The Cincinnati Bengals are given the sixth-best chance among the eight last-place teams in the NFL to win their division in 2021 by Pro Football Focus. Cincinnati being picked sixth among the eight teams is fair given that the AFC North was the only division in the NFL in 2020 to have three teams qualify for the playoffs.
The Bengals finished 1-5 against AFC North opponents in 2020. Cincinnati split their two games with Pittsburgh, lost by a total of eight points in two high scoring games with the Cleveland Browns and were blown out twice by the Baltimore Ravens. Nearly everything would have to go right to go from worst to first.
The key to the Bengals 2021 season with be the health of franchise quarterback Joe Burrow. Burrow is returning from a torn ACL suffered in week 11 of the 2020 season. Burrow was on pace for a record-setting season. Burrow is expected to be healthy for the season opener in September.
Rebuilding the offensive line will be the Bengals priority during the offseason. The expectation is that Cincinnati will add upfront through free agency and the NFL Draft. The name most often mentioned is Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell with the fifth pick in the draft. Expect at least one OL through free agency.
"6. CINCINNATI BENGALSI’ll begin by showing my appreciation for what Joe Burrow accomplished as a rookie behind an abysmal offensive line. He was pressured in 2.5 seconds or less on a league-high 114 dropbacks through the first 11 weeks of the season, prior to his season-ending injury…Burrow finished the season ranked 18th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks in PFF grade, an impressive mark given the situation he was thrown into. Even with Burrow back healthy to start next season, a question mark in its own right, there are still holes to fill on this Bengals roster.Ideally, 2020 offseason acquisitions D.J. Reader and Trae Waynes return healthy and deliver quality performances, but Cincinnati must make decisions on pending free agents William Jackson III and Carl Lawson.And the Bengals aren’t going anywhere if they don’t improve one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. They should look to add veteran talent up front in free agency and younger pieces to the line through the draft.Getting better along the front five with a healthy Burrow entering in his second season would at least give the team a chance to be competitive in an AFC North that doesn’t have a ton of separation at the top."
The decisions on Jackson and Lawson will be two of the biggest storylines for the Bengals offseason. Jackson had 45 tackles and one interception for the Bengals in 2020. Lawson had 32 tackles and led the Bengals with 36 quarterback hits and 5.5 sacks in 2020. The Bengals defensive line also needs to improve in 2021.
The healthy returns of Waynes, who was a first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2015 and Reader will be big boosts to the Bengals defense. Reader will help the Bengals DL add a big body in the middle. Waynes with the potential return of Jackson would give the Bengals a pair of CB to help improve the pass defense.
Cincinnati finished 19th in pass defense and 26 in passing touchdowns allowed. The return of the four mentioned players and additions through free agency and in the NFL Draft can improve the Bengals who finished 26th in total defense in 2020. Winning the close games will be a key change for the Bengals to win the AFC North.
Cincinnati was 2-5-1 in one-score games in 2020. Getting Burrow back in his second year in the NFL should help flip some of those games. Improving both lines of scrimmage will also be critical to get pressure on opposing QBs and to protect Burrow in critical situations. Worst to first is more likely for Cincinnati in 2022.