Zac Taylor’s first season as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals was a bumpy ride. It appeared that from the start, disaster lurked around every corner in the guise of injuries to key players and ill-advised decisions, mental mistakes as well as overall poor play. With that said, there have not been many teams in history that can go 2-14 and not sustain some infighting or even a complete locker room meltdown. The Bengals players did not succumb to that. They elected instead to support their rookie head coach (and each other) and battle to the end of a miserable campaign.
In 2020, gone are some more of the familiar names from Lewis era, including franchise quarterback Andy Dalton who etched his name atop several of the Bengals all-time records for signal-callers. Incoming is a veteran free agency class after owner Mike Brown spent nearly $200 million during the offseason. Add to that the return of multiple players from injuries and a great draft that included a player that just had the greatest season in college football history, and suddenly things are looking up. In order to continue the upward trajectory of the team, it will require faces new and old to mesh when camp opens. There is no shortage of talent in Cincinnati. So why not try to predict what the individual award winners will be at the close of 2020?
Make sure to check out all of our team award predictions here.
MVP: Joe Burrow
This is not so much an automatic endorsement that Burrow is going to waltz into the league and set it ablaze. The team MVP award almost always defaults to a quarterback, provided he does not fall flat on his face. In this case, however, I think Burrow will earn it. He certainly is not going to complete over 76 percent of his passes with 60 touchdowns versus six interceptions as he did last season. If he even approaches half of that touchdown total in this rookie season then he will have certainly lived up to the hype from a numbers standpoint.
As we all know, the quarterback position is not simply about the numbers. Burrow is a gamer and arrives in Cincinnati ready to lead. He has a confidence and swagger that players have always responded to. He comes into the NFL just five months younger than the man he will be handing the ball to in the backfield.
Offensive Player: Joe Mixon
In four of his games in 2019, Mixon totaled 39 yards rushing combined. In the other 12, he had 1,098 behind what was a suspect offensive line. He eclipsed 1,000 yards for the second year in a row. 50 percent of his 1,137 rushing yards came after his first broken tackle and he also led the league with 103 tackles evaded. In a day and age where running back by committee is the norm, he rarely cedes his position except to Gio Bernard on long passing downs as the latter is the better blocker of the two.
2020 is a contract year for Mixon, in that he wants one before risking a franchise tag for 2021. The Bengals would also like to get a deal done sooner than later. You can expect to see him getting plenty of touches with a rookie quarterback at the helm and behind what the Bengals hope is an improved offensive line. 1,300 yards rushing is a very attainable goal this season.
Defensive Player: Sam Hubbard
The 2018 third-round pick from Ohio State started 15 of 16 games last season. Although the Bengals have been rotating along the line of late, it’s hard to argue that Hubbard shouldn’t be out there for as many snaps as possible. He has a motor that never seems to slow down. This is evidenced by 76 tackles from an end position to go along with 8.5 sacks (no small feat considering how little teams had to throw), 13 quarterback hits, and 10 tackles for loss. With the addition of D.J. Reader next to Geno Atkins in the middle of the line, I expect all three of those numbers to climb for the second year in a row. Hubbard plays with raw emotion without letting it affect his decision making. He and Carl Lawson are a great compliment to the three veterans on the line, but Hubbard will be the one getting most of the snaps.
Offensive Rookie: Tee Higgins
After a stellar college career at Clemson, the Bengals took Higgins at pick number 33 at the top of the second round. His reward is walking into a crowded wide receivers’ room, and it remains to be seen if he can push John Ross for the third option behind A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd. Ross and Green have had their fair share of injuries and even with Auden Tate waiting in the wings, Higgins is going to see the field whether he breaks camp as a starter or needs an injury to get into games more often. Either way, he’ll see the field in some capacity. It’s nearly impossible to ignore his 27 touchdowns in two-and-a-half years of college.
Defensive Rookie: Akeem Davis-Gaither
This is a tricky one because I fully expect Logan Wilson to have a solid season, but I also believe that Davis-Gaither is going to get the attention. Both are excellent athletes. Both should be on the field at the same time by late in the season. However, Davis-Gaither’s ability to mirror-cover tight ends in the slot is going to set him apart. This means he could get third-down opportunities from the jump. He oozes confidence and can go sideline to sideline in the blink of an eye. In two full college seasons, the 2019 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year had 197 tackles with 24 of those going for a loss. He may not begin the season on the field for the first snap but ends it like a freight train.
Biggest Surprise: Fred Johnson
In October of last season amidst a flurry of moves, the Pittsburgh Steelers quietly waived Johnson. They told him that as soon as he cleared waivers he would be right back on the team. The Bengals were having none of that. They snatched up the 6’7″, 326 lb offensive lineman from the University of Florida. He had somehow gone undrafted even though he was on many boards as a late-round pick. He played sparingly in six games for Cincinnati, including one start at left tackle. During those games, he was penalized for two false starts and no holding calls. Brian Callahan has made it crystal clear that the right side of the line will be a competition and I expect Johnson to push Bobby Hart to the sideline and add stability to the right tackle position, provided an injury doesn’t demand his use elsewhere.
Biggest Disappointment: William Jackson III
Although hampered by an injury several times in 2019, Jackson was a shell of himself in coverage. He was targeted 64 times and allowed 39 receptions with three passes defended (down from 13 the year prior). He received a 53.8 grade from Pro Football Focus. Waiting behind him is Darius Phillips, who in half the games last season had seven passes defended, four interceptions to Jackson’s one, and an 81.6 PFF grade. With the additions of Trae Waynes (when he signs) and Mackenzie Alexander, it is safe to say teams will continue to test Jackson in 2020, and I do not believe he can keep up. He is set to make nearly $10 million this season. This is the last year of his deal. With money for Mixon and Green looming if Jackson cannot right the ship that money would be better spent elsewhere.
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