The Cincinnati Bengals’ ascension provides key lessons for the New York Jets
As the clock ticked down in Saturday’s AFC divisional matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and Tennessee Titans, I had two thoughts:
- How did the Bengals go from the first overall pick in the draft to AFC Championship Game participants so quickly?
- Has Evan McPherson just given me new ammunition for my lifelong admiration for drafting a kicker?
As much as I enjoyed watching the Bengals ride into Tennessee to topple the No. 1 seed in the AFC, I couldn’t help but feel a little envious from a New York Jets perspective.
It brought back memories of the Jets taking down the Patriots in 2010 on the way to their own championship game, and then it dawned: That game was the last real high that Jets fans have experienced.
We’re now entering 2022. Surely, the Jets’ time has come again.
Cincinnati’s rise to the top feels similar to the path New York is currently on. What can the Jets learn from the Bengals’ path to contention?
The Cincinnati Bengals’ rebuild
On Dec. 29, 2019, the Bengals went into Paul Brown Stadium and defeated the Browns 33-23 to cap a 2-14 season. That was Zac Taylor’s first year as head coach of the Bengals (and his first year as a head coach anywhere).
That 2019 season was a tough one for the Bengals. They lost their first-round pick, offensive tackle Jonah Williams, before a ball had been snapped, and then they lost star receiver A.J Green for the season as well.
The 2020 season is where you can start to draw some parallels between where the Bengals were and where the Jets are this season. The 2019 Bengals went 2-14 and ended up taking a quarterback at the top of the 2020 draft. The Jets went 2-14 in 2020 and ended up taking a quarterback at the top of the 2021 draft.
The Bengals then proceeded to go 4-11-1 in 2020 and the Jets went 4-13 in 2021.
The similarities are very stark, but what did the Bengals do to move from 2-14 to 4-11-1 and now to the AFC Championship Game? How did they complete a shift in the franchise’s direction within three seasons? Can the Jets do the same?
2020 Bengals offseason
The 2020 offseason for the Bengals was an exercise in cleaning house. They let 11 of their 14 unrestricted free agents leave the building and released seven more, including Andy Dalton who would end up in Dallas, and Cordy Glenn who would end up out of the NFL.
They then spent free agency trying to improve their defense, a unit that was ranked 25th in the league in points per game, 26th in passing yards allowed, and 32nd in rushing yards allowed.
In total, the Bengals signed nine free agents. Six of those were on the defensive side of the football, including nose tackle D.J Reader and four players in the secondary.
The three-year, $42 million contract given to cornerback Trae Waynes hasn’t aged overly well so far considering he didn’t play at all in 2020 and has made just five appearances so far in 2021. But that D.J Reader contract was key.
The Bengals went from the 32nd-ranked rushing defense in 2019 to the 29th-ranked rushing defense in 2020 before making a huge jump to the eighth-ranked rushing defense in football this season. Reader – one of the best run-stopping tackles in the NFL – played a huge role in making the turnaround happen.
Defense – Free Agency. Offense – Draft.
One thing that you notice when you look at the Bengals’ roster construction is that they prioritize the defense in free agency and the offense in the draft. That’s been the staple of the last two off-seasons for Cincinnati.
Over the last two off-seasons, the Bengals have signed 20 free agents in total. Only eight of those signings have been to multi-year deals. The remaining 12 were all signed for one year. Of the eight multi-year deals handed out, six have been on the defensive side of the ball:
- DT D.J Reader (2020) – 4 years, $53 million
- CB Trae Waynes (2020) – 3 years, $42 million
- S Vonn Bell (2020) – 3 years, $18 million
- DE Trey Hendrickson (2021) – 4 years, $53 million
- CB Chidobe Awuzie (2021) – 3 years, $21.8 million
- CB Mike Hilton (2021) – 4 years, $24 million
Only two multi-year contracts have been handed out on the offensive side of the football:
- G Xavier Su’a-Filo – 3 years, $9 million
- RB Jacques Patrick – 3 years, $2.3 million
I don’t think I need to point out the obvious that although there were two multi-year deals handed out on the offensive side of the ball, there wasn’t a lot of money attributed there.
It’s not as though the Bengals had an incredible offense. In terms of points per game, the Bengals ranked 30th in 2019 and 29th in 2020 – although a lot of the 2020 ranking was due to the injury Joe Burrow suffered halfway through his rookie campaign.
As much as the Bengals prioritized the defense during free agency, they prioritized the offense in the draft.
All four of their top choices over the last two years have been on the offensive side of the ball:
- 2020 Round One – Joe Burrow, QB (#1 overall)
- 2020 Round Two – Tee Higgins, WR (#33 overall)
- 2021 Round One – Ja’Marr Chase, WR (#5 overall)
- 2021 Round Two – Jackson Carman, OT (#46 overall)
It’s not to say that they ignored defense; in fact, they’ve made eight selections over the last two years on the defensive side of the ball. But what I call the “premium” picks have all gone to the offensive side of the ball.
Some of this is due to circumstances. Great quarterbacks don’t often become available in free agency and neither do great wide receivers. You’ve got a bigger chance of hitting on those in the draft, but for some reason, defensive linemen and cornerbacks are often available in free agency, evidenced by the signings the Bengals made.
We’ve already covered the records which are scarily similar.
They got their Trey Hendrickson in free agency in former Bengal Carl Lawson and tried to address that interior defensive line with Sheldon Rankins.
The Jets need to address their linebackers as the Bengals did with the drafting of Logan Wilson. New York will need to continue adding to the defensive line, too. The Bengals signed Hendrickson and then proceeded to draft Joseph Assai in the third round out of Texas.
The expectation is that this offseason the Jets will again address the defensive line in the draft. How early they do so is the question.
This offseason, maybe the Jets follow the Bengals’ model and dedicate serious resources to the defensive side of the ball in free agency while surrounding Zach with more talent in the draft.
I don’t think there is a wide receiver prospect as talented as Ja’Marr Chase in this draft, although Garrett Wilson is a weapon that any team would want.
Maybe the Jets try and steal safety Jessie Bates away from the Bengals in free agency, as they almost certainly need some help at the position. Will the Bengals franchise their starting FS or allow him to hit free agency? Maybe they get a long-term deal done before March – after all, Bates has been with the Bengals through the down years. Why would he want to leave now?
No two teams are exactly alike. Every team has different coaches, different schemes, and different talent on the roster.
Following Cincinnati’s method is just one avenue to explore for the Jets to continue their rebuild.
The point here is that a quick turnaround is possible. You can go from one of the worst teams in the league to an AFC Championship in three years if you get it right.
The jury is out on how successful the Jets’ first offseason under Joe Douglas was, but their 2021 draft class certainly looks promising. A lot will depend on how Zach Wilson plays and what Carl Lawson looks like when he returns.
Don’t be surprised if the Jets are back in the playoff hunt next year. After all, the Bengals have shown us that it’s certainly not impossible.