Cincinnati Bengals 2022 Offseason Previewby Sam Schneider February 25, 2022 0 comments
The Cincinnati Bengals made a run for the ages in 2021, completely flipping their division and the AFC on its head. After shocking the rest of the AFC North and capturing the division title, they defeated the first- and second-seeded Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs on their way to the AFC crown. Their reward was a date with the Los Angeles Rams at Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood, CA. Cincinnati fell in the Championship 23-20.
The Bengals finished the regular season 10-7, tacking on three more wins as the fourth seed in the AFC prior to their loss in the finale. Along the way, Cincinnati put a decades-long curse to rest with their first playoff win since 1991. Comeback Player of the Year Joe Burrow and Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja’Marr Chase proved to be one of the most dynamic 1-2 punches in the league. Each piled up accolades and franchise records. The supporting cast for the Orange-and-Black is strong. A young core on offense and a group of savvy veterans on the defensive side. In order to return to the pinnacle game in the NFL, there will be many important offseason decisions to keep the nucleus intact while adding pieces to put them over the top.
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Pending Free Agents
The Bengals have no less than 30 players entering free agency. It is a healthy mix of veterans who have contributed and young players who have spent time on special teams or the practice squad. The fourth-youngest team in the NFL also holds the estimated fourth-most cap space in the league, at $49.25 million.
Cincinnati will lose more than their fair share of players to other teams. With a demonstrated willingness to spend in the last two offseasons, however, expect them to go in heavily on re-signing their own. Despite the view of Cincinnati being stingy, they have always made an effort to reward hard-working players with fresh contracts. Head coach Zac Taylor has managed to sell current players on the culture of the organization (much-maligned in the past), and the team is coming off of a Super Bowl run. They should be able to retain some of their important young pieces, reward a few big free agent performers from a year ago, and then dive into the free agency pool for more veterans that can fill in their gaps.
Jessie Bates III
The safety from nearby Fort Wayne who played ball at Wake Forest has risen to prominence as one of the best in the league. At just under $5 million per year, he has been one of the best bargains in football. Cincinnati was expected to reward Bates with a new contract prior to the 2021 season, but the two sides were unable to come to an agreement. Many in the Queen City believe he deserves a blank check to become one of the highest-paid players at his position, but that is not how things work. Rumors swirl now that the Bates camp is requesting five years for a total of $70 million, or roughly $14 million/year. Depending on how the contract is constructed, that appears to be a bargain. The alternative is a 2022 franchise tag for around $13.5 million before the price goes up and he hits the market.
The offseason signing of Reiff to shore up the right tackle position resulted in the six-foot-five, 313-pound lineman playing in 67 percent of Cincinnati’s snaps. After 12 games started while anchoring the right side of the offensive line, Reiff’s season ended after a lingering ankle injury continued to worsen. He earned $7.5 million in a Bengals uniform for what was essentially a one-year contract. This is a significant blow to a position group that already had plenty of questions moving forward. Joe Burrow was sacked 70 times in 2021 in the regular and postseason combined. Reiff was inactive for nearly half of those games. The team may try to make a run at the 34-year-old again, but it’s more likely they will seek a less expensive option while also addressing their needs via the 2022 draft.
The defensive line in Cincinnati was a pleasant surprise in 2021, and Ogunjobi (one year, $6.2 million) was a large part of that. He logged seven sacks and chipped in 29 tackles while playing over 60 percent of the team’s snaps. More than just a depth piece, the former third-round draft pick (Cleveland, 2017) seemed to come up in the clutch when needed. Moreover, Ogunjobi was a leader on the field and in the locker room, which was sorely needed for this squad prior to the season. A fan-favorite, Cincinnati should attempt to bring back the Charlotte alum, 28, who clearly bought into the system but is likely to be in high demand by other franchises.
Potential Cap Casualties
With the amount of money available under the cap, the Bengals have a lot of flexibility. They also have a lot of players who are destined to hit free agency. They will look to sign the veterans who performed well in 2021 first, but there are a few potential cuts that could be used to free up space. With that said, there are no absolutely necessary releases to avoid going over the cap, which is certainly a good situation to be in.
Trae Waynes ($10.9 Million Saved)
There really is not a whole lot to say about Waynes’ performance on the field for Cincinnati, because frankly, he has not really been there. The former Minnesota Viking inked a three-year, $42 million contract with $15 guaranteed when he picked up the pen in 2020. Since then, he has played five games in two seasons. While the Bengals could also be without the services of on-again, off-again cornerback Eli Apple, Waynes could be shown the door. Apple was not terribly efficient for Cincinnati, but his potential contract would be a fraction of what Waynes would be paid in 2022. Giving the latter a pink slip frees up nearly $11 million to be spent elsewhere on the team.
Brandon Wilson ($2 Million Saved)
Wilson has been an electric kick returner for Cincinnati. He is unlikely to be released, but there really are not a lot of cap savings on the roster aside from Samaje Perine‘s $1.5 million if he is supplanted by 2021 pick Chris Evans. Taylor has shown that he values youth and playmaking ability offensively, and Evans is just 24 years old.
Wilson is just 27 but has been primarily used in a role that could be filled by multiple members of the Bengals. A release of the safety would save the team $2 million for a team that recently re-signed WR/KR/PR Trent Taylor. The presence of Taylor, Evans, and possibly Pooka Williams (who converted from running back to wide receiver) display youth that might make Wilson expendable. With all of that in mind, what the team does at the safety position (i.e. retaining Vonn Bell and bringing back Bates) could dictate his future. With so much money under the cap, one would expect the Bengals to keep Wilson around. Unless they are sure there is a valid replacement, $2 million is a small price to pay for a player that has shown flashes of brilliance.
Samaje Perine ($1.5 Million Saved)
Joe Mixon is the featured back in Cincinnati. Perine has been a solid veteran behind him, filling in on third down and in pass situations. However, last year’s sixth-round pick Evans is capable of filling that role. Perine is entering the final year of his deal and will turn 27 years old at the start of next season. The Bengals might decide to let the veteran running back go and utilize Evans more in 2022.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
While Cincinnati has a loaded wallet for spending, it is not unreasonable for them to be conservative in this free agent period. The Bengals have a future to look forward to that will include many big-name players. It is not too early to be thinking about their linebacker corps, including Germaine Pratt, Logan Wilson, and Akeem Davis-Gaither. Edge rushers Trey Hendrickson and homegrown Sam Hubbard will need re-ups in a few years, as well. Add Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie to that list, not to mention Tyler Boyd. Of course, looming over the family business’ head is Burrow, who is going to break the bank in 2024. These contracts seem a lot further off than they really are (see: Bates, Jessie). You build a consistent team by investments, not short-buys.
The Bengals spent and spent (for them) in the last two years, but expecting that to happen again in 2022 might be foolhardy. They are more likely to bargain hunt based on Taylor and Tobin’s assessments of the talent level. Cincy should be competitive in free agency, but may not rock the boat in free agency as some fans expect. Instead, it will be another calculated offseason with one eye on the draft. Regardless, it is no secret that the team’s recent success has players like Rob Gronkowski eyeing a trip to the southern banks of the Ohio.
They will have a wealth of interest from potential free agents that like what they are seeing. Nonetheless, there are holes to fill on both sides of the ball, and it begins on the offensive line protecting their franchise quarterback. They will start there in free agency, before seeing what is left to spend.
Ryan Jensen, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay is not exactly flush with money to spend, and it might be silly to not count this as a rebuilding season for the Bucs. Jensen should be available on the market. Trey Hopkins had his fair share of trouble in 2021, most of it was as a result of his return from injury. He looked much better towards the end of the year, but one would be hard-pressed to choose him over Jensen. Burrow needs protection, and although it is always easy to point at the tackles, a solid center makes for a solid pocket. Jensen has not missed a game since he was drafted in 2017 and has a Pro Bowl nod under his belt. He will have plenty of calls for his services, but the CO native could take Hopkins or a draftee under his wing for training during a two-year deal.
