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Bengals Bye Week: Midseason Superlatives

It’s Week 9, and that means the Bengals’ bye week has arrived. Instead of a Sunday game preview and subsequent recap like usual, KSR’s taken some time to reflect on what we’ve seen from the team so far this year. In today’s post, fellow KSR contributor Alex Weber and I offer up midseason superlatives and provide some musings about these 2020 Cincinnati Bengals. But before we do, a news update from Thursday…

It appears as though COVID-19 has made its way into the Bengals locker room, as the team reported it had two positive tests Thursday morning. Fortunately, it aligned with the team’s bye week, so the team shouldn’t have to move around any games. But, it remains a situation to be monitored.

Following the announcement, CB Trae Waynes (who hasn’t played all year due to a pectoral injury) and OT Fred Johnson were placed on the COVID-19/Reserve List.

Alright, on to the superlatives!

MVP: Joe Burrow, QB

Photo by Joseph Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports

Ty: No question about this one. In just eight games, Burrow has not only completely transformed everything about the organization’s offense, but he’s altered its national identity. He’s accounted for 14 touchdowns, led the team to two victories, and continually put Cincinnati in position to win games. Think about it… he had an incredibly impressive 4th quarter drive during his debut versus the Chargers that put the Bengals in position to send the game to OT after a game winning pass got called back via a penalty; he mounted a 21 point lead against a stingy Colts defense; he gave the team a lead with 1:00 left versus the Browns. The Bengals could really have five or six wins, and it’s all because of Burrow’s play. I mean, the offense has largely the same personnel Andy Dalton had last year, and we all saw how that went. For this season and for the foreseeable future, Burrow is the Bengals’ MVP.

Alex: Joe Burrow is already smashing through doors Andy Dalton only dreamed of cracking open. Through eight games, he’s the AFC North’s highest-graded quarterback by PFF (a division that includes 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger and 2018 first pick Baker Mayfield), and has turned in the three highest graded games by a rookie QB in 2020, also per PFF. Statistically, he’s a first-year gem. The eye-test is even more promising. Burrow’s weekly acrobatics out of the pocket draw comparisons to Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson, and his combination of accuracy and directorship have him compared to Drew Brees and, to get ahead of ourselves, Tom Brady. Halfway through the year, Burrow has surpassed every checkpoint Bengal fans fantasized about since he was drafted first back in April. Not only is he the clear Cincy MVP, he’s entered the discussion for NFL MVP, if you ask OddsShark and Fox Sports analyst Dominique Foxworth.

Burrow’s an absolute superstar.

Offensive Player of the Year: Tyler Boyd, WR

Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Ty: Of anyone on the offense, Boyd has arguably been the biggest beneficiary of Burrow’s arrival. The slot receiver is third in the entire league in receptions and has built quite a chemistry with the #1 pick. I mean, look at this play from last Sunday’s win versus the Titans.

That takes some serious trust and anticipation, and these two developed it quite quickly. Whenever the offense is facing a critical third or fourth down, #83’s been the man getting the ball. I don’t expect that to change in the next eight weeks.

Alex: A receiver defined by consistency. He rarely, if ever, drops a catchable ball; his chemistry with Burrow is already tenfold what it was with Dalton and he’s been the rock of the receiving corps through eight games. In the last few weeks particularly, Boyd has converted some ‘how-did-he-do-that!’ catches in big moments to help spark the offensive explosion we’ve seen in the past month. Any young QB would be overjoyed to have a pass-catcher as positive off the field and reliable on the field.

Offensive Rookie of the Year (not named Joe Burrow): Tee Higgins, WR

Photo by Joseph Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports

Ty: This one was also a no-brainer. The 33rd pick of the draft has been spectacular, totaling 488 receiving yards and 3 TDs in his first eight games. Like Boyd, Higgins and Burrow have established a nice connection. The Clemson product has showcased some serious WR1 upside, and it sure seems like he’ll be taking over A.J. Green’s old role in the coming season, if he hasn’t already. It’s very possible both he and Boyd crack 1,000 yards this season, which would be quite an impressive feat.

Alex: I’ll echo Ochocinco’s comments about the new no. 85 from this video:

“Tee, you special. And I hate to get emotional talking about you Tee, but I love you man.” Need more be said? If the original 85 is almost moved to tears by your play as a rookie, while wearing his number no less, Mr. Higgins must be doing something right. Another budding star.

Defensive Player of the Year: Jessie Bates, S

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Ty: Bates has been the Bengals shining star on defense, and if there were a runner up for the team’s MVP award, it would probably go to the third-year safety. He’s intercepted two passes this year and is always flying around the field. He has a Pro Football Focus grade of 90.1, which is highest among safeties by a wide margin and he’s allowed a league-low 14.0 passer rating when targeted in coverage. He’s due for a contract extension at the end of the year, and it ought to be quite the lucrative one.

Alex: An under-discussed storyline through the first half of the 2020 campaign is Jessie Bates’ development into the best safety in the NFL. As a hawking ball-magnet from center field, Bates is almost single-handedly keeping a porous Cincy secondary afloat. In his third year, at just 23 years old, you can add his name to the list of cornerstones on this promising Bengals core. Elite in coverage, stout tackler, and has a nose for the football.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Logan Wilson, LB

Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ty: The Bengals selected three linebackers in April’s draft after several swings and misses in previous years had left them with a massive void at the position. Wilson, drafted in the third round, has been a playmaker so far when he’s been on the field, picking off the likes of Carson Wentz and Lamar Jackson and recording his first sack just a week ago. He’s looking like he has the potential to develop into a true three-down linebacker, something the Bengals have lacked since the Vontaze Burfict heyday. I think we can expect to see him get a lot more reps in the second half of this season.

