During Week 11 versus the Washington Football Team, Joe Burrow sustained a massive knee injury. Burrow was immediately ruled out for the remainder of the 2020 season. Along with a torn ACL, Burrow has structural damage in his knee as well as an MCL injury. Burrow will certainly be out until the beginning of the 2021 season, and he may not be fully healthy by the time of Week 1 in 2021.
Without Burrow, the Bengals project to be one of the worst teams in the NFL. They are likely to lose the remaining games on the schedule in 2020 and contend for a top draft pick in the 2021 draft. Ideally, the Bengals would draft Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell with their selection. If Sewell is not on the board, the Bengals could look to trade down for more assets or select a blue-chip prospect at cornerback or wide receiver.
However, the Bengals should play the long game with Burrow’s injury. Instead of rushing him back to start the 2021 season, they should let him rest through the season and fully heal before sending him back into game action. In the 2021 off-season, the Bengals need to fortify their offensive line. In the 2020 draft, the Bengals used practically no resources to rebuild the offensive line. Entering the 2020 season, the Bengals had one competent player, Jonah Williams, and four turnstiles. Even Williams, a 2019 first-round pick, had no NFL experience.
Sitting Burrow for the 2021 season would help the Bengals secure higher draft picks in the 2022 draft. With higher picks, the Bengals could secure even better players on cheaper contracts to help Burrow win immediately in 2022. While it may be painful for the Bengals to go almost a season and a half without their franchise quarterback, it could open up a Super Bowl window as soon as 2022 or 2023.
A Super Bowl window in Cincinnati?
2023 is a massive year for the Bengals. For the other teams in the AFC North, they will likely be dealing with a quarterback controversy. Both Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield would be entering their sixth season in 2023. Contractually speaking, they would be making significantly more money than they do now.
The Browns and Ravens would have less talented rosters to compensate for the payments to their quarterbacks. Similarly, the Steelers would likely have moved on from Ben Roethlisberger. The Bengals could be ultra-competitive in a weaker division. They could get a free pass to the playoffs and start from there.
The Bengals are unlikely to make a move that eliminates them from contention in 2021, but they should consider it. The potential draft capital gained over the next two seasons with Burrow injured would be immense, and the capital gained could be the difference between a second or third-place finish in the AFC North and running the division for a decade. Burrow is a sensational talent, and the Bengals should not waste him by not surrounding him with an excellent supporting cast.
One additional reason that the Bengals might think about keeping Burrow sidelined is the tendency for quarterbacks to struggle their first year after an ACL injury. Quarterbacks often take time to regain full movement in the pocket before they return to their original level. It would be a risk for Burrow to miss almost 2 full seasons of football, but the rust of being played immediately off of a torn ACL might be diminished if he has more time in practice and during the off-season. Additionally, the next few off-season should be somewhat normal as opposed to the 2020 off-season that was far from normal.
The idea of sitting Burrow is not perfect. The talent currently on the Bengals would be two years older by the time borough returns to play in a theoretical 2022 season. This means that players such as Jonah Williams and Tee Higgins would command more money while Joe Burrow is still proving himself on a rookie deal. Burrow would not have the developed rapport with Higgins or Tyler Boyd that may be necessary to overcome the Ravens, Steelers, and Browns.
Additionally, Burrow’s potential contract extension could be compromised because he would miss about a year and a half. Burrow would be unlikely to agree to sit out for the entire 2021 season, as it would prevent him from maximizing his finances in his next contract because he would have one fewer year of experience by the time of his extension. It would be an incredible risk for Burrow to sit out the season and potentially lose out on millions of dollars in the future.
It’s the Bengals…
The Bengals have been one of the poorest run organizations in the last few decades, and they have often wasted transcendent talent. Regardless of which path they take with Burrow, sitting him or playing him, they still have to overcome the stigma that stems from Cincinnati and their sports. Burrow is likely good enough to knock the trend, but this injury is just another in a long line of early draft selections being injured for Cincinnati.
The Bengals are almost certainly not going to bench Burrow during the 2021 season. However, it may be an interesting experiment to run in Madden if you have the time.