Bengals' offseason priorities: Futures of A.J. Green and Joe Mixon, QB picture

CINCINNATI -- Discussion about what the Bengals might look like in 2020 started months before Cincinnati finished the regular season.

As the team careened into its worst start in 26 seasons and secured the No. 1 overall draft pick for the first time since 2003, the need for an offseason rebuild became clear with each passing week. Now that the regular season is over, Cincinnati can take the top player in the draft, address its needs across the roster and push toward its first playoff berth since 2015.

Here are the three biggest items the Bengals should address this offseason:

Figure out what to do with A.J. Green and Joe Mixon

The dilemma surrounding Green, one of the NFL's best wide receivers since he was drafted in 2011, started before he suffered an ankle injury during the first preseason practice that kept him out for the entire season. The seven-time Pro Bowler didn't play a single snap in the final year of his four-year, $60 million deal.

And for the second consecutive offseason, there are questions regarding Green's long-term future in Cincinnati. The likely outcome is for the Bengals to use the franchise tag on Green, paying him around $17 million for the 2020 season. He has said he will begrudgingly accept playing on the tag. But that's a short-term solution that doesn't answer a major question.

At some point, the Bengals have to decide if Green is worth a long-term commitment, one that likely won’t be cheap.

Green will be 33 when the 2021 season begins. Since 2010, just five wide receivers had 1,000-yard seasons at that age, according to ESPN Stats & Information research: Reggie Wayne (2012), Steve Smith (2012, 2014), Anquan Boldin (2014), Larry Fitzgerald (2016, 2017) and Julian Edelman (2019).

Fitzgerald, a fair comparison to Green, received a two-year deal for $22 million in 2015. Fitzgerald, a future Hall of Famer, was 33 at the end of that deal.

Then there's Mixon, who took advantage of a revamped blocking scheme and rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season. Mixon, who was drafted in the second round of the 2017 draft, doesn't have a fifth-year option on the final season of his rookie contract, which means he's also in limbo.

Mixon, 23, is aware of what peers around the league have recently received. Rams running back Todd Gurley inked a four-year, $57.5 million deal with $45 million in guarantees in 2018. The Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott ended his holdout before the 2019 season when he received $50 million guaranteed as part of a six-year, $90 million contract.

Giving a running back a massive contract is always risky considering the volume of cheaper options (like Green Bay found with fifth-round pick Aaron Jones) or performance that doesn’t match the paycheck (Gurley was 20th in total rushing last season). And even though Bengals coach Zac Taylor changed his philosophy by the end of the season, Mixon averaged 12.6 carries per game during the first half of 2019.

Address the quarterback situation

This one is a no-brainer. Common sense indicates the Bengals likely select a quarterback with the top overall pick. LSU's Joe Burrow, the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner, who is one game away from leading the Tigers to a national championship and undefeated season, is already a fan favorite in Cincinnati.

Burrow could bolster a dejected fan base that registered its lowest paid attendance since 1993. The 23-year-old has enough experience to warrant being a starter as a rookie.

What to do with the rest of the quarterback room is a more complex discussion. Andy Dalton, 32, the starter for the past nine seasons, is entering the final year of his six-year, $96 million contract.

Any team looking for a veteran quarterback in 2020 would need to absorb $17.7 million and part ways with a draft pick to trade for Dalton, who said he wants to continue to be a starter next season. Teams also could smoke the Bengals out and wait to see if they cut him. Cincinnati can release Dalton without paying him anything.

If Cincinnati moves Dalton this offseason, that leaves rookie Ryan Finley as one of the top quarterbacks on the depth chart. Taylor said he has no preference when it comes to having a young player or a veteran as a backup quarterback.

"I’ve seen teams go to the Super Bowl with both sides of it," Taylor said.

If the Bengals stick with Finley as the backup, they could use the cap savings from parting with Dalton to address other areas through free agency.

Solidify the middle of the defense

Although the Bengals made strides in the second half of the season, the defense still needs to make major improvements. Since the start of 2018, Cincinnati is last in yards allowed per play (6.1) and 29th in fewest points allowed per drive (2.29).

The unit's progress during the end of 2019 showed how improved linebacker play can alter the defense. With rookie Germaine Pratt starting instead of Preston Brown, who was cut after nine games, the defense improved in a few key categories.

Starter Nick Vigil, who struggled in 2019 but rebounded with strong performances at the end of the season, is a free agent. Even if Cincinnati re-signs Vigil, the Bengals still need improved depth at that position.

Others on the roster have bounced between the practice squad (Hardy Nickerson Jr.), taking minimal snaps (Jordan Evans) and playing on special teams (LaRoy Reynolds). Adding a veteran, whether it's Vigil or someone else, and drafting a linebacker early on the second day of the draft could be a big boost for the ailing defense.

The Bengals haven't used a first- or second-round pick on a linebacker since they selected Rey Maualuga in the 2009 draft.