The Bengals have plenty of holes to fill before the 2017 season starts. In most cases, the team will prefer to bring back their own free agents and draft young talent to fix any issues with the team. The Bengals have never been a team to invest heavily into bringing in free agents from other teams. However, with how serious some of the team’s holes are this year, dipping into free agency might be a decent strategy to consider. In an ideal world, it would be nice if they Bengals could find free agency solutions to these positions.
The Bengals’ need for an offensive tackle isn’t as dire as it might seem at first glance. The team hopes right tackle is handed by Jake Fisher, but, he should be challenged for the job. One of the potential backups for the role could be Eric Winston, if, he’s re-signed and makes the 2017 roster. But, what if the Bengals are unable to re-sign Andrew Whitworth. If he leaves, Cedric Ogbuehi will be the only left tackle on the team. The Bengals need added competition at this spot and should consider an upgrade over their young duo, especially if Whitworth leaves.
Solution: Russell Okung
Ogbuehi was the weak link along the offensive line at right tackle, so expecting him to hold down the left tackle spot with one game of experience is silly. The Denver Broncos recently declined the option to bring Okung back as their left tackle, which could work out very well for the Bengals. He won’t come cheap, but if the Bengals can pick him up for less than the Broncos signed him for, he will be a good transitional piece at the position.
Okung will be 30 midway through the 2017 season. So, there would still be time for Ogbuehi to take the starting position down the line if he manages to develop into the player the Bengals felt he could be when they selected him No. 21 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. If not, they would have a player who is a proven starter.
Perhaps the biggest hole on the team long-term is at linebacker. The Bengals’ 2016 lineup featured Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict, and Karlos Dansby at the starting positions. Unfortunately, Maualuga has become a liability on the field, while Dansby was inconsistent and may not be back in 2017 as he is a free agent again. Burfict’s ability to stay on the field has also been an issue due to a 2016 suspension and plenty of injuries, but his on-field production has been fantastic. His starting position should be secure for a long time, assuming the Bengals re-sign him before he becomes a free agent in 2018. However, the Bengals do need to think about what their long-term plan is at middle and weakside linebacker.
Solution: Dont'a Hightower
A primary starting linebacker with the Patriots for the last five years, Hightower is, arguably, the best free agent linebacker this year. The Bengals appear to be happy with the production of 2016 draft pick Nick Vigil to the point that he is expected to take over starting duties when a position in the starting lineup opens up. But, even if Dansby does return in 2017, he will be 36 in November. An experienced Pro Bowl linebacker like Hightower could come in to fill Maualuga’s role while Vigil is groomed to take over the weakside spot for Dansby.
Ideally, my best case scenario for the Bengals’ running back position involves re-signing Rex Burkhead and making Jeremy Hill a backup in his final year under contract. Even if Burkhead is not made the full-time starter, he proved he is ready for some starting duties in Week 17 against the Ravens. He and Giovani Bernard would make a fearsome starting tandem while Hill acts as a touchdown warrior and Cedric Peerman rounds out the group while continuing to captain the special teams unit. However, there is a good chance the Bengals aren’t able to re-sign Burkhead if he wants to be the absolute starter for another team that will pay him accordingly for that role. At that point, the Bengals would need to find someone outside the organization to replace Hill.
Solution: Eddie Lacy
The Green Bay Packers don’t seem to be looking to move on from Lacy, but the closer we get to free agency, the more it looks like Lacy is going to test the waters to see if another team will pay him more than what the Packers are willing to pay. Due to injuries and weight issues, the Bengals wouldn’t need to pay a king’s ransom for Lacy to come to Cincinnati, although Spotrac does estimate his market value at $2.8 million per year, similar to what guys like Rashad Jennings and Mark Ingram are getting.
When healthy, Lacy looked like a beast in Green Bay after rushing for more than 2,000 and 20 touchdowns after his first two seasons. Unfortunately, he fell off in 2015 due to various injuries and spent much of 2016 on Injured Reserve. If he can stay healthy, he could help the Bengals return to the old thunder and lightning running tandem that Bernard and Hill developed in 2014 and parts of 2015.