Bengals, Chargers face similar path in loaded AFC; NFL Combine players to watch, more

Justin Herbert #10 of the Los Angeles Chargers (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
Justin Herbert #10 of the Los Angeles Chargers (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) /

Joe Burrow’s Cincinnati Bengals and Justin Herbert’s Los Angeles Chargers face similar roads to the top of a loaded AFC, plus NFL evaluators look ahead to the NFL Combine, more

The Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals find themselves at a bit of a fork in the road this offseason.

Both franchises, with Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, already have franchise quarterbacks in tow.

But, even though the Bengals are fresh off a Super Bowl loss and the Chargers finished third in their division this past season, both franchises face a similarly daunting path to the top of an AFC that may be the deepest conference we have seen in recent NFL memory.

How do the Bengals maintain in the role of “the hunted,” with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills charging and out for revenge? What must the Chargers do to follow Cincinnati’s path through the AFC gauntlet to the Super Bowl?

The Chargers and Bengals front offices have a combined $106.2 million in cap space to build around their prized passers. And both general managers, who historically have been reluctant to spend in free agency, must step outside their organizational comfort zones if they are going to climb the summit of the AFC’s lofty mountaintop.

Or, at the very least, continue following the blueprint that has been working.

“Both of those teams need to do what Cincinnati has done really, really well the last two years,” a long-time personnel evaluator tells FanSided. “Just keep drafting well. Not just first-rounders, but finding talent in the third, fourth, and fifth rounds who can come in, make the team, and help you either as starters, quality backups, or special teams players.

“The Bengals and Chargers are building a really good nucleus, and those quarterbacks aren’t going anywhere … they’re going to keep getting better. But, no matter what, both those teams need to keep building up front from the inside out along both lines. You can never have enough offensive linemen or defensive linemen. Ever.”

For Burrow and the Bengals, the loss in Super Bowl LVI was sealed when Aaron Donald applied relentless pressure on Cincinnati’s final offensive snap, forcing a fourth down Burrow incompletion.

Cincinnati General manager Mike Brown’s task is clear.

Above all else, Brown must build an elite offensive line in front of the Bengals’ elite quarterback. Or else risk everything the Bengals have built crumbling around him.

“Burrow led the league in sacks this year,” the personnel man points out. “That’s a scary, scary stat to lead. The good thing about Joe is he has a little bit of Brett Favre in him because he’s just a tough son of a bitch.

“But, all those hits add up year after year, after year. You have to protect him. They have to keep the eye on the prize, even if there’s a flashy receiver or a good-looking cornerback, keep building that line from the inside out … Don’t worry about getting booed at your draft party for taking an offensive lineman. Keep adding those guys. Now Burrow’s staying upright and it opens your offense up for more deeper routes.”

Burrow led the league with 11 deep touchdown passes this season. Imagine what he’s capable of playing behind an offensive line capable of actually protecting him.

Meanwhile, the situation in Los Angeles may be much trickier.

Herbert has established himself as one of the most gifted and exciting young quarterbacks in the league, especially after passing for 5,014 yards (second-most in the NFL), 38 touchdowns (third-most in the NFL), and producing a 97.7 passer rating in his second season.

But, for the Chargers — and Herbert — to leapfrog Burrow’s Bengals into the upper-echelon of what promises to be a crucible of a conference in coming years, Los Angeles must first close the gap on Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs in their own division. Especially after finishing third in the AFC West, with a 9-8 record, including a pair of six-point losses to Kansas City.

That will mean building around Herbert, who is entering the third year of his contract, and likely just one offseason away from signing a mega-extension that makes him one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. if not the highest-paid in league history.

“You’ll pay Herbert whatever he wants,” the evaluator says. “I think just like the Bengals, the Chargers are on the rise.

“But, Tom Telesco has to keep loading up on big uglies. Take a lineman in the first, take a lineman in the second. If they can resist the temptation to load up on playmakers, two years from now they’re going to be in the playoffs looking back on the linemen they drafted this year who’s kept Herbert upright and kept them in the mix.”

