Around The NFL's season preview jumps to the AFC North.
Change we can believe in
Hue Jackson is one of the NFL's most underrated play-callers, able to squeeze the most out of his skill players by centering the scheme around their talents. His promotion to offensive coordinator is an upgrade over Jay Gruden and a positive development for Andy Dalton. Look for the NFL's signal-calling Mendoza Line to throw roughly 150 fewer passes inside a run-heavy offense. The backfield combination of Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill will set the tone for an offense set to mimic the Seahawks.
When asked to wing it, Dalton will make hay with "Making the Leap" candidate Marvin Jones. Now the team's clear No. 2 behind A.J. Green, Jones saw an outstanding offseason cut short by a foot injury, but he's expected to return for Cincy's Week 5 showdown with the New England Patriots. There isn't a burning weakness on this offense.
For better or worse, the Bengals have remained one of the AFC's most consistent franchises. This was an offseason filled with more tweaks than changes: The elevation of Jackson will be seen league-wide as one of the offseason's wisest promotions.
While the coordinator switch on offense makes sense, losing Mike Zimmer to the Minnesota Vikings is concerning for Cincy's defense. New play-caller Paul Guenther is a coaching holdover who knows the roster well, but Zimmer's units have been among the best-coached on a week-to-week basis. The healthy return of Pro Bowl interior lineman Geno Atkins helps, but losing pass rusher Michael Johnson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers strips the Bengals of a proven producer. There's pressure on second-year end Margus Hunt to contribute right away.
We can't get out of here without expressing a healthy concern over Dalton. No matter how Jackson alters the offense, it still comes down to Dalton hitting key completions on passing downs. We've seen too much inconsistency from The Red Rifle in critical moments, with Dalton's 56.8 career completion percentage against the AFC North sitting lower than Brandon Weeden's mark of 56.9 percent.
Training camp surprise
Coach Marvin Lewis has coached defense at the NFL level for more than 20 years. He caught our attention this month by calling first-rounder Darqueze Dennard "the best rookie corner I've seen." Teammate Terence Newman also told reporters that "the sky's the limit" for the Michigan State product. In a secondary manned by a post-surgery Leon Hall and the aging Newman and Adam Jones, Dennard might be the best thing going by December.
What we'll be saying in February
Predicted finish: Third place in the AFC North, 14th in Around The NFL's Power Index.