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Bengals are betting on speed in 2017

Cincinnati’s future was clear after the NFL draft, and it’s going to be fast.

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NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-John Ross Press Conference Sam Greene-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals could go in one of two directions this season. They could show last year’s 6-9-1 finish was an aberration, or they could turn the losing into a trend.

In 2015, the Cincinnati Bengals set a franchise record with an 8-0 start to the season. They went on to finish 12-4, made the playoffs, and had eight players voted to the Pro Bowl. Just a year later, down an offensive coordinator (Hue Jackson) and a few key weapons (wideouts Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu), the Bengals sputtered on offense. Their scoring declined from 26.2 points per game to 20.3, and they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

Earlier in the offseason, it was clear the Bengals planned to reinvest in skill players. The team released several veteran players, and let others walk. During free agency and the draft, they loaded up on younger guys with outstanding 40-yard dash times. Now, Marvin Lewis’ team will see if going all in on speed will help them rebound from their disappointing season a year ago.

The receivers might be young, but they’re fast

The Bengals wasted no time adding speed to their roster in the 2017 NFL draft. With the No. 9 pick, Cincinnati chose wide receiver John Ross, who made waves at the combine when he broke the 40-yard dash record with a 4.22-second run.

His velocity was no surprise to anyone who tried to cover him in college. Ross was used as the Huskies’ Swiss Army knife, finding success as both a kick returner (three TDs) and at cornerback (18 tackles and an INT) in his first two seasons at Washington. Then he totaled 1,150 yards and 17 scores on offense his final season.

Ross, who’s still recovering from labrum surgery, hasn’t been able to participate in the Bengals rookie camp but is expected to be ready to go this fall and can contribute right away on offense and special teams. Cincinnati is hoping he will come in and complement A.J. Green, and give Andy Dalton some additional downfield options — something that was missing last season.

Even when Green wasn’t sidelined last season with a hamstring injury, the lack of deep threats for the offense meant the receiver was often double- and triple-teamed, leaving Dalton’s options to short passing plays to merely extend the drive.

“With [Ross] we can line him up in the slot and he can take the top off. Put a ball in his hands and let him make the plays,” Green told Mo Egger of ESPN 1530. “I think the biggest thing with him is he’s so dynamic, we can put him all over the field.”

The team also drafted wideout Josh Malone out of Tennessee to help with the passing game. Malone is big at 6’3, and provides a good contrast to the smaller Ross. The Vols receiver was another top performer at the combine, running a 4.40-second 40-yard dash, and he can be used to fill the hole left by Sanu. At nearly the same height and weight, the rookie will give quarterback Andy Dalton a similar offensive weapon downfield.

“I think both of those guys can be fun. I feel like both of them can run,” Green said. “Josh is a bigger guy; he can go up over the top of you to make the big catches, but he can also run. I think those two, they’ll be fine because they both ran pro offenses in college.”

Speed was clearly a priority for the Bengals this offseason, and with Ross and Malone — as well as second-round running back Joe Mixon — defenses are going to have a tough time keeping up.

New skill players could help Andy Dalton deal with OL woes

The offensive line can make or break a team, and in just a year, the Bengals went from allowing the ninth-fewest sacks in 2015 (32) to the seventh-most (41) in 2016. The trend could get worse with last year’s top pass blocker (Andrew Whitworth) and top run blocker (Kevin Zeitler) no longer with the Bengals. Left tackle and team leader Whitworth joined the Rams and right guard Zeitler signed with the in-state rival Browns.

Despite the lack of depth, the team did little so far this offseason to bolster the line, aside from bringing back veteran Andre Smith and drafting Utah’s J.J. Dielman. Instead, the Bengals are banking on some of the younger guys who have struggled so far in the NFL, like Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, to finally put it together. The two have earned early praise this offseason but will have to prove themselves once the pads come on.

The 2017 OL draft class wasn’t as strong as in recent years, and the Bengals only added Dielman in the fifth round. Dielman was a center for the Utes and a team captain. The rookie will give the team a little depth, even as a backup, at center and right tackle. By bringing in at least one future anchor for the offensive line, the Bengals can continue to strengthen the group over the next few draft classes.

Instead of loading the roster with young linemen this year, the team focused on surrounding Dalton with skill players. Not only will these players help Dalton, but with the quickness of Ross and Malone, Dalton won’t need as much time in the pocket. Last season, the quarterback had the second-highest drop in completion percentage when under pressure:

Another saving grace for the line is the addition of Mixon. The rookie has the size, burst, and endurance to be a three-down back for the Bengals and has a skillful eye in finding running lanes.

While Mixon is expected to share the load at running back, the lack of consistency from incumbent starter Jeremy Hill could force the team to rely more heavily on Mixon. The Bengals admittedly took a big risk in drafting Mixon, who punched a woman in the face in 2014. Video of the assault was released to the public in December. Team owner Mike Brown issued a statement shortly after they took Mixon, explaining their decision and admitting the risks and potential rewards that come along with the young talent.

Mixon only played for two seasons at Oklahoma, yet amassed over 2,000 rushing yards for 17 scores, as well as 894 receiving yards and nine touchdown catches. He ranked No. 2 in the Big 12 in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, touchdowns, and touchdowns from scrimmage in 2016.

Mixon is also a better pass blocker than Hill. Pass protection was a fickle mistress for the Bengals last season, eventually leading to Ogbuehi being benched after allowing nine sacks (and 40 totals pressures) in just 11 games. With an early career filled with injuries and shifting from right to left tackle, Ogbuehi heads into the 2017 season with a full offseason of preparation to get him out of his slump.

By comparison, Whitworth allowed only 15 pressures in 637 pass-protection snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Left guard Clint Boling did offer a bit of a bright spot, finishing last season allowing 14 fewer pressures than the year before.

The pass protection woes of 2016 will likely veer their ugly head again this fall, but with more talent at the skill positions, the Bengals might be able to stave off any sort of regression in 2017.

Can it all come together for the Bengals?

It’s not just the offense that’s getting a little fresh blood, either. The team’s vision was clear when it released linebacker Rey Maualuga (30 years old) and let 35-year-old Karlos Dansby walk, and signed the 26-year-old Kyle Minter to play alongside second-year player Nick Vigil. The Bengals also drafted three linebackers: Jordan Willis, Carl Lawson, and Jordan Evans.

William Jackson III, their first-round pick from 2016, is set to make his NFL debut after missing his rookie year with a torn pec, too.

However, the defense, which allowed the eighth-fewest points last year, still has its key players from last season. The Bengals will bring back Pro Bowl defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, and they locked down top cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on a five-year extension.

The Bengals might be counting on youth to fill the holes on their roster, but they still need their veterans to help catapult the team back into the playoffs. They will soon see how the newer and faster players fit in with the roster. Whether it’s an immediate success or takes a few years to foster, the Bengals seem committed to speed.