Offseason In Focus: The Bengals Blueprint
By Paul Hirons
After a season to remember, Bengals UK’s Paul Hirons looks ahead to a very interesting offseason in Cincinnati:
Well, that was a season. This time last year, I wrote on these pages that a lot needed to go right for the Bengals to be competitive – an improved pass rush, a better secondary, a relatively injury-free year, free agents to make an impact and the offensive line to play better. The list was seemingly endless.
And yet, the stars aligned and many of those questions were answered in the extreme affirmative.
Bengals fans worldwide knew deep-down that the team could – and should – be better thanks to their skill position players. But last season surpassed even the most optimistic of fans’ wildest dreams.
Burrow recovered from his potentially career-ending knee injury and, towards the end of the year, played at an extremely high level, the receiving corps of Higgins and Boyd were as advertised, and Mixon had a bounce-back year the likes of which we knew he was capable of and has been capable of in the past.
However, it was the addition of Ja’Marr Chase – whose selection had been the subject of intense debate – that really tipped things over the edge. When he proclaimed he was going to break all the records, many of us just put it down to shiny rookie braggadocio.
Reader, he broke all the records.
But it wasn’t just the offense and the skill position players that re-floated the Titanic. DJ Reader, Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Logan Wilson, Germaine Pratt, Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie… all these guys and more improved dramatically and made a huge impact.
A few other things catapulted the Bengals onto their Cinderella-like trajectory to the Super Bowl. New uniforms, the introduction of a long-overdue Ring of Honour and an aggressive focus on social engagement by the front office and creative teams cannot be overlooked in creating an environment both within the building and within the fanbase to cultivate excitement and expectancy.
Allied to this was an outstanding locker-room culture that clearly made all the players love coming into work each day.
Of course, better players playing to their potential helped the Bengals turn things around greatly. From that came confidence, momentum and a clear-eyed fearlessness. Adding all of these ingredients into the pot and letting it bubble away meant that anything could happen.
Nothing signified this lightning-in-a-bottle kinesis than the team’s in-house catchphrases that spilt over into the fanbase. To begin with, it was ‘why not us?’. When it was clear something special was emerging, it changed to ‘it is us’.
And it was. Almost.
Not surprisingly, often maligned head coach Zac Taylor earned a new, four-year contract extension after he masterminded the long, winding road to the Super Bowl.
Elsewhere, coordinators Brian Callahan and Lou Anarumo (who worked miracles in helping stop big-play offenses like the Chiefs (twice), the Ravens and, for large parts, the Rams) are rumoured to have also earned contract extensions, although nothing has been confirmed yet.
Linebackers coach Al Golden departed for the Notre Dame defensive coordinator job this off-season, and was replaced by former Cardinals and Giants DC James Bettcher; while Charles Burkes has been hired to replace outgoing cornerbacks coach, Steve Jackson.
Derek Frazier has also been added to the offensive line room.
State Of The Roster
A core nucleus of players – key players – are locked into either rookie contracts or long veteran contracts.
Now, the trick is for the Bengals to sustain success in a tough division – something they’ve never been able to manage before after their last two previous Super Bowl appearances. The window is very definitely open thanks to Burrow, Chase and co, so now it’s all about adding talent and depth and making sure we’re a contender for the next three to five years.
Salary Cap & Cut Candidates
It’s widely expected that big-money cornerback signing Trae Waynes will be cut at some point in the near future. Waynes inked a three-year, $42million contract in 2020. However, a procession of injuries saw his potential impact diminish considerably. And when I say considerably, I mean he’s hardly played a snap in three seasons.
If they decide to cut Waynes – and they should – the team will eat $5million in dead cap space but will save $10.9million against the cap.
This would push the team’s spending power – which already manifests as the fourth-most cap space in the NFL – towards the $60million mark.
There have also been whispers in the wind that veteran center – Trey Hopkins – will also be cut. The popular 29-year-old took time to recover from a torn ACL last season and his form plummeted, but he did finish the year strongly.
If those whispers turn out to be true, cutting Hopkins would save around $6million against the cap.
The Bengals have 24 free agents, but two, in particular, are of interest.
Safety Jessie Bates and tight CJ Uzomah are the heart and soul of the team, so it’s expected that both will be re-signed. Bates, especially, flashed his All-Pro talent during the playoff run and off the field he’s emerged as a trusted leader. The team have stated that they desperately want to get a deal done, but it’s been a long road and will continue to be so.
Expect Bates to receive the franchise tag, which, for safeties, comes in at $13.5million this year.
As for Uzomah, he had a career year last year but his worth is arguably so much more. He’s part court jester, part lightning rod and very definitely the absolute embodiment of the rock-solid culture in and around the club. Reports surfaced last week claiming that the Browns are set to offer their former first-round tight end David Njoku $10million per year, which would usurp Uzomah’s previous $4.7million base. Expect CJ to get a pay rise, but $10million?
Other big calls the Bengals have to make – and they’ve already stated that they want to bring back a lot of the guys who got them to the Super Bowl – include veteran offensive tackle Riley Reiff (who missed out on the back end of the season thanks to an ankle injury), defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and BJ Hill (who was a revelation after his low-key trade from the Giants) and… yes, Eli Apple (who the Bengals managed to actually turn into a decent player).
When it comes to signing free agents, fans are pleading – pleading – with the team to finally sort out the offensive line. Despite leaking 70 sacks last season (the third-most in NFL history), team officials at The NFL Combine were trotting out the line that the big guys up front were as much a part of getting the team to the Super Bowl as anyone else.
But the stats don’t lie, so expect the Bengals to be active in free agency when it comes to the big men up front.
Do we trade for Laremy Tunsil? Break the bank for Terron Armstead? Laken Tomlinson, Brandon Scherff? How about Ben Jones or Austin Corbett or Ty Nsekhe or James Daniels or Connor Williams? There are options out there, and opinion differs as to who the team should pursue with each Bengals fan you speak to.
It starts and ends with the offensive line – especially the interior. We desperately need upgrades there in order to keep Burrow upright or as upright for as long as humanly possible, and the hope is these will come in free agency with at least two plug-and-play starters.
Elsewhere, with the uncertainty at CB2, look for them to either sign or draft a starting-calibre cover man to play on the opposite side of Awuzie.
The beauty of going so far and having such an exciting nucleus of players is that you can now draft for depth and go best player available.
THE FOUNDER OF ‘BENGALS UK’, PAUL IS ONE OF THE PRE-EMINENT VOICES OF EVERYTHING TIGER STRIPED ON THIS SIDE OF THE ATLANTIC OCEAN. FOLLOW THEM ON TWITTER @WHODEY_UK, WHERE THEY BRING THE UK BENGAL COMMUNITY TOGETHER WITH MEET-UPS, ONLINE TAILGATES, WATCH PARTIES, PODCASTS AND MUCH MORE!