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Bengals look headed in the wrong direction after losing key players for 2nd straight year

Cincinnati couldn’t overcome its free agent losses in 2016, and the same thing could happen this year.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a rough couple of years for the Cincinnati Bengals.

It all started on Jan. 9, 2016, when a Jeremy Hill fumble and the ensuing drama turned what should’ve been the Bengals’ first playoff win in nearly a quarter century into one of the most devastating losses in NFL history.

It continued in the 2016 offseason when the Bengals saw a mass exodus of key players. Wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, safety Reggie Nelson, offensive tackle Andre Smith, and cornerback Leon Hall walked in free agency. The Bengals heavily relied on the crop of departed players, all of whom made significant contributions toward Cincinnati’s five straight playoff appearances from 2011-15.

Not only that, but former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson leaving for the Browns really took a hit to Cincinnati, both in terms of roster skill and coaching talent. Watching virtually the entire defensive staff under coordinator Paul Guenther leave for greener pastures didn’t help, either.

It wasn’t much of a surprise when the Bengals finished the following season with a 6-9-1 record. But now, more free agency departures this offseason have people questioning what exactly is going on with the Bengals.

The 2017 losses

The Bengals are coming off a year in which they surrendered 41 sacks. Unfortunately, the already bad offensive line appears like it’s going to be even worse next year after standout offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth (Rams) and Kevin Zeitler (Browns) both accepted huge paydays elsewhere.

Even though it’s understandable the Bengals didn’t want to 1) give a long-term deal to a 35-year-old tackle and 2) offer the richest contract to an offensive guard in NFL history, they are still losing their two best offensive linemen.

Returning from last year will be left guard Clint Boling, who’s coming off a shoulder injury that hindered his play throughout the 2016 season. 2015 draftees Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, both of whom struggled mightily last season, figure to start at the bookends, which could leave quarterback Andy Dalton susceptible to a ton of pressure in the upcoming season.

The Bengals also lost running back Rex Burkhead, who becomes the New England Patriots’ highest-paid running back since Kevin Faulk and Fred Taylor.

The Bengals’ signings

So what exactly do the Bengals have to show for their free agency losses? The short answer: not much.

To replace the slew of 2015 losses, the Bengals — in addition to re-signing a few key pieces on defense — added Brandon LaFell (who played well in 2016 and re-signed this month) and Karlos Dansby (now headed to Arizona for his third stint with the Cardinals).

Both of these players were underpaid for their 2016 performances, which is a testament to the Bengals scouting department and front office for finding guys no one else seemed to want and churning out production. But the limited production of a wide receiver who plays second fiddle to A.J. Green and a linebacker who played second fiddle to Vontaze Burfict wasn’t worth the losses the Bengals endured.

In addition to extending LaFell, Cincinnati also brought back tackle Andre Smith and signed former Cardinals linebacker Kevin Minter in a couple of surprisingly unconventional moves. But again, neither move appears to be enough to compensate for what the Bengals will be losing in the upcoming season.

With the Bengals’ offseason losses in consecutive years, they’re relying on their most recent draftees living up to their billing now more than ever. Eight or so of the projected 2017 starters were drafted by the Bengals over the last three years, but most of those players are largely unproved — including their last three-first round picks (William Jackson, Ogbuehi, and Darqueze Dennard).

Reverting to old ways?

Despite the onslaught of player departures, the Bengals still have a strong roster capable of competing if things go right. The problem, however, is that things don’t seem like they’re going right.

Just about a decade removed the darkest era in Bengals history, Cincinnati appears to be headed in the wrong direction — and that has some believing the Browns have a chance of surpassing the Bengals in 2017. Whether or not the team returns to the AFC North cellar remains to be seen, but unless something changes quickly, the Bengals could be in for yet another disappointing season.

Should the Bengals’ struggles continue following another frustrating offseason, it’s possible Cincinnati gets desperate and begins to overlook character flaws in an attempt to remain competitive.

In early March, Cincinnati — a team often ridiculed for its history of players getting into trouble off the field — hosted controversial running back Joe Mixon on a visit. The Bengals also chose not to immediately part ways with cornerback Adam Jones after an offseason incident which reaffirmed people’s questions about Cincinnati holding its players accountable off the field.

If the Bengals decide to give chances to guys with red flags in the character department, they’ll likely deal with an overwhelming PR nightmare and direct on-field consequences as well. They’re nowhere close to where they once were in this regard, but the Bengals need to be wary of 2006. That year, they became the first and only team since USA Today started tracking them to have 10 different arrests throughout a single season.

And if the Bengals fail to compete, Cincinnati could risk wasting away the primes of guys like Green, Dalton, Burfict, Dre Kirkpatrick, Geno Atkins, Giovani Bernard, and Carlos Dunlap.