NFL Season Preview 2017: Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) scores a touchdown early in the 2016 season. (Gary Landers/AP)

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the month leading up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 7. Today, the Cincinnati Bengals.

Head coach: Marvin Lewis
Last season’s record: 6-9-1 (third in AFC North)
Playoff result: Failed to make the post-season
(Silver lining of missing the playoffs: Saved themselves the agony of losing in the wild-card game again)

Key free agent gains: After one year in Minnesota, Andre Smith returned to Cincinnati to re-join the offensive line on which he spent the first seven seasons of his career. He may not, however, be back at his usual post at right tackle.

The Bengals also injected a dose of youth and speed to their defence by signing linebacker Kevin Minter to a one-year deal. The fast-thinking, hard-hitting 26-year-old displayed strong leadership skills over his four years in Arizona and is coming off a career-best campaign with 81 tackles and 3.5 sacks in a full 16 games.

Key free agent losses: Free agency hasn’t been kind to the Bengals lately, and this off-season followed last year’s troubling trend that saw more drafted-and-developed talent sign elsewhere.

The most notable departures are on the offensive line, with tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler moving on and cashing in with the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns, respectively. This is a massive loss for Andy Dalton, whose signature quick release will be put to the test as he relies on lesser tackles Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi to keep him safe in the pocket.

On defence, the Bengals will be without veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby and longtime tackle Domata Peko, though the club’s strong defence is deep enough to survive the loss and still excel.

OK, but how ’bout that punter? No, he’s neither a free agent gain nor a loss. But we made an extra category here just for Kevin Huber so we could watch this awesome behind-the-back play again.

And again:

Key draft picks: The Bengals went heavy on offence this year in an effort to stray from their poor drafting ways of late.

The most exciting pickup is wide receiver John Ross, who’s fast — like, record-breaking, win-your-own-island fast. The ninth-overall pick is exciting to watch and can make an impact right away opposite A.J. Green, but health concerns leading up to the draft got a little too real during Thursday’s pre-season game when he suffered a possible knee injury. No word yet on the severity, but things are looking optimistic.

Did we mention he’s really fast?

Joe Mixon is a talented running back and in purely football terms was a steal at No. 48. But he comes with major character concerns. In 2014, the Oklahoma Sooner was suspended for a year after punching a female student in the face (a disturbing video of the incident was released during the lead-up to the draft).

There will likely be plenty of eyes on him, and not just on the field.

On defence, Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson have been impressive all pre-season, though it’s still to be determined where exactly the versatile rookies will fit in.

Despite some likely shuffling, both rookies have made quite an impact this pre-season — just ask the opposing QBs. Willis finished the pre-season at a sack-per-game pace.

X-factor: Offensive line. We could have easily named receivers A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and John Ross here instead as the lightning-fast trio has the potential to be one of the league’s most dangerous — especially if Green can stay healthy.

But a strong receiving corps is only as good as the guy throwing them the ball, and if Dalton is busy running for his life behind a weak offensive line that no longer features Whitworth and Zeitler, then, well… you get the idea.

2017 will be a success if: They can jump back into the playoffs (and past the wild-card hump). Most of the pieces of a winning team are still on this roster — a deep defence, a quality QB and plenty of fast targets down the field — but Cincinnati has struggled to make waves in the post-season, and Marvin Lewis’s job security is at an all-time low (he’s going into the year without a contract beyond 2017). Pressure’s on.