Based on how the first week of free agency has played out for the Bengals, we are led to one of two conclusions. Either the front office thinks the club is much closer to a championship than most everyone else on the outside looking in, or they are secretly conceding that 2017 is a rebuilding project.
Part of the process during the past week, possibly pointing to the latter conclusion, has been the allowance of long-standing veterans to sign elsewhere. Andrew Whitworth inked a lucrative deal with the Rams, Domata Peko opted to go to Denver, while Kevin Zeitler decided to reunite with Hue Jackson, along with others from the team’s 2016 roster.
On Monday, news trickled out about another Bengals veteran getting a second chance elsewhere. The Colts signed Cincinnati’s former second round selection, Margus Hunt, to a two-year deal. The decision ends a disappointing four-year stint with the Bengals, where the giant defensive end project netted just 1.5 sacks and 29 total tackles in 44 games played.
When the Bengals used the second of two picks in the round on Hunt (the first was on Giovani Bernard), we knew Hunt would have an uphill climb to make an impact with the Bengals. Still, at a massive 6’8” and 290 pounds, Cincinnati’s coaches frothed at the mouth at the possibilities of creating a monster pass-rusher up front. Their hope for Hunt was evident on the team’s 2013 stint on the documentary, “Hard Knocks”.
It never materialized.
Now, with Hunt bolting to the AFC South, the Bengals are left with yet another roster void from a high pick project. Whether it was Dontay Moch in 2011, Taylor Mays never finding his niche (though he was initially drafted by the 49ers), or Orson Charles never being comfortable as an NFL tight end or H-Back, Hunt just adds to the disappointing list.
The Bengals were reeling last offseason from their personnel losses, particularly at wide receiver, and tried to invest in more ready-now-type of players. Unfortunately, injuries and other issues made the class as one of the worst overall in the NFL last year. Still, there was evidence of the team bypassing project players last year—at least in the respect that they would need to have some sort of a major transition to the NFL.
Now, in the wake of the second straight offseason of seeing some talented, tenured players walk out of the door, the Bengals will need to get young players who can come in and contribute immediately. Tyler Boyd was one of the only rookies to step up in such a way in 2016, but the rest of last year’s class will need to have big second seasons. That’s especially the case with William Jackson III and Andrew Billings, who were two of the most high-profile players of the class and are coming back from injury.
For every team, promising projects in the NFL Draft can become too hard to pass up. And, whether teams select those project players or not, other seemingly sure-fire rookies are always a crapshoot. So, if the Bengals are in a rebuilding project again, or if their hope is to rebound as quickly as possible in 2017, they need to invest in talented players who can help them on day one. Based on the amount of roster vacancies they have and the notion that they only have $2-$3 million left to spend in free agency, we’re inclined to believe they will use most, if not all of their 11 draft picks this year.
The tough call for the team may not just be in project players, but in those high-risk/high-reward players with character concerns. There has been a lot of news linking the team to immensely-talented Oklahoma running back, Joe Mixon, but he comes with major red flags. Will the team opt for possible short-term success and potential long-term headaches with troubled youngsters, as they did in the mid and late-2000s?
Regardless of the route they choose, the Bengals need to find immediate contributors in the draft and a slew of new leaders because two great ones in Peko and Whitworth can’t be leaned on anymore.