2020 NFL Preview: Bengals turn to first pick Joe Burrow, maybe to save the franchise

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

A year ago, nobody knew if Joe Burrow could even be a great college starter. Now, he’s the face of an NFL franchise that needs saving. 

The No. 1 pick of the draft went from a relative nobody to posting perhaps the greatest single season in college football history. Burrow went from a mid- to late-round prospect to the obvious top pick of the draft to the Cincinnati Bengals

Burrow was the right pick, but he’s no sure thing. No quarterback is, especially one who was special for only one college season. But the Bengals need him to succeed. 

Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty called Burrow “the most important player in the history of Cincinnati Bengals football,” citing the teams’ regular failures and a stadium lease that expires after 2026. Daugherty wondered if the Bengals might move if Burrow can’t turn the franchise into a winner. He said the “future of football in Cincinnati depends” on Burrow’s success. 

Regardless of whether the situation is that dire, the Bengals need to get off the hamster wheel. They haven’t won a playoff game since Jan. 6, 1991. Since then, they have posted 13 double-digit loss seasons, including last year’s 2-14 debacle. Marvin Lewis got a lot of grief for not winning a playoff game, but at least he was consistently fielding competitive teams.

“It’s obviously been a long haul for all Bengals fans,” said Carson Palmer, the first pick of the 2003 draft to the Bengals. “They’re craving a Super Bowl.

“I hope Joe’s the guy. That fan base deserves it. That fan base loves that team.”

Palmer is sold, saying the film of his 2019 season at LSU showed a future star. 

“I think he’s a phenomenal talent,” said Palmer, who is promoting personal-care CBD products from Level Select. “He’s a great, great player. I think he has a really bright future.” 

Burrow is the most valuable piece of the Bengals’ latest rebuild, but not the only one. 

There should be serious questions about Zac Taylor coming into his second season as head coach. Taylor was hired with a very thin resume propped up by his association with Sean McVay. Taylor did nothing to prove doubters wrong in his first season. He and his offense need to show something this year. 

The Bengals have some interesting offensive pieces, but we’ll see if A.J. Green is happy playing with the franchise tag. The defense needs a ton of work. It’ll be a slow process. 

A promising rookie season from Burrow would be a start. He was born in Ohio. He was excellent with LSU last season. The Bengals have had flash seasons from some quarterbacks, but no bona fide franchise guy since Boomer Esiason, the quarterback in Cincinnati’s last playoff win almost 30 years ago. 

One way or another, it’s a franchise-changing draft pick. If you believe the worst possible outlook, the future of professional football in Cincinnati rides on the outcome. No pressure. 

Joe Burrow, last year's Heisman Trophy winner at LSU, was the first pick of the draft to the Bengals. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

The Bengals are notoriously cheap, but they dropped $113 million worth of deals on defensive tackle D.J. Reader, cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Vonn Bell. Those moves, particularly Reader, should help a horrible run defense. Drafting Joe Burrow was the highlight of the offseason, and the draft class as a whole was solid. Second-round receiver Tee Higgins was a nice value selection and a trio of linebackers was needed. It was a good offseason for a team that needed it. 

GRADE: B+

There has been a lot said about Joe Burrow, and hopefully a weird offseason won’t throw off his rookie year. In 2011, there was no offseason due to labor strife, and Cam Newton and Andy Dalton had fine rookie years. Burrow’s incredible accuracy should help him right away, as will a good set of receivers (assuming A.J. Green, given the franchise tag this offseason, is healthy and happy) and running back Joe Mixon. It’s a more challenging situation than usual, but Burrow should be able to produce right away.

There has been no Dalvin Cook-like proclamation of a holdout from Joe Mixon, but it has been expected for a while. Like Cook, Mixon doesn’t have a lot of leverage if he holds out. The Bengals need Mixon, a fine talent who has put up more than 1,400 yards from scrimmage in consecutive years despite a bad offense around him. Mixon could have a tremendous season, assuming he plays, and then the Bengals will have to decide what to do about his contract. For Joe Burrow’s development, having Mixon post a huge season would be a big help. 