It gets significantly harder, though, to build a consistent Super Bowl contender when your quarterback is no longer on his rookie contract, which makes this offseason crucial to the Chargers’ future.

Herbert’s deal only counts for $7.24 million against the cap in 2022. Meanwhile, Patrick Mahomes accounts for $35 million against the cap, or 17 percent of the Chiefs’ cap space, which Kansas City will happily pay. In the near future, the Chargers will do backflips to pay Herbert, too.

But, some inside the league are skeptical the Chargers will open the purse strings this offseason.

“They have a handful of marquee free agents,” an NFC personnel executive tells FanSided, on the condition of anonymity to discuss another team. “So, depending what they do there, they aren’t likely to be very aggressive.”

While the Chargers have $57.3 million in cap space as the offseason begins, they will need to make re-signing the likes of wide receiver Mike Williams, linebacker Kyzir White, cornerback Chris Harris, among others, a top priority. That could limit how aggressively the Chargers are able to fortify Herbert’s supporting cast.

“The Chargers’ top priority should be along the offensive line,” the NFC executive tells FanSided.

However, where the Bengals already have a dynamic supporting cast around Burrow (receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and running back Joe Mixon), the Chargers’ to-do list goes beyond building the line in front of Herbert.

“They need to get a big running back,” former NFL scout John Middlekauff tells FanSided. “Someone who can pound the ball like Austin Eckler.”

Telesco also must allocate resources to a defense that finished No. 23 in the NFL last season and allowed a whopping 27 points per game.

“They were terrible on defense,” Middlekauff says. “You could argue if they just allow fewer points and don’t get destroyed against the run, Herbert will lead them to the playoffs.”

Both the Bengals and Chargers are relative longshots on the betting markets to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVII. Cincinnati currently sits at +1200, and Los Angeles at +2000 at WynnBET.

But, for either to play for the Lombardi next season, they may need to break character and follow the Rams’ blueprint becoming among the biggest spenders this offseason.

Los Angeles has the resources to catch the Chiefs and Bills.

For the Bengals, well, this offseason just might be about separating from the pack. And they may be a model for Telesco and the Chargers.

“The Bengals have drafted really, really well the last two years,” the evaluator says. “They’re around. They’re going to be around. They remind me of the beginning of the Packers and Seahawks runs that started because their front offices drafted really good football players. As long as you have that guy throwing the football, you’re going to win games. Just keep adding talent around him.”

Names to watch at the NFL Combine

Game on.

After initially planning to place the top NFL Draft prospects in a “bubble” during the NFL Combine next week in Indianapolis, limiting the prospects’ access to one member of their medical team and restricting them to a controlled environment, the league ditched those plans after agents threatened to have their players boycott on-field drills and interviews if they did not have full access to their support team.

The Combine provides two significant benefits for the NFL; a central location to conduct medical evaluations on the 324 prospects in attendance, and hours of prime time and evergreen content for the NFL Network. Once agents threatened the television product that will generate millions of dollars in ad revenue, there was no chance the league would stick with its plans to bubble the players during their time at the Combine.

So, as the league descends on Indianapolis beginning Monday, it would seem that the 40-yard dash and position drills will go on as scheduled, which will create the chance for some players to boost their draft stock.

Ahead of the Combine, FanSided spoke to multiple executives, scouts, and coaches to get their thoughts on players they’re excited to see work out in Indianapolis:

Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State

Hall was a focal point of the Cyclones’ offense last season, rushing for 1,472 yards and 20 touchdowns. At six-foot-one and 220 pounds, Hall added a career-high 36 receptions for 302 yards and three more touchdowns. With the ideal frame and versatility NFL teams covet at running back, Hall could be a high-riser next week.

“Hall’s a guy who’s very big, very strong, and very fast,” an AFC scout tells FanSided.

George Pickens, WR, Georgia

Pickens arrives in Indianapolis arguably with the most to prove among this year’s receiving class. The 6-foot-3 and 2-1 pound wide receiver caught only five passes for 107 yards after tearing his ACL and missing most of the season. But, some inside the league believe he’ll leave Indianapolis as a household name and one of the Combine’s biggest winners.

