The Cincinnati Bengals were utterly forgettable during the 2019 season. Aside from the team transitioning out of the Andy Dalton era, there was just not much to write home about. A.J. Green missed the entire year due to a preseason foot injury. First-round pick Jonah Williams missed the entire year as well. The team won just two games in Zac Taylor's first year as the head coach.
Of course, all that meant the Bengals landed the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, which they used on LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. Burrow is coming off arguably the greatest passing season in college football history, so there's a lot more intrigue surrounding this season's version of the Bengals than there was last year.
We're pretty certain Burrow will be under center when the Bengals take the field in Week 1 (whenever that is), but we're less certain about who will join him. In the space below, we'll discuss some of the position battles we'll be watching during the team's training camp.
1. No. 3 receiver
Assuming good health, we know that A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd will be this team's top two receivers. It's who else gets on the field, and in what role, that remains in question.
Tate flashed spectacular-catch ability while filling in for an injured Green last season, but he was also one of the least efficient receivers in the league. Ross has incredible speed and made a more consistent impact last season than in his first two years combined, but he also can't seem to stay on the field. Erickson is the team's primary return man and saw his usage shoot up last season amid all the injuries, but he's a low-ceiling type of target who operates mostly near the line of scrimmage.
Things line up well for Higgins, the No. 33 overall pick in this year's draft, to take on the No. 3 role. He's a good fit as an outside receiver, which means Boyd can stay in the slot, where he's at his best. He also has excellent size at 6-4, 216 pounds, which means Burrow gets another big-bodied target on the perimeter and in the red zone.
2. Interior offensive line
There might be higher-profile position battles on this team, but I'd argue that none is more important than this one. Cincinnati's offensive line was a disaster last season, ranking 26th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards, 20th in Adjusted Sack Rate, 31st in Pro Football Focus' run-blocking grade and 26th in PFF's pass-blocking grade.
Jonah Williams, the team's 2019 first-round pick who sat out last season with an injury, should return to the field and help solidify one spot on the line. It looks like Bobby Hart is still in line to start on the right side of the line, though, which means the Bengals are going to need a great deal of improvement up the middle in order for them to not be one of the worst lines in the league again.
Hopkins should get the call at center. He was the most reliable among the team's interior trio last season. But Price and Jordan struggled immensely, with neither necessarily differentiating themselves enough to secure a starting spot. That's likely part of the reason the Bengals brought Su'a-Filo over from the Cowboys, where he did an admirable job filling in as a backup to Connor Williams. He should be able to win one guard spot, leaving it up to the two recent draft picks to fight for the other.
Evans played only 76 snaps last season. Pratt played 436 largely ineffective alongside the departed Nick Vigil. Bynes was a part-time player in Baltimore. And Wilson, Davis-Gaither, and Bailey are all rookies, each drafted on Day 2 (Wilson) or 3 (Davis-Gaither and Bailey). The Bengals need to get two full-time starters out of this group, as well as two or three more players that can contribute in limited roles and/or on special teams. Who fits into which group? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine.
4. The secondary
In Minnesota, Waynes pretty much always played ahead of Alexander. He out-snapped his teammate in each of the past three seasons, and when the Vikings were in their base defense, it was usually Waynes out there opposite Xavier Rhodes. But Alexander also arguably out-played Waynes in each of the past three seasons, allowing a lower passer rating than his teammate in each campaign, while also showing the versatility to bump down inside to the slot.
Waynes got the significantly larger contract in free agency ($42 million over three years, compared to $4 million for one year for Alexander), which likely means the Bengals are thinking of him as their No. 2 corner behind William Jackson III and Alexander as their nickel/slot guy. But perhaps a team that didn't draft both players might be willing to let the younger guy win the jump in camp.
At safety, two of the three players are going to be starters. Neither Bates nor Williams played particularly well last season, though Bates at least held up better in coverage. Bell has the versatility to play up high, in the box, or in the slot, but he has been at his best when playing around the line of scrimmage. A Bates-Bell tandem on the back end of the defense would seemingly make sense. With Williams in the final year of his contract and with only $400,000 of his $4.8 million salary guaranteed, it wouldn't be surprising if he were cast aside in favor of the recent free-agent signing.
5. Tight end
Candidates: Drew Sample, C.J. Uzomah
Despite being a second-round pick Sample got on the field for just 108 offensive snaps during his rookie season. Instead, it was Uzomah (644 snaps) and Tyler Eifert (491) getting the majority of the run at tight end.
Some deference to veterans makes a bit of sense when a tight end is so early in his career, but if what the Bengals are trying to do is give Burrow as explosive an arsenal of targets as possible, then Sample should see a significant uptick in playing time this year. Sample counts Todd Heap and Travis Kelce among his closest athletic comparables, and he is 6-5 with 33 and 1/3-inch arms and a 6-7 wingspan. He makes sense as the kind of matchup-buster the Bengals would want to give Burrow in order to replicate the LSU offense from last year.