the NFL, Cincinnati’s offense needs to improve from last year for Dalton to have a winning season with 4th round draft pick, quarterback Ryan Finley from NC State, waiting for a chance to compete for the starting quarterback position. However, the Bengals offense still has some key pieces with A.J. Green as well as Tyler Boyd at wide receiver and Tyler Eifert as well as C.J. Uzomah at tight end to help Dalton return to Pro Bowl form. But, Cincinnati also has another key offensive player who is looking to make a bigger impact on the team after leading the AFC in rushing yards last season.
In the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Bengals selected running back Joe Mixon from the University of Oklahoma. After his record setting campaign with the Sooners in 2016, Mixon started in only seven games in 2017 with Cincinnati and finished with 913 scrimmage yards while scoring four rushing touchdowns. But, despite the Bengals 6-10 record last season, Mixon became Cincinnati’s primary running back and became the first Bengal to lead the AFC in rushing yards (1,168) since Paul Robinson led the American Football League with 1,023 yards in 1968. If Mixon can produce another 1,000+ yard season this year, Zac Taylor could have one of the best offenses in the AFC in 2019.
- Will Germaine Pratt be a great replacement for Vontaze Burfict and can new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo rebuild the Bengals defense into one of the AFC’s best?
When Vontaze Burfict earned his only Pro Bowl selection with the Bengals in 2013, Germaine Pratt was named an AP all-state selection while playing defensive back at High Point Central High School in North Carolina (a 90 mile drive from NC State). But, while Burfict struggled with disciplinary issues on and off the field over the next five years in Cincinnati, Pratt slowly developed into one of the top linebackers in the ACC and was a first team All-ACC selection in 2018 despite playing only 11 games with NC State. After Vontaze signed a free agent contract with Oakland in March, the Bengals used their 3rd round pick in the NFL Draft to select Germaine to strengthen their linebacker unit.
With Pratt’s dual threat ability as a run stopper and coverage linebacker, Lou Anarumo has a lot of options in his young linebacker unit to choose from as the regular season draws closer. But, Anarumo still has a lot to prove as he prepares for his first stint in the NFL as a full-time defensive coordinator for the Bengals.
After working as a defensive assistant/coordinator for five different NCAA teams from 1990-2011, Lou Anarumo earned his first NFL coaching stint as Miami’s defensive backs coach in 2012 and worked with Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes as well as Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones. With the departure of their defensive minded head coach Marvin Lewis during the offseason and only a few Pro Bowl players on his roster, Anarumo will have a tough challenge in rebuilding the Bengals defense this year. But, Lou has a lot of young talent with safety Jessie Bates III returning after a sensational rookie season to help Cincinnati’s veteran secondary, a strong linebacker unit led by Preston Brown, and an experienced defensive line led by Pro Bowl selections Carlos Dunlap as well as Geno Atkins.
2019-20 NFL PREDICTION
With the Bengals schedule consisting of teams in the AFC East and NFC West this season, Cincinnati will have one of the toughest schedules in the NFL and have a record of 8-8. I think Andy Dalton is the only concern on the Bengals offense, but if Zac Taylor can cut down some of Dalton’s mistakes, Cincinnati’s offense could be one of the AFC’s best this year with help from Joe Mixon.
Lou Anarumo is the only concern for me on the Bengals defense and if Cincinnati struggles under Anarumo’s new defensive scheme, they could have a tough time against some of the top offenses in their own division as well as the NFC West. But, this problem could also affect the development of Germaine Pratt if Anarumo can’t rebuild the Bengals defense during Zac Taylor’s tenure in Cincinnati.