Levi Wallace, Buffalo Bills
Good cornerbacks are hard to come by, and Cincinnati could be missing Waynes and Apple in short order. Enter Wallace, who is severely underrated by the talking heads on your TV screen. All he has done during four years in the league is log 10 passes defended with six interceptions while tallying 219 combined tackles. Seven of those went for a loss and he laid a hit on the opposing quarterback twice. This is a financially manageable upgrade at defensive back over the two who may be out the door.
Brandon Scherff, Washington Commanders
It’s a pipe dream for fans, but if the team is going to put a briefcase on the table, here’s where to do it. They will likely only sign one offensive lineman and draft another, so break off a chunk of change on your most needed position. Scherff is a five-time Pro Bowler and a 2020 All-Pro. If you’re going to push your chips into the middle of the table, here is your chance. Burrow is a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback, and he deserves an elite level of protection. Sherff, a second-year Jackson Carman, and the drafting of a top-notch lineman in April may just provide that. The days of bargain-hunting at this position should end, as what is behind it is far too valuable.
Previewing the 2022 NFL Draft
At the risk of beating a dead horse, Cincinnati needs to show up to the draft seeking more offensive line help. At this point, the team hopes to have roped in a big-name offensive lineman. If they are wise, perhaps they have also re-signed Reiff for another season. With the offensive skill players set, there is little to do there. The defense should be filled in with veterans just like it was last year. It’s “Eyes on the Prize” for the Bengals in the draft, without removing those eyes from the future. With eight picks at their disposal and Taylor and Tobin doing the building, they should be in a good space.
Round 1, Pick 31: Zion Johnson
The Bengals should spend money at the tackle position, and let whomever that is battle Carman and (in this case) Johnson fight for it. Loser of the three ends up at guard. In this case, Johnson should be on the team’s wish list. Unfortunately, in today’s NFL, the likelihood of Johnson being available at the end of the first round seems to have disappeared. After a fantastic career at Boston College and a great performance at the Senior Bowl, he has likely moved himself into the 20s.
Without much help needed at skill positions, and holding an extra pick in the draft, this might be the time for Cincinnati to wheel and deal to move up to get their guy. Trade firsts with the right team and throw in your extra fourth. You just might be in position.
Round 2, Pick 63: Defensive Tackle
Assuming the Bengals have addressed their needs on the offensive line (both via free agency and draft), the interior of the defensive line could use depth. Whoever is added may not necessarily need to play immediately. However, D.J. Reader, B.J. Hill, Mike Daniels, and others are not living forever. Cincy should address the interior and let these knowledgeable veterans bring them along to usher in a new era. Reader will be 28 in short order, Daniels 32, and Hill newly 26. That is not over-the-hill in general, but the guys in stripes would be wise to replenish the ranks in the middle of the line as soon as possible. There are also contracts to be concerned about.
Round 3, Pick 95: Best Player Available
This is a thing that Tobin has done best, and the fact that he has yet to be hired away as a general manager candidate is nearly mystifying. It is no secret that Cincinnati has built from the draft for years. Although that mentality has not carried them to a championship, their ability to draft the “best player available” cannot be denied. As long as the franchise nets a free agent offensive lineman and then adds another for depth in the draft, consider the offseason a success.
Early 2022 Expectations
Ascending to the Super Bowl in 2021 was obviously not expected for Cincinnati, but that should be the norm in the near future. With the “Never Say Die” attitude that Taylor and Burrow have ingrained, the sky is the limit. It will be tough sledding in 2022, but with the right fill-ins at certain veteran positions, a re-entry to the biggest contest could be in order. It is no secret that it is hard to return to the big stage, but Cincinnati has the money and players to do so.
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