Did the Bengals Do Enough to Replenish Their Offense?

Cincinnati was a top offensive unit last year. Can they avoid dropping off after losing receivers in free agency?

There was a lot to be excited about for the Cincinnati Bengals during the 2015 season.

At least there was until Andy Dalton was injured during a Week 13 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Up to that point, the Bengals had been riding high with one of the best offenses in the league, thanks to a career year from Dalton.

But the team parted ways with some key pieces on offense, and there are legitimate concerns about whether or not they did enough to set up Dalton and the Bengals for another successful offensive season.

Dalton's Career Year

Dalton finished the season as the most efficient quarterback in the league per our Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

Dalton’s first place finish in Passing NEP per drop back was a wild improvement from his efficiency metrics through the first four years of his career.

Andy Dalton Passing NEP per Drop Back Rank
2015 0.35 1 (of 46)
2014 0.05 23 (of 43)
2013 0.09 12 (of 45)
2012 0.02 23 (of 39)
2011 0.02 22 (of 46)

Even as the Bengals went 2-1 in the three regular season games Dalton missed with A.J. McCarron at quarterback, there were only two bigger drops between the production of a starter and backup in the league last season.

2015 was also the first season of Dalton’s career that the offense was the top unit on the team. During the first four years of Dalton’s career, the Cincinnati defense was the leader by Adjusted NEP per play while the offense hovered around average to below average as a whole.

Year Adjusted Offensive NEP per Play (Rank) Adjusted Defensive NEP per Play (Rank)
2015 0.14 (5) 0.02 (10)
2014 0.03 (17) 0.03 (12)
2013 0.04 (15) -0.06 (2)
2012 0.01 (20) -0.01 (7)
2011 0.00 (17) -0.01 (9)

Part of the success of the offense was predicated on the structure, which allowed the team to get the most out of their quarterback. Offensive coordinator -- and now Cleveland Browns head coach -- Hue Jackson set up a system that allowed the team to rely on Dalton’s strengths and his supporting cast.

That cast was key, but it now looks different heading into the 2016 season.

The Returning Cast

The main pieces are still there -- A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, Tyler Eifert (if healthy) -- but wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu were allowed to leave in free agency.

This leaves a pretty gaping void in target volume with the departure of the team’s second and third receivers. Jones and Sanu combined for 152 targets in 2015, 30 percent of the team’s passes last season. That’s a decent chunk of the offense.

Can the replacements fill the void?

The Replacements

In a vacuum, moving on from Jones and Sanu makes sense. Both receivers found their way into big contracts during the offseason. Jones signed for five-years and $40 million -- $20 million guaranteed -- with the Lions and Sanu signed a five-year deal for $32.5 million and $14 million guaranteed with the Falcons. For a usually frugal franchise such as the Bengals, not paying those prices isn’t much of a surprise. But, of course, these moves weren’t made in a vacuum, and the losses in the offense need to be replaced.

By Reception NEP per target, both Jones and Sanu were right around the league average in 2015. Among the 122 wide receivers who saw at least 32 targets during the season (an average of two per game), the average Reception NEP per target was 0.65. Jones ranked 62nd at 0.67 and Sanu was 73rd at 0.63.

On the surface there might not seem to be much of a challenge replacing what comes out to a league average second and third receivers, but 152 targets of league average production is incredibly useful. It’s an even bigger aspect when another 132 targets in the offense are going to well above average production in Green and his 0.88 Reception NEP per target last year.

When it came to replacing Jones and Sanu, the Bengals seemed to make a one-for-one swap at both positions. Cincinnati signed former Patriots receiver Brandon LaFell in free agency and drafted Pitt Panther Tyler Boyd in the second-round of this year’s draft. As a rookie, Boyd is mostly an unknown, though he figures to see most of his time in the slot when the Bengals have three receivers on the field.

LaFell is entering camp as the favorite for the team’s number two receiver and will only cost the Bengals $2.5 million this season. Only $1 million of that is guaranteed, should LaFell not work out in camp. It’s a low-risk signing for a player who could become one of the most important non-Green players on the offense.

Part of the reason LaFell came so cheaply was a foot injury that caused him to miss seven games last season. When he did return to the field, LaFell didn’t play all that well. He was towards the bottom of the league among receivers in efficiency, as he ranked 102nd in Reception NEP per target at 0.49.

In the preceding two seasons, though, LaFell was more towards that league average. In 2014 LaFell had a Reception NEP per target of 0.60, which ranked 69th among 108 receivers with 32 or more targets and slightly below the league average of 0.65. The year before in 2013, LaFell was 58th in the metric at 0.65, barely below the league average of 0.66.

The exact volume LaFell will see in 2016 is still unclear, but even if he can return to his league average form, he’ll be an asset to the team -- especially at his price.

LaFell can get down the field when healthy, but where where he also excels is behind the line of scrimmage on screens. When Tom Brady and LaFell were struggling to connect to deep balls last season, the duo turned to the screen game. LaFell also found a nice little home working the middle of the field, a place he can also occupy in Cincinnati. New England did a great job of getting LaFell into space, where he could gain yards after the catch when the deep ball wasn’t connecting.

In this play, LaFell is at the top of the screen. The other receivers clear out the middle of the field, which leaves a gaping hole for LaFell to catch and run after a simple crossing route. This could easily work in the Bengals' offense. (Video courtesy NFL Game Pass.)

More A.J. Green

What the Bengals are most likely to see, especially early in the season should Tyler Eifert not be at full strength -- is more A.J. Green. Green’s 132 targets were 15th in the league last year among receivers, but he’s no stranger to monopolizing the passing game.

In 2012, Green saw 164 targets, but his efficiency suffered. His Reception NEP per target was just 0.67. The next season he saw more targets (178), and his efficiency also went up to a Reception NEP per target of 0.72.

Reasons for Optimism

If the Bengals and Green can stay somewhat efficient as the receiver goes back to a bigger workload, there should be enough in the rest of the offense to be one of the better units in the league.

Cincinnati might not repeat as a top-five offense, and Dalton likely won’t be the most efficient quarterback in the league, but there’s enough talent for the Bengals to avoid dropping into the bottom half of the league like they had been in the previous years under Dalton.

If they can remain afloat offensively, they should again be contenders in the AFC.