While Zac Taylor prepares for Super Bowl LIII with the Los Angeles Rams, the Cincinnati Bengals already have a laundry list of things for him to tidy up when he officially becomes the team’s new head coach.
The Rams’ quarterbacks coach is expected to be named as Marvin Lewis’ replacement in the days following the Super Bowl, where Los Angeles is set to play the New England Patriots on Feb. 3. NFL rules prevent the Bengals from naming Taylor until his season concludes.
Cincinnati anxiously awaits the ability to move forward with Taylor and his new staff, which reportedly could include Brian Callahan as offensive coordinator and Jack del Rio as defensive coordinator. Here is a look at what Taylor’s top priorities should be as Bengals coach in 2019.
1. Fixing the defense
As strong of an offensive leader as Taylor could be, it’s the other side of the ball that needs the most attention.
The defense was an absolute train wreck last year. It got so bad that Lewis stepped in as defensive coordinator when Teryl Austin was fired after a third straight game of the team allowing 500 yards or more of offense.
Though the defense gradually improved under Lewis, the clear need for linebackers never disappeared. It’s likely that will be an area of attention with the draft, and perhaps Taylor can convince the Bengals to be a little more active in the free agent market. Cincinnati also needs to decide what to do with Vontaze Burfict, who signed a three-year contract extension in September of 2017 but showed a significant dropoff in performance and finished the season with a pair of concussions.
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Taylor’s hire at defensive coordinator will be key, as the Bengals ranked among the bottom of the league in most defensive categories.
2. Addressing the QB situation
Either the Bengals are bringing in Taylor with the thought he can help get Andy Dalton back on track or they are preparing for him to usher in the next guy. Either way, the quarterback position needs elevated or rejuvenated.
After a down year in 2017, Dalton started off the 2018 season strong but couldn’t keep it up while losing key players like Tyler Eifert and A.J. Green to injury. Then he went down with his own ailment, requiring surgery and giving way to Jeff Driskel, who failed to take advantage of his first NFL opportunity.
Dalton has two more years on his contract, and regardless of plans for his future, the Bengals will need a better backup option.
3. Retool the offensive line
The Bengals rebuilt the offensive line last year and there were still major issues, particularly on the right side where Bobby Hart and Alex Redmond proved ineffective and at times damaging to the offense because of penalties. Rookie center Billy Price struggled as well after returning from a foot injury that kept him out for six games early on and could benefit from a fresh start as well.
Offensive line coach Frank Pollack seemed to help the unit make big strides from 2017, despite the personnel he had to work with, but reportedly won’t return so it’s up to Taylor to find someone to take it to the next level with whatever new players come in (it appears the Bengals will finally be moving on from draft busts Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi). The new line coach will have some pieces to build off, at least. Cordy Glenn’s producation dropped off at the end of the season but overall he proved to be a big upgrade at left tackle, and Clint Boling remained solid at left guard.
The run protection also was drastically improved from the previous year, and running back Joe Mixon could be most effected by change as he also lost a running backs coach he was close to in Kyle Caskey. It will be important to make sure he’s still put in position to build off a 1,000-yard second season.
4. Bring out the best in John Ross
John Ross, the team’s 2017 first-round draft pick, scored a touchdown every third pass he caught, but the problem was he finished with just 21 receptions. Taylor needs to try to get more out of him because the team lacked a reliable third receiver all year and Ross could be that guy under the right coaching and in the right situation.
Ross clearly has talent and adds a deep threat that defenses have to account for, but he was criticized for not fighting hard enough on contested balls, stopping routes and just not being in the right position at crucial times. Part of that could have been mental after such a disappointing rookie season – marred by injury as he saw action on just 17 offensive snaps – and a groin injury that lingered longer than expected early in 2018. However, Ross needs a big third season like Tyler Boyd’s breakout year.
5. Re-sign key players
The Bengals have several players heading into free agency, and some of the priorities should be deciding on defensive back Darqueze Dennard and which tight ends they want to bring back, as their top three guys at that position are all out of contract. Taylor may have some other players he is hoping to bring in through free agency from past experiences.
Probably the biggest question mark is what to do with Tyler Eifert. It could be a good time just to cut the cord and move on from the oft-injured player, but last year’s ankle break was a freak accident and he was a major factor in the offense up to that point as Cincinnati jumped out to a 4-1 start. Taylor will need to decide if Eifert is worth the risk. Additionally, Tyler Kroft missed last year with an injury but he and C.J. Uzomah are likely cheaper signings and might be good to keep.