“I think he’s the next A.J. Green,” a personnel executive tells FanSided. “I think he’s going to test off the charts. He’s tall, he’s long, he’s going to run real fast, and he’s a damn good football player.”

David Bell, WR, Purdue

Bell has been one of the more prolific wide receivers in the Big Ten in recent seasons, and a focal point of Purdue’s offense. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, he has the size to be a red-zone target, but the athleticism to be so much more. This past season, Bell caught 93 passes for 1,286 yards with six touchdowns while averaging 13.8 yards per catch.

“This kid has the chance to be the next Allen Robinson,” an NFC scout tells FanSided. “But, he’s a little better after the catch.”

Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah

Lloyd could potentially be the first inside linebacker to hear his name called during April’s Draft. 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds is a violent hitter with tremendous vision and instincts. The Utah standout finished last season with 111 total tackles, eight sacks, four interceptions, and one forced fumble.

“He is really, really laterally quick and fast,” a talent evaluator tells FanSided. “Not only is he going to test really well, but he’s a really good and productive player. He’ll go mid-first-round. At the latest.”



"“I mean, if you’re looking for a great leader, a great motivator, a great person to be able to inspire and be able to help guys reach their highest potential, bring people together, who also has a great feel for the schematics of the game, Raheem Morris is your guy.”"

– Rams head coach Sean McVay on defensive coordinator Raheem Morris’ head coaching chances, via Sports Illustrated 

After surprisingly being passed over this hiring cycle, Morris has the potential to be among the top head-coaching candidates next offseason. Especially after his Super Bowl game plan stifled the Bengals’ explosive offense, holding Cincinnati to just 20 points en route to lifting the Lombardi.

Morris interviewed for the Minnesota Vikings twice last month for their head coaching vacancy, but his strong finish to this season and past experience make him an ideal candidate for any team that will be in the market for a head coach in 2023.

While McVay’s offense lit up the scoreboard and filled the Hollywood marquees, Morris’ defense quietly held opponents to just 21.9 points per game, finished 10th in the NFL with 25 takeaways and slammed the door on the Bengals to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl since returning to Los Angeles.

With prior head coaching experience, three seasons with the Buccaneers, and half a season as the Falcons’ interim head coach, Morris understands what it takes to lead an entire team. Morris has the temperament, versatility, and track record of defensive success to lead a program and has shown the value of a strong mutual trust with his players, especially down the stretch this season.

By the time the 2023 season rolls around, there’s a really good chance Morris will have the opportunity to show what he’s capable of leading his own program.

Final thought

Aaron Rodgers’ act is tired and played out.

After an offseason’s worth of drama in Green Bay, the Packers quarterback of course was at best misleading about his vaccination status and at worse wholly disingenuous, prior to testing positive for COVID-19 and being forced to sit out against the Chiefs, began this offseason on yet another odd and self-serving note.

Late Monday night, Rodgers posted a cryptic message on Instagram that included several photos and expressing his gratitude to various people in his life; including new Broncos head coach Nathanial Hackett, teammates David Bakhtiari and Randall Cobb, and the final photo in the post was the image below, leading many to believe he was hinting about a future outside of Green Bay.

Turns out, during his weekly appearance on The Pat McAfee Show, Rodgers would “make no news,” and was merely reflecting and sharing gratitude.

This is who Aaron Rodgers is.

Rodgers created a media firestorm with his Instagram post, as he did with his comments this season about being “immunized” against COVID-19, only to blame said media and fans for blowing the post out of proportion.

“There’s nothing cryptic about gratitude,” Rodgers told McAfee on Tuesday.

Moreso than one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks — who by the way has only appeared in one Super Bowl — Rodgers has become a master at maintaining his place in the spotlight, is equally adept at playing the news cycle as he is playing against a soft cover-two defense, and there is a reason why many believe teammates respect rather than like him.

Rodgers is the NFL MVP. He might also be the NFL MPAS — that is, Most Prolific Attention Seeker.