WELCOME BACK: ANDY DALTON ... but in a "we didn't expect to see you here again" sort of way. The Bengals could have released their so-so quarterback this spring, taken only a minor cap hit ($2.4 million) and become players in an offseason QB market rich with first-round prospects and starting-caliber free agents, but they chose to bring him back for an eighth season. He doesn't move well in the pocket, which creates issues with his mechanics and downfield vision. Cincinnati reached the playoffs in each of his first five seasons, but the nine-loss campaigns of 2016 and '17 are more indicative of where this team and QB are at.

If second-year pro JOE MIXON becomes more decisive at the point of attack, he can be one of the league's five best running backs. The most important physical trait for an NFL rusher is lateral agility—the ability to move east and west within confined areas. That's how he sets up blocks, makes defenders miss and creates space. Mixon's lateral agility is in the class of Le'Veon Bell's and David Johnson's, but erratic run blocking prevented him from showing it off last year.

To improve its blocking, Cincy upgraded at left tackle (trading for the Bills' CORDY GLENN) and at center (drafting Ohio State's BILLY PRICE with the 21st pick). While that will help, guards CLINT BOLING and TREY HOPKINS remain a significant concern.

A.J. GREEN'S chemistry with Dalton remains iffy, even after seven years together. Since 2011 (including playoff games), 41 passes to Green have been intercepted, the most of any receiver. He isn't responsible for all—or even many—of these, but this offense can't succeed if targets to its No. 1 receiver don't become more reliable.

The Bengals' D gave up just one run of 30 yards or more last season, yet still allowed 127.9 rushing yards a game, third most in the NFL. That and a measly 14 forced turnovers (tied for second fewest in the league) are signs that the line doesn't gain penetration and disrupt offenses. Defensive tackle GENO ATKINS is a force, but new coordinator TERYL AUSTIN needs someone else in the rotation up front to create a jolt.

2017 RECORD 7W 9L

SI'S 2018 PREDICTION 4W 12L

2018 SCHEDULE

SEPT.

9th @COLTS

13th RAVENS [Thursday]

23rd @PANTHERS

30th @FALCONS

OCT.

7th DOLPHINS

14th STEELERS

21st @CHIEFS

28th BUCS

NOV.

4th BYE

11th SAINTS

18th @RAVENS

25th BROWNS

DEC.

2nd BRONCOS

9th @CHARGERS

16th RAIDERS

23rd @BROWNS

30th @STEELERS

Thursday

Position Rankings

QB

27

RB

13

WR/TE

15

O-LINE

30

FRONT 7

29

DB

10

Weakness

CLINT BOLING, CHRISTIAN WESTERMAN and TREY HOPKINS, contenders to start at guard, would be backups on most teams. Weak guards are hard to hide, and a problem for a 6'2" QB like ANDY DALTON, who struggles with pocket movement.