Who are the 10 most important Bengals for 2017 season?

Players report to training camp July 27, first practice the next day

The Cincinnati Bengals don’t quite find themselves in the midst of an upheaval, but the departure of their two best offensive linemen in Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler and their most experienced defensive player in Domata Peko certainly makes this a roster in flux.

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As the team attempts to get back to the playoffs after seeing its streak of five consecutive postseason appearances wither in 6-9-1 disappointment last year, the Bengals will be relying on the youth on their roster as much as they have since inserting rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green as starters in 2011. And some of those youngsters will be as important to the team’s success as the established veterans.

Given that, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 most important Bengals for 2017 … with one caveat. We are not including Dalton because it’s a given that the quarterback is the most important player on any team.

10. Nick Vigil

After relying on aging veterans Karlos Dansby and A.J. Hawk the last two seasons — and paying for it with a noticeable lack of speed (see last year’s New England game) — the Bengals will make Vigil the starter at SAM in his sophomore season. And, more importantly, Vigil will be the linebacker playing opposite Vontaze Burfict in nickel packages. Vigil’s physical tools led the Bengals to use a third-round pick on him last year, and the rash of injuries gave him a chance to get on the field to gain some valuable experience that transferred into an impressive offseason program.

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9. Carlos Dunlap

You can’t win in today’s NFL without elite edge rushers, and Dunlap is the only proven one the Bengals have. His role coming off the left side will be even more important this season with the combination of uncertainty likely to occupy the right side, whether it be due to age (Michael Johnson is 30 and Wallace Gilberry turns 33 in December) or inexperience (Will Clarke has yet to validate his third-round selection and Carl Lawson, though promising in camp, is a rookie). Dunlap has averaged 9.3 sacks the last four years, and the Bengals need that kind of production to continue.

8. Tailback trio

It’s hard to slot the individual importance of Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and rookie Joe Mixon because the Bengals don’t need one of them to step up and be THE guy. All three should get their share of touches, both in terms of carries and receptions, which could make for a dynamic backfield. With the other weapons the Bengals have on offense, they don’t need to get back to the 134.2 rushing yards they averaged in 2014 (most in the Marvin Lewis era), but the trio does need to improve on the average of 3.9 yards per carry the Bengals have posted over the last two years.

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7. Adam Jones

If Jones returns to 2015 form, which might be asking a lot of a player who turns 34 in September, there will be ripple effect throughout the secondary and the defense as a whole as it tries to work its way back into a top-10 unit for the first time since 2013. But if Jones’ skills continue to erode and the Bengals are forced to fly with Darqueze Dennard or William Jackson, both or whom are first-round picks but still unproven, you can expect there to be some rough landings along the way.

6. John Ross

For the first time since 2011 the Bengals used their first pick on an immediate need rather than drafting for the future. The departure of Marvin Jones in free agency left the Bengals with a glaring void in terms of field-stretching speed, and they moved to remedy that with the selection of Ross at No. 9. Ross doesn’t need to put up 1,000 yards or 75 catches as a rookie, but he does need to settle into a role that is more threat than decoy for the Bengals to find a way to score more than the 20.3 points they averaged in 2016.

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5. Kicker A, B or C

Missed kicks cost the Bengals two wins in 2016 and played a significant role in two other losses, so it doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out a reliable kicker could have been the difference between 10 wins and six. Whether it’s incumbent Randy Bullock, who owned one of the game-costing misses, rookie Jake Elliott or dark-horse Jonathan Brown, the 2017 kicker will have a huge say in close games. Remember, the final five losses last year were decided by 1, 4, 5, 4 and 2 points.

4. Vontaze Burfict

After missing the first three games in 2016 due to suspension and the first six in 2015 due to injury, Burfict is expected to be available for the season opener. Burfict played some of the best football of his career after working his way into shape following his suspension. He has a habit of reporting heavy, but he looked to be in midseason shape this offseason. Long praised for his football IQ, Burfict enters his sixth season — and final one of his current contract — as a bonafide leader of the defense. If he can stay healthy and play clean, Burfict will have a huge say in the success of a defense that showed drastic improvement under his leadership in the second half of 2016.

3. A.J. Green

Green’s importance to the Bengals was evident long before he missed the final six games of 2016 with a hamstring injury. One could argue he is the most important player on the team, and has been since he arrived in 2011. But when you consider the Bengals went 3-3 and averaged 330.7 yards per game in his absence, it’s enough to bump him from the top spot on this list, even though most fans, teammates and coaches likely would list him as the player the team could least afford to lose.

2. Tyler Eifert

The Bengals have gotten used to not having Eifert on the field with the fifth-year tight end yet to play a full 16-game season. But he is such a difference maker and matchup nightmare for opposing defenses that his importance can’t be overstated. And unlike other positions, the cliched “next man up” philosophy doesn’t play here because the gap in talent from Eifert to backups Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah is so great.

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1. Cedric Ogbuehi

Not only is he tasked with replacing arguably the second best left tackle in franchise history in Andrew Whitworth, he’s being called on to do so after a dismal debut as a starter at right tackle in 2016. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander, who has never been prone to sugar-coating, spoke highly of Ogbuehi’s performance in the offseason program, which was his first after being injured in 2015 and 2016. That’s a positive sign, because no single player will be more tied to the fate of the team — and health of Andy Dalton — than the starting left tackle.

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