Coming off of a 4-11-1 season that saw no less than 10 starters miss significant playing time, the Cincinnati Bengals look to reload in 2021. Health, free agency, and the draft will all be key for the men in stripes.
The team began the offseason with at least 24 players set for free agency, just under two weeks away. They have already re-signed long snapper and Guinness World Record-holder Clark Harris to a one-year deal. The same day, they brought back young cornerback/special teams role player Jalen Davis for 2021.
Prior to those moves, Cincinnati was sitting roughly $38 million under the NFL’s $180 million salary cap floor. Chances are good that number could go up to around $185.5 million, giving the Bengals just over $43 million to play with.
Pending Free Agents
William Jackson III, Cornerback
Jackson is looking for a new contract that will likely garner over $7 million per year. While he is a solid defensive back, he has not been a favorite of many fans. Jackson will be eyeing a three-year deal for roughly $30 million with incentives. Head coach Zach Taylor has systematically moved on from holdovers of the Marvin Lewis era, so it is unclear whether the cornerback will be re-signed.
The Houston native finished 2020 with 11 passes defensed, 43 tackles, and one interception.
A.J. Green, Wide Receiver
The Cincinnati stalwart made over $18 million under the franchise tag during the 2020 season, which equated to about $380,000 per catch. Although he is one of owner Mike Brown’s favorite players of all time, it is safe to say that last season was the oft-injured wide receiver’s swan song for the Orange-and-Black. The fans will hate to see him go, but not in the name of spending hefty elsewhere.
Green could only return to the Bengals on a team-friendly deal, but even at $8-10 million per season, he will be asking for 3-4 years. Too rich for the current climate.
Shawn Williams, Strong Safety
Likely also gone is 30-year-old Williams, who will negotiate for more money than the Bengals would pay. The outstanding play of second-team All Pro safety Jessie Bates and strong safety Vonn Bell likely curbed any realistic negotiations.
In terms of contract value (among this class of Bengals free agents), Williams only trailed Green while making over $5 million in 2020. Additionally, the team reportedly has already hosted free agent safety Ricardo Allen.
Mackensie Alexander, Cornerback
The middle of the pass defense for Cincinnati looked a whole lot better when Alexander was patrolling the slot. The former Viking missed three games last season and it was crystal clear that the unit worked more efficiently with him on the field. Alexander signed a one-year, $4 million dollar deal last offseason; a steal for the Bengals.
It is likely that the slot corner and tackle specialist turned down a longer contract so that he could raise his value, and he did. Alexander should command 3 years at about $8 million per, and the front office in Cincinnati needs to write that check post-haste.
Carl Lawson, Defensive End
Speaking of opening the checkbook, the edge-rusher with 32 quarterback hits last season cannot be allowed to hit the open market. Lawson showed flashes of being an elite pass rusher in 2020 and is still just 25-years-old. This is the Bengals’ top priority of in-house spending, and it will cost them a pretty penny, along the lines of 4 years, likely at $10 million per year.
There has been talk that the team might apply the franchise tag to Lawson. His production, though, is not worthy of the salary average when there are players like Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett driving the price up. Cincinnati needs to get him under contract for a fair price, rather than going through the same song and dance next offseason.
Potential Cap Casualties
Bobby Hart, Offensive Tackle ($5.8 Million Saved)
Fans in the Queen City that are also fans of Hart are few and far between. Between his often-lackadaisical play in protection, his attitude, and his use of social media… many have had it.
The offensive line is going to be a big focal point of the team this offseason. Cincinnati would take a cap hit of $1 million in cutting the right tackle, but in this case the move might be addition by subtraction to spend nearly $6 million in free agency.
C.J. Uzomah, Tight End ($5.1 Million Saved)
Uzomah missed the majority of last year but is the best pass-catcher at tight end on the roster. That said, there are a lot of tight ends hitting the market at present who would provide far more blocking upside for the same money or less.
