Stripe Hype mailbag: Bengals breakout players

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 31: Running Back Joe Mixon
BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 31: Running Back Joe Mixon /

The Cincinnati Bengals are in their OTA workouts, and there are still so many questions about the team that fans need to be answered.

In case you have been living under a rock lately, the Cincinnati Bengals are in their second week of voluntary OTA workouts this week. Unlike most teams that allow the media to put out everything they see at these workouts, the Bengals organization has put some real restrictions on the media. It’s hard to get a real idea of what is happening and which players are doing what. There has been enough that has come out that will get fans excited, however.

Obviously, all the praise that second-year wide receiver John Ross has gotten should be settling. After a disaster rookie season not catching a single pass and never once healthy, Ross is contributing in OTA’s for the first time in his NFL career. Not only is he contributing, but he is earning respect and praises from coaches and players. Ross has some very high potential this season and considering everything we’ve heard about him, I expect it.

We were a little late sending out the posts asking for your questions this week with the Memorial Day weekend, and we do apologize. Of course, you can always message us with your questions at any time of the week, and we will get back with you. Let’s dive into a couple of questions we received from the readers this week.

Who do you think will be the most improved player on both offense and defense?

John Ross would be an easy answer for the offensive side of the ball as he did next to nothing in his rookie season. Literally catching one pass all year would be an upgrade, while it would have fans rioting in the streets. I will go away from Ross and say that running back Joe Mixon will be the most improved player on the offensive side this season.

There are so many routes you could go with this question. Even quarterback Andy Dalton should have a much better season this year, but I don’t feel that he will have improved a significant amount to warrant that answer. For the most part, Dalton is who he is at this stage in his career.

That being said, Mixon can be a real star in 2018. After seeing limited snaps last season given the fact that Jeremy Hill was the starter for a good portion of the season and then Giovani Bernard also took significant snaps from Mixon, I think Mixon’s role will increase massively in offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s new offensive scheme. The Bengals were scared to run the ball with their weak offensive line play last season ranking 29 in rushing attempts.

Mixon will have plenty more opportunities to carry the ball in 2018 with an improved offensive line and new offensive scheme. He will hopefully be appropriately utilized unlike most of the season last year. If you look back to the final two weeks of the season, the running backs had tremendous success playing in a different style of offense that included run-pass options and quick attacks.

Rushing for 626 yards and four touchdowns while also hauling in 30 catches for 287 yards in 2017, I think Mixon will significantly increase this number in his second season. With my first way too early bold prediction earlier this month, I said that Mixon would have at least 1,400 yards from scrimmage. Having 913 total yards last season, he would only have to have 300 more rushing yards and 200 more receiving yards to surpass that by a good amount.

It could easily go the other way of 300 yards more receiving as I think Lazor is going to have the running backs involved heavily in the passing game as well. All of the Cincinnati running backs are talented catching balls out of the backfield and getting into open space, so this has to be a massive part of the new offense.

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On the defensive side of the ball, I think that cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is going to have a bounce-back season. Fans had written him off already after one bad season when he suffered numerous injuries. Kirkpatrick came into camps with a broken hand that slowed him down from the beginning and not being able to fully participate got him out of shape leading to other injuries to his hamstring, hip, and shoulder throughout the season.

Coming into 2018 fully healthy with a chip on his shoulder, I think we will see Kirkpatrick get back to his 2016 season when he broke out. I also think there is no reason he shouldn’t be able to improve from his 2015 and 2016 seasons. With new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin taking over and implementing new schemes into the defense that has been the same for about a decade, this can only help Kirkpatrick.

Austin was also a secondary coach in Seattle before becoming a coordinator, and he did a great job helping develop Detroit Lions Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay. I think we see an improvement from Kirkpatrick and quiet the fans that are calling for his head after one bad year. Given that Austin wants to be aggressive up front at getting after the quarterback, it should cause more opportunities for the secondary as well to make a play on the ball.

Will the Bengals be able to stop the run game?

Cincinnati’s worst flaw the last couple seasons on the defensive side of the ball has been stopping the run. It has been downright awful. I fully expect to see a turnaround this season with some of the new additions and Austin’s new defense. Cincinnati brought in linebacker Preston Brown who led the league in tackles last season as part of that.

The Bengals also brought in competition at defensive tackle with Chris Baker. The defensive line is stacked with talent and given Austin’s history with talented defensive lines in Detroit; I expect a significant turnaround. When Austin took over the Lions defense in 2014 before he lost his entire defensive line to free agency the following offseason, the Lions defense ranked second in the league at yards allowed to the run game.

Obviously, the Lions defense struggled the past few years after losing basically their entire talent group in one offseason. Defensive end Jordan Willis will see more playing time this season, and he showed some promise in his limited snaps against the run. Vontaze Burfict being suspended the first four games bothers me with what happened last year when he was out and with the running backs Cincinnati will face in that time.

Next: Stripe Hype Podcast: Bengals OTA's and defensive discussions

Overall, I see a significant change coming to the defensive side of the ball and think that the Bengals defense will make big strides against the run. I don’t know about finishing in the top five of the league, but top half would be a massive upgrade over last season.