Joe Burrow is the favorite to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year at +240. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is +600, Tua Tagovailoa is +900 and nobody is lower than 10-to-1. Even at +240, it doesn’t seem like a bad bet. Burrow is the only quarterback who’s practically guaranteed to start opening day, and voters love quarterbacks. He has a chance to put up good numbers with some fine receivers to throw to. No rookie running back is guaranteed to be the clear featured back. No rookie receiver will be his team’s top option right away. Burrow is the overwhelming favorite. It’s hard to pick anyone else. 

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “I am probably more bullish on the Bengals’ offense than most. Joe Burrow looks like someone who might hit the ground running, even in the crazy context of 2020. Joe Mixon is one of the last remaining workhorses, placing him squarely in fantasy's first round. Tyler Boyd blossomed into a very good player over the last two years. Tee Higgins was a widely approved pick in the second round of the draft. 

“But I can't spend a proactive pick on A.J. Green. He has missed 29 games over the last four years — including all of 2019 — and now heads into his age-32 season. I need a major discount to take on the risk of this type of player, and thus far I don’t see significant Green markdowns. Both Yahoo ADP and NFFC ADP place Green just inside the Top 80, too rich for my blood. 

“The bottom line is this — wide receiver is so deep this year, you don’t have to talk yourself into players. One reason I’m not taking Green yet is the availability of several other reasonable alternatives. If you’re not sold on someone’s price and potential profit, don’t force the pick. I’ll sit this one out for 2020.”

[Create or join a 2020 Yahoo Fantasy Football League for free today] 

The Bengals gave up 2,382 rushing yards last season, most in the NFL. They gave up 22 20-yard runs, second worst in the NFL. It was a poor tackling team. To fix that, the Bengals signed defensive tackle D.J. Reader, in-the-box safety Vonn Bell and retooled their linebackers. It’s a passing league, but a complete inability to stop the run can ruin any team. 

Is Zac Taylor the right coach for the job? 

One year isn’t enough to call Taylor a bad hire. New coaches learn. It’s not like the Bengals were brimming with talent. But Year 2 needs to look different for the Bengals to feel better about their young Sean McVay protege.

You got to win more football games to get people to shut up,” Taylor told The Athletic this offseason. 

Taylor was a risky hire, given his thin resume, and 2-14 is a tough start. He said he learned lessons. The Bengals didn’t tackle well, so he’ll adjust how much the team hits in training camp for one example. He believes the team played better late in the season even though the wins didn’t show it. 

“We wanted to play 10 more games at that point,” Taylor told The Athletic. 

Right now, there’s not much tangible reason to believe Taylor is a great coach. The Bengals are giving him a second year to prove otherwise. 

Let’s say Joe Burrow is a special player. It’s not crazy; he just put up 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns last season in the SEC. The Bengals have the skill-position talent to spread the field and make life tough on defenses. It’s hard to see the Bengals getting enough stops to be a contender, but it’s at least possible the offense becomes one of the NFL’s best. That’s probably a little too heady with a rookie QB, but there is that chance. 

If the Bengals’ offense is awful again and they are stuck with another double-digit loss season, it’s hard to see Zac Taylor getting a third season. Then it’s a reboot, a new system for Joe Burrow and more general Bengals malaise. And with a potentially bad defense, spotty offensive line and a rookie quarterback, another top-five pick is well within the range of outcomes. 

The Bengals should be more entertaining than usual. If the offensive line is even decent, Cincinnati could score a lot of points. Unlike many other teams this low in the preview, there is some hope the Bengals are a breakout team. But there are a lot of holes to expect a major leap. And if the Bengals lose big again, they would have a tough decision on Zac Taylor. 

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. 
Washington Redskins
30. 
Cincinnati Bengals
29. 
Carolina Panthers
28. 
New York Giants
27. 
Detroit Lions
26. 
New York Jets
25. 
Atlanta Falcons
24. 
Miami Dolphins
23.
Las Vegas Raiders
22.
Los Angeles Chargers
21.
Houston Texans