Another $1 million dead-cap hit, but saving $5 million to find a player more adept at helping the line protect a young quarterback is far more important.
B.J. Finney, Guard/Center ($3.3 Million Saved)
It is hard to evaluate a player that has only played in one game for the team. Finney came to Cincinnati by way of the trade that sent Carlos Dunlap to the Seattle Seahawks.
The Kansas State alum has just 13 starts over five years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Seahawks, and Bengals. This could have been the team’s plan all along to dump some salary. Or, they could see enough in Finney to let go of center Trey Hopkins (a savings of $4.3 million) and use him at center or try Billy Price again in rotation. The obvious choice is to dump Finney’s $3.3 million with no dead cap hit.
Geno Atkins, Defensive Tackle ($23 Million Saved)
Not a soul in Cincinnati wants to see Atkins leave, but the writing appears to be on the wall. Another of Brown’s favorite players, Atkins has been a quiet leader by example on the field and in the locker room. He is also one of the greatest player-philanthropists the organization has ever seen.
After missing several games a season ago with a nasty shoulder injury, the team handled him with kid gloves to avoid reinjury. Atkins has since surgery on the shoulder, and it is unclear whether he would be ready for the start of 2021. However, this decision has far more to do with the numbers on the books. Cincy could save a ton of money as they move in a younger direction.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
The priority in Cincinnati’s front office will be to re-sign some of their own players. This has always been a focal point in the past and expecting the Bengals to spend the way they did during the 2020 offseason would be a mistake.
Names like DT Mike Daniels, CB and kick-returning ace Brandon Wilson, punter Kevin Huber and surprising linebacker leader Josh Bynes all need to be retained. With 22 remaining pending free agents, the team cannot afford to hold onto everyone. That said, Cincinnati has always preferred to keep their own players (at reasonable cost) rather than making a huge splash in offseason free agency.
Beyond that, here is a group that they will have the capital to pursue on March 17.
Joe Thuney, Guard/Tackle, New England Patriots
This is the A-1, No. 1 attack point for the Bengals. They should blow the money on a player that will be in extremely high demand.
Thuney has played the majority of his career at offensive guard. However, he played all 16 games at the tackle position in 2020 while collecting just 3 penalties for the season. Hailing from Centerville, Oh he could come back to his roots and play any position on the line. Depending on the draft, he could easily move back to left guard to solidify the blindside.
Golden Tate, Wide Receiver, New York Giants
Tate was released as a New York Giants salary cap casualty this week. He could be the perfect fit for a Bengals team looking to replace Green with another veteran at a far more affordable price tag. He only hauled in 35 passes last season as a result of one plagued by injury, but when he played still looked dynamic in a rough New York Giants offense.
Curtis Samuel, Wide Receiver, Carolina Panthers
Sticking to wideouts, this is an either/or situation. Samuel is likely the better option than Tate but will come at a far greater fee. He would likely be nearly as expensive as Green, though, and his 77 catches for 820 yards (add on 200 yards rushing) in an anemic Panthers offense practically demands a double take. He would be a better fit than Tate in Cincinnati, but the Bengals front office would likely be outbid on this one.
Jurrell Casey, Defensive Tackle/End, Denver Broncos
Recently released, Casey does not offer a lot of youth over Atkins (31-years-old versus Atkins’ 32). However, he was a cost-cutting move in Denver who is still a very capable defensive tackle. The financial savings would be a bundle. The USC grad has 51 sacks, 85 tackles for loss, and 117 quarterback hits in his career while playing multiple positions on the line.
Kyle Rudolph, Tight End, Minnesota Vikings
Rudolph is unlikely to cost much more than Uzomah because of his age. However, he is a much better blocker, and pass-catcher to boot. As the Bengals continue to get younger, some veteran leadership is invaluable. Rudolph has been a consummate professional and has been notable for his leadership in Minnesota. He would help the protection of Burrow and provide a nasty threat to pair with Boyd over the middle.
