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Who Will Be the Bengals’ Most Improved Player in 2018?

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CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 6: Vontaze Burfict
CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 6: Vontaze Burfict /
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The Bengals have had a good offseason to this point, but the team needs positive internal development, too. Which guys can take the biggest steps forward?

When looking at the Bengals for next season, we’ve discussed the offseason additions and losses pretty thoroughly. However, if the Bengals hope to make the playoffs, that push isn’t going to come solely from the offseason acquisitions. There will have to be internal development and growth among the players already on the roster.

A couple young guys have to break out, and some veterans need to have bounce-back seasons. With the coaching changes, the infusion of talent, and the glimmer of hope last season’s end brought, I think there will be a considerable improvement from several guys on this roster. Let’s take a look at who could make the biggest leap from last season to this season.

Breakouts

The most obvious candidate for a breakout in the 2018 season is running back Joe Mixon. However, we’ve talked a lot about Mixon, so I’ll turn to another clear breakout candidate: wide receiver John Ross. Ross, last season’s 9th overall selection, could literally not play worse this next season. He did not reel in a catch and fumbled his only carry. A questionable pick at the time, Ross did himself no favors in the eyes of Bengals fans last year. His injury issues – notably his shoulder and hamstring – are also a very prevalent concern.

However, Ross is a dynamic threat on the field. He doesn’t even need the ball to alter an entire defense’s scheme. Ross, according to the stopwatch, is the fastest player in NFL history. His pure straight-line speed forces safety rotations towards the top of the field. That would open up critical space in the middle of the field for guys like AJ Green and Tyler Eifert. Ross also has an underrated route tree, which allows him to take advantage of soft coverage with a quick slant or out route. Obviously, he’s a yards after catch monster, too, with his quickness. If Ross’ injuries have healed and he’s mentally ready for year 2, he should have a massive impact on this offense and break out as an NFL player.

Another young offensive player who could have a breakout season is tackle Jake Fisher. Fisher, a second-round pick back in 2015, has seen intermittent playing time as a Bengal. Fortunately, he hasn’t dealt with the same criticism as Ross. Still, Fisher is a headliner from the Bengals’ disappointing 2015 draft class. Entering his fourth season, he could finally be the reliable starting tackle the Bengals hoped they drafted.

Fisher should start at right tackle, and new offensive line coach Frank Pollack can hopefully unlock some of Fisher’s potential. Offseason acquisition Bobby Hart should provide some veteran competition to drive Fisher to improve. The offensive line as a whole will be better in 2018, and Fisher’s breakout could be a big component of that improvement.

One last young player who could definitely breakout in 2018 is defensive end, Jordan Willis. The Bengals drafted Willis last year in the third round and seemed like a steal at the time. His combine numbers were downright terrifying from an athletic standpoint (in a good way). Willis and edge rusher Carl Lawson both got early work last season, but Lawson’s 2.5 sack game in week 3 cemented his place in the rotation over Willis.

With another offseason to develop, Willis should take a step forward this season. When he played, Willis was an effective end and held up better in rush defense than Lawson did. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin loves to use a deep rotation of edge rushers, so Willis will get more snaps. In fact, he may even start opposite Carlos Dunlap. If he’s able to harness his raw athleticism and take advantage of a bump in playing time, Willis has a chance to put up similar numbers to Lawson.

Bouncebacks

The onus of the bounce back falls squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Andy Dalton. While I do think he’ll improve on last season, MVP-candidate Andy Dalton is also likely a thing of the past. Dalton should regress to the mean and be a solid QB this year, but there is potential for bigger bounce backs on this Bengals roster.

Tight end Tyler Eifert is possibly entering a bounce-back season a few years in the making. After racking up 13 TDs in 2015, injuries have absolutely reamed Eifert, forcing him off the field. The Bengals have been cautious with Eifert, but the clock is ticking as he’s on a 1-year “prove it” deal. While it’s been three years since Eifert produced like an elite tight end, I expect him to make a splash this season. If he can just stay healthy (big if), Eifert will accumulate stats. The middle of the field is as open as ever with Green and Ross working along the outside. It would not be a surprise to see Eifert top 600 yards and 10 TDs, which would certainly constitute a major bounce back.

On the other side of the ball, I expect Vontaze Burfict to play with a massive chip on his shoulder this year. Though hard to believe, Burfict once lead the entire league in tackles. Since that miraculous 2013 season, Burfict has not been reliable to play 16 games, and his numbers have gone down as well. Heading into this season, the narrative around Burfict has been extremely negative.

Ranging from the PED suspension to the Oakland trade rumors to the acquisition of linebackers Preston Brown and Malik Jefferson, Burfict has been displaced. After his four-game suspension, I think Burfict may play with a vengeance we haven’t seen since he went undrafted. This offseason might have been just the right motivation to unlock All-Pro Vontaze Burfict, which would be a welcome addition to the defense.

Next: Stripe Hype podcast: Defensive expectations

Not all these guys will reach their full potential in 2018, especially with such injury-prone players like Ross and Eifert. However, with some breakouts from these players and general improvement across the roster, the Bengals will be in a position to finish above .500 and challenge for the playoffs.

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