January 9th is a date that still lingers with Bengals fans almost five months later. But, the team regrouped after the Wild Card loss and worked to restructure the roster. It was a difficult offseason for Cincinnati, as they had some major decisions to make with 14 unrestricted free agents set to hit the market back in March.
After their work was done through March and early April, they spent last weekend injecting more youth to the team in an effort to continue to improve as a club off of their 12-win campaign of 2015. After seven picks and a group of undrafted free agents, high marks were given for what transpired over their three-day marathon.
It wasn't so much the case for USA Today when they took a macro look at the team's whole offseason. In obviously feeling that the Bengals didn't do enough in free agency this offseason while conversely acing the draft, Nate Davis put them right in the middle of mediocrity ranking 16th among the 32 teams this offseason.
16. Cincinnati Bengals: Pretty much a typical Bengals offseason – which they don’t get enough credit for – as they stayed under the radar in free agency before producing what looks like another stellar draft. QB Andy Dalton is fully healthy, which is good as he’ll need to acclimate to several new wideouts, including second-rounder Tyler Boyd. LB Vontaze Burfict’s three-game suspension stings.
Is Davis correct in his assessment? Let's look over what has transpired over the past couple of months and make our own assessment.
Player Personnel Losses:
Andre Smith: With the team investing their top two picks of the 2015 NFL Draft in offensive tackle and Smith entering free agency, it was a forgone conclusion he was leaving in 2016. He signed a one-year deal to join Mike Zimmer and the Vikings.
Reggie Nelson: The Bengals decided to only pay one safety this offseason, so Nelson bailed to Oakland on a two-year deal after playing a month-long waiting game in free agency.
Mohamed Sanu: Cincinnati lost two of its top three wide receivers this offseason, with their goal likely being to keep at least one. Sanu, the team's utility receiver, signed his own mega-deal to join the Atlanta Falcons.
Wallace Gilberry: After being a rotational lineman for the Bengals since 2012, he received a deal to join Jones in Detroit.
Emmanuel Lamur: In what is becoming a trend with former Bengals assistant coaches, Lamur also joined Minnesota and his former coordinator in Zimmer.
Leon Hall: Though he hasn't officially signed with anyone yet, his days in Cincinnati appear to be done, especially with the team's drafting of William Jackson III. The Falcons were previously interested in his services, but old friend Vance Joseph, now heading up the Miami Dolphins' defense, seems to want to add him.
A.J. Hawk: The team released the veteran right before the draft, to the surprise of some. However, with the team's subsequent third round addition of Nick Vigil, coupled with the arrival of Karlos Dansby, there just wasn't room for the hometown linebacker.
It was another offseason marked with coaching changes for the Bengals. A couple, like Joseph, received promotions, while others just weren't re-signed and made lateral moves. Joseph took Matt Burke with him to be a linebackers coach in Miami, while longtime defensive line coach Jay Hayes moved on to Tampa Bay. The biggest loss came with Hue Jackson's exit across the state of Ohio to Cleveland, and he hopes to rebuild the Browns in the same way Marvin Lewis did with the Bengals back in 2003.
Jim Haslett is now the linebackers coach, with Jacob Burney replacing Hayes on the line. Kevin Coyle, let go of his defensive coordinating duties with the Dolphins, reunites with the Bengals as a defensive backs coach, while longtime quarterbacks coach, Ken Zampese, steps in to replace Jackson at offensive coordinator. Bill Lazor (quarterbacks) and Dan Pitcher (offensive assistant) were also added to Zampese's staff.
Brandon Tate: The embattled special teamer was re-signed by the club shortly before the onset of open market free agency. Tate has another one-year deal with Cincinnati going into 2016.
T.J. Johnson: The veteran backup center was the only restricted free agent the Bengals had this offseason and they kept him.
Vincent Rey: Cincinnati made it known that the versatile and uber-coachable linebacker was a priority to re-sign this offseason and they were able to keep him. Rey signed a three-year, $10.5 million deal shortly after the onset of free agency.
Adam Jones: Another one of the Bengals' prized offseason priorities stuck around, signing a three-year deal worth $20 million.
Pat Sims: Though he's largely been a career backup with the Bengals, Sims has been a valuable member of the team since 2008. He signed another rental-type two-year deal to backup Geno Atkins and Domata Peko at the position.
Brandon Thompson: Even though the 2012 third round pick is rehabbing a major knee injury and might end up on the PUP List to start the year, the team wanted more depth and re-signed him to a one-year deal in late March.
George Iloka: Perhaps the crown jewel of the Bengals' 2016 offseason, the Bengals inked an emerging star at an under-appreciated position. Iloka is set to stick with the Bengals for the next five years for $30 million.
Eric Winston: The veteran offensive lineman has found a nice niche to end his career in Cincinnati and signed his third one-year deal with the club this offseason.
Taylor Mays: It seems odd to refer to Mays as "an outside signing", given his history with the team, but he was technically a street free agent and will compete for a backup role. He signed a veteran minimum one-year deal to return to Cincinnati after leaving before the 2015 season.
Karlos Dansby: After many rumors and public gushing about the Bengals on Dansby's part, both sides agreed to a team-friendly one-year deal.
Brandon LaFell: The Bengals attempted to remedy the losses of Sanu and Jones in a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the veteran receiver.
We have done some extensive draft coverage of the team over the past week-plus, so if you're unaware of the Bengals' seven picks in the 2016 NFL Draft, you've been living under a rock. Even though the Bengals were unable to grab a receiver in the first round, they grabbed a potential game-changing long-term cornerback in Jackson III, while selecting Boyd as an immediate contributing wideout in round two.
There are a handful of other nice picks who seem like good depth additions, but one of the biggest selections came in round four with defensive tackle Andrew Billings. Most grades for the class from pundits are in the high "B" to low "A" range, and though it usually takes about three years to properly judge things, it looks as if the Bengals have put together their eighth-straight solid draft class.
We recently polled our Cincy Jungle contributors, and the consensus here is that they did well in the draft. However, there is a trend to notice in their approach to free agency. The three outside free agents the Bengals signed were all cast-offs who received minimal deals. They are also low-risk/high-reward contracts, giving chances to players with a lot to prove to salvage what's left of their careers.
It's amazing what losing one specific player in free agency can do for the entire outlook of an offseason. Imagine if the Bengals had kept Jones, while still signing LaFell and drafting Boyd. That one single move would likely have made this a stellar offseason for the team. Unfortunately, it's that one move that damages a good chunk of the perception of what they have done over the past couple of months.
Free Agency Grade: C-
Draft Grade: B+
Overall Grade: B
What grade would you give the Bengals' 2016 offseason?