Previewing the Draft
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas for fans on the banks of the Ohio. After their fourth win, they thought all hope was lost at picking up their prized prospect.
Since then, quarterbacks’ stocks have elevated, and it is expected that several of the teams holding the picks above the Bengals will take a signal-caller with their pick. The wildcard in 2021 is the Miami Dolphins (by way of the Houston Texans) picking at No. 3 overall. Opinions vary on whom they would take; or whether they would make a trade for a player like Deshaun Watson or simply trade back with another quarterback-needy team like Carolina.
Cincinnati has typically always drafted “best player available”. That mentality will likely shift this year to draft based on the needs of the roster.
It will be an interesting first five picks, to be sure. Here is how the Bengals should play their first trio of choices.
Round 1, Pick 5: Offensive Tackle
Adding Thuney or Brandon Scherff to the line is not enough. With the fifth pick in the draft, the Bengals have to go big, both literally and figuratively. The more capable bodies in front of Joe Burrow, the better. The “prized prospect” mentioned above is, of course, Oregon’s Penei Sewell. Sewell has been lauded as one of the best offensive tackles to come out in recent history. More comfortable at left tackle, he enables the Bengals to shift Jonah Williams to right tackle and solidify the edges.
If Sewell is gone, Cincinnati could fool everyone by passing over the star wide receivers and snatch OT Rashawn Slater from Northwestern, who is currently being mocked way lower than he should be (10-13).
Round 2, Pick 38: Defensive Tackle
While Bengals fans clamor for the sexier defensive end pick, one cannot ignore the need for quality youth in the interior. When Lawson and Sam Hubbard are on the field together, the potential is through the roof. New defensive line coach Marion Hobby has displayed a knack for getting the very best out of a pass rush in Jacksonville, New Orleans, and recently in Miami.
Atkins is probably gone. Daniels is a free agent. Diehards of the team have been screaming for some sort of help up the middle, and it does not come in the guise of Christian Covington. D.J. Reader will be back, but forever retaining players does not make the middle any younger. If teams are going nuts for skill position players and offensive linemen, a player like DT Jay Tufele of USC could fall right into their lap and start right away.
Round 3, Pick 69: Best Player Available
The Bengals could go in any direction here, depending on how free agency goes (there will be a pre-free agency mock coming in the next 10 days). If they do not go out and get one of the free agent wideouts, here’s a great spot to get one. Likewise, if a player like Dillon Radunz of North Dakota State (offensive tackle, another deep class) slips down, he could be snatched up by the team to further solidify the offensive line.
One of the more intriguing players on the board is Oklahoma edge rusher Ronnie Perkins, who was suspended in 2020 by Oklahoma. He possesses the ability to be elite (if needing to add a little weight at 247 pounds) and his drug suspension—although lifted—could scare some teams into letting him tumble. This is a potential steal as Perkins was an absolute monster in college.
Here is a spot that Cincinnati has a history of getting a bargain, so they should take the best guy available to fill one of their three needs.
Early 2021 Expectations
This team lost many starters to injury last season, including their new franchise quarterback in Burrow and newly extended running back in Joe Mixon. Five of their 11 losses came by one score, several on the final drive. Not to mention the tie with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Playoff aspirations in 2021 should be tempered greatly, but not out of the question. The AFC North is one of the toughest divisions in football. It remains to be seen if the Browns can be consistent and if the Steelers are about to take a downward turn, the re-signing of Ben Roethlisberger notwithstanding. At the end of the day, the Bengals can compete with anyone with a few upgrades on defense, and above all, protecting their young gunslinger.
Check us out on our socials:
Twitter: @PTSTNews and @TalkPrimeTime
Facebook Page: Prime Time Sports Talk
Join our Facebook Group: Prime Time Sports Talk
Follow Sam Schneider on Twitter @BuyAndSellYou
Main Image Credit: