The 2019 Cincinnati Bengals saw for the first time in almost 20 years a new face prowling the sidelines with a clipboard in hand, scowling at officials, and calling plays for the first time in his NFL coaching career. Zac Taylor would follow up his sideline workout, despite a loss, with a pleasant and calming demeanor at a podium responding to various reporters tossing postgame questions at him like tomatoes at a bad comedy show. Taylor, however, would take them in stride as any customer service veteran would. Taylor would perform this routine 14 times throughout the 2019 season as the Bengals went 2-14 and secured the number 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. As his 2nd year in charge, this draft could prove to be a pivotal point in the foreseeable future for the Bengals franchise.
To put in perspective why we’re at where we’re at, I must start by recapping Zac Taylor’s first year as a head coach went. Taylor entered the 2019 offseason filling one of the last remaining head coaching vacancies in the league with a month to prepare for free agency and almost double that for his first draft as an NFL head coach. In free agency, Bengals would sign a few team-friendly short term contracts and extended offensive tackle Bobby Hart; they would later extend running-back Giovanni Bernard at the start of the season. The Bengals had 10 picks in the 2019 draft with Alabama left-tackle Jonah Williams as their 1st round pick. The remainder of the draft saw plenty of guys that, in hindsight of their rookie season, left much to be desired (Drew Sample, tight-end drafted in the second round, was not highly graded overall and barely saw the field in a veteran TE unit behind Tyler Eifert and CJ Uzomah). The rest of the 2019, as stated earlier, left much to be desired as the Bengals were forced to battle injuries to what could be called key players in franchise great AJ Green (ankle injury in preseason that never completely healed) and 1st round pick Jonah Williams (shoulder injury).
Fast forwarding to draft week of 2020, the Bengals have the number 1 overall pick and the diehard fans couldn’t be screaming louder for the team to draft 2019 Heisman winner, National Champion, and now former quarterback of the Louisiana State Tigers, Joe Burrow. There is speculation among football experts on whether or not Burrow is the best overall player in this draft class, however one cannot deny the impact a new QB can bring to a team. So with commissioner Goodell announcing his name being a mere formality at this point, the pressure is on the front office and coaching staff now more than ever to turn it around and get the Bengals back to legitimately competing for division titles and, who knows, maybe win a playoff game.
Now, what makes this draft more important than others? Other than getting a new QB, it also gives the team a chance to address other needs as it will show how well they’ve done in a couple years’ time. Generally, when a new coach takes over a team, any fan or pundit wants to see improvement or a leap in either year 2 or 3 of their tenure. I believe year 2 to be the more important of the years because this draft class’ development progress will show come year 3, when the supposed leap needs to be made. The Bengals spending in free agency has wiped out a few needs on the defensive side of the ball (the team spent over $100 million in free agency for the first time in team history) so that leaves some tidying up on the offensive end to help this team progress to where they want to be. Or does it?
Linebacker has been the team’s most glaring need for the last 5 years now with the departures of Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict post-2015. While they did sign Josh Bynes in free agency, it is only a 1-year deal; a bandaid does help for the short term, a wound does need some disinfectant before it can heal properly. If not addressed, as it clearly hasn’t been, it’ll continue to be a need that a team just can’t ignore and opposition will exploit it.
The 2020 wide-receiver draft class has dawn much hype heading into the draft. With an aging AJ Green (age 32) placed under the franchise tag, fans will be wondering if this will be the last year they see the wide-out in a Bengals uniform. The Bengals have also had to combat seemingly always-injured and former first round pick, John Ross. Will the Bengals find their replacements in this draft? Or just draft for depth? Or even draft a WR at all? Or perhaps they’ll address a position whose impact can spread throughout the entire offense?
With Joe Burrow being, what we assume to be, the next Bengals QB, it would seem only logical that the team would want to protect him as much as they can so he can continue to play long term. The best way to do that has usually been to put their QB behind a stout offensive line, which has plagued the Bengals for the last few years. It would prove wise for them to draft a lineman to assist returning Jonah Williams in giving Burrow more time to decide where to go with the ball along with opening up holes for a talented Joe Mixon to exploit in the running game.
In conclusion, for this NFL team, the draft will be the deciding factor in how they are run and setup for the future. Building around Joe Burrow is what the fans will be clamoring for come around 8:05 PM EST after his name is called. Of course one can’t account for injuries, as is the nature of the sport, but it certainly helps to emphasize a strong core and unity in the perfect team sport. This draft of the “New Dey” era will define it for at least the remainder of Zac Taylor’s contract and possibly his NFL head coaching career. And, as a Cincinnatian and harsh critic of my hometown team, I really hope he gets it right.