Alex: Linebacker was the Bengals’ most questionable defensive position heading into the season. With Germaine Pratt and special teams specialist Jordan Evans as the only returners from the 2019 group, Cincinnati needed to reload in free agency or the draft. They did both, grabbing Josh Bynes from Baltimore while selecting Wilson, Akeem Davis Gaither and Markus Bailey. So far, Wilson’s been the steady presence as a sure-handed tackler and above-his-age play-reader. He looks the part of a long-term starter at the position.

Most Improved: Drew Sample, TE (Ty)

Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ty: The second-year tight end out of Washington had nothing to do but improve after a lackluster rookie season in 2019. But it’s clear he’s made some significant strides in 2020. Thrust into a larger role following C.J. Uzomah’s season-ending injury, Sample’s proven he can be a starting NFL tight end. He’s only caught 19 passes this season, but he’s ranked as Pro Football Focus’s fourth-best run blocker at the position. That’s far more than we could say about the former second-round pick last year.

Most Improved: Jessie Bates, S (Alex)

Alex: I think I’ll have to go with Jessie Bates for this pick. The stud safety was solid all-around last year and has been since he was drafted in 2018. But this year he took the leap from quality starter to arguably the very best at his position, and certainly so according to PFF. Bates is the lifesaver of the defense, an All-Pro safety net.

Most Underrated: Giovani Bernard, RB (Ty)

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Ty: The mustached veteran has been a crucial player on this 2020 Bengals team. His pass blocking ability has been a critical part of Burrow’s success, and his savvy playmaking ability has been a huge factor in the team’s offensive surge. The Athletic’s Paul Denher Jr. had this to say about Bernard this week:

“I’d argue he might be a better fit for the pass-heavy offense than Mixon when you consider his skills and intelligence as a pass protector.”

After the last three weeks in which Gio’s scored 4 total TDs and the team’s averaged 32 points, I’m not so sure I can disagree…

Most Underrated: Jonah Williams, OT (Alex)

Alex: Yes, he’s injured, but Jonah Williams’s true rookie season has flown under the radar. For a franchise recently plagued by hapless offensive line play and quarterbacks being careened by opposing defenders, stability up front shouldn’t go unnoticed. Williams’ play gives every indication he’ll be the long-awaited heir to Andrew Whitworth: a consistent protector on the far left side of the line. Somebody who hopefully will be watching Joe Burrow’s back for as long as both are in the league.

Most disappointing: Joe Mixon, RB (Ty)

Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Ty: Perhaps this is a little unfair seeing as he’s missed time due to injury, but outside of the Jacksonville game, the $48 million man has been relatively inefficient. Maybe that’s been an extension of poor offensive line play, but either way, his 3.6 yards per carry are concerning. He’s rushed for 428 yards in six games, so reaching a third consecutive 1,000-yard mark is still very attainable. Last year, Zac Taylor and company got Mixon humming after the bye week, as he led the league in rushing from Weeks 9-17. It’ll be interesting to see if such a switch is flipped this season. It certainly wouldn’t hurt if it did.

Most disappointing: Carlos Dunlap, DE (Alex) 

Alex: Sorry to dwell on former players, but to me, the 2020 Carlos Dunlap experience was a train wreck. The veteran had always been a consistent edge defender and was by all accounts a warm presence off the field. Some of the fireworks between he and the coaching staff can probably be chalked up to differences in how each side viewed Dunlap’s role and declining production, and the trade was definitely best for him. It just sucks to see a 2010s staple leave in such a public fuss. He was a great player for a long time in Cincinnati, and for that, he’s commendable.

Favorite Moment so far

Ty: For me, it was this play versus the Titans.

Even though it didn’t result in a first down and ultimately led to a punt, this play represents everything the team has lacked for so long from the quarterback position. Unpredictability. Improvisation. Playmaking. A little magic. Burrow did stuff like this all the time at LSU, and the fact that it’s transitioned so quickly to the NFL is beyond exciting. The future is very bright.

Alex: Joey B’s inaugural score.

For me, the Joe Burrow experience became real when he scampered into the end zone for his first professional touchdown. The thought kind of washed over me: this will be the signature Cincinnati athlete of my generation. As a grade-schooler, it was Ochocinco and Brandon Phillips, the coolest guys in the world to a 10-year-old. Since middle school, it’d been a pair of underappreciated winners, AJ Green and Andy Dalton; now, Joe Burrow. I’d bet the house he’ll take us places the former guys never made it.

Record Predictions

Ty: After next week in Pittsburgh, the Bengals have a stretch of very winnable games. There’s the Washington Football Team, New York Giants, Dolphins, Cowboys, and Texans, and I’d be willing to bet the Bengals take at least three of those. I’ll say they safely finish the year 5-10-1,but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see 6-9-1.

Let’s finish this 2020 season strong!

Alex: I know should-have’s don’t count for anything, but hear me out: The Bengals should have several more wins than they currently do. A blown kick (and Randy Bullock hammy) vs. the Chargers, a brain-hurting tie vs. Philly, a botched 21-point lead against the Colts, a miraculous Baker Mayfield performance and even-more-ridiculous final drive in the second go-round vs. Cleveland…all games that, again, should have gone the Bengals way. Oh well, at 2-5-1, this football team is better than folks give it credit for, and the ever-improving Joe Burrow is at the helm. I’m an optimist, so let’s finish these final eight at .500. 6-9-1.

Article written by Ty Schadt