Roster turnover is an accepted fact of NFL business and the team-building process. And today, the process has never been more team-friendly. With the NFL salary cap set to approach the $200 million mark in 2020, player salaries and annual cap hits are not going to stop expanding relative to the cap, but under the current collective bargaining agreement, teams still have ample flexibility in the amount of guaranteed money they desire to offer and the structure with which it can be distributed.
The financial advantage of the NFL Draft is a big part of this as well. The majority of rookie contracts aren’t guaranteed beyond the first two years and rookies drafted outside the top-50 typically haven’t see a cap hit that exceeds $1 million up to this point. This structure has given teams leverage and an overall more affordable way to minimize tumultuous turnover in free agency.
For the Bengals, it’s been largely a hit-or-miss way of life in the past decade. While some drafts have kept the team afloat amidst the departure of key veterans, others have failed to fill major holes caused by their reluctancy on the open market. Going from 2017 to 2018, there’s hope that in the form of a couple early-round draft picks and a few free agent signings, personnel has improved in some crucial areas. Those improvements make up what I believe are the five biggest external upgrades this offseason that will make the biggest impact on the team this year.
5. Sam Hubbard over Chris Smith (nickel pass rusher)
Chris Smith was last season’s preseason darling. After being traded from Jacksonville to Cincinnati for a conditional seventh-round pick, Smith’s initial chances of making the roster seemed slim. Once the pads came on in August, no edge defender was more active than Smith. He earned not only a spot on the team, but was a de facto starter as the pass rushing under tackle next to Geno Atkins, playing more than one-third of the defensive snaps for the year.
Smith’s usage and production in one year eclipsed his first three years in Jacksonville and earned him a three-year contract with Cleveland this offseason, a deal the Bengals wouldn’t match. Smith was effective sparingly but not nearly at the rate he was in the preseason. His production and snaps could be replicated without too much investment. Enter Sam Hubbard.
A defensive line chess piece for the Buckeyes, Hubbard has experience at multiple techniques on the line of scrimmage, rushing off of both sides of the formation and in the interior. Hubbard’s profile matches what the Bengals typically look for to round out their nickel packages. In the press conference following the selection of Hubbard, Bengals defensive line coach Jacob Burney had this to say about versatility on the defensive line:
“Guards aren’t used to protecting against all those guys from those standpoints, and all of a sudden it’s a different element that you may have. With the different things we do with our defense, our defensive end can do a little bit of better tackling on the sides.”
Hubbard will have Michael Johnson and Jordan Willis to fend off if he wants to secure this position, but the talk with Willis has mainly surrounded his development as a base end, and Johnson may not be a lock for the roster. Hubbard may be relied upon for similar usage as Willis, Carl Lawson and Ryan Glasgow.
4. Chris Baker over Pat Sims (base nose tackle)
The departure of Pat Sims means one less veteran who started his career in Cincinnati before the Dalton-Green era remains with Marvin Lewis. This isn’t the first time Sims leaves the Bengals, but it should be the last time, as the 10-year veteran is at the end of his career and has little prospects to play anywhere else.
Replacing him, and joining Hubbard on the defensive line, is Chris Baker. The Bengals’ first free agent signing in March, Baker had two years left on his deal with Tampa Bay after a down year and was released accordingly before the Buccaneers owed him an additional $3 million five days after the league year began.
Baker was brought in by Tampa last year coming off two productive years with Washington, but it didn’t click for the 30-year-old playing next to one of the best under tackles in the league in Gerald McCoy. Reports of him lacking effort in practice and accountability for his play were some of the reasons for his release, and made him a low-cost risk for the Bengals.
As we hear with every player who joins a new team, Baker is now in the best shape of his life as he’s down from 320 pounds to 305. His history with Burney and linebackers coach Jim Haslett should give him a sense of familiarity to his days in Washington, while having the same schematic advantages of playing with a great under tackle in Geno Atkins as he did with McCoy. Playing on a one-year deal also gives him incentive to produce for one final multi-year deal before his mid-30s.
The Bengals are expecting the Baker of two seasons ago to start at nose tackle, and if they get that Baker, he’ll be a clear upgrade over Sims.
3. Preston Brown over Kevin Minter/Vincent Rey (MIKE linebacker)
Kevin Minter was the headliner of the 2017 free agent class for Cincinnati, and that turned into less than 200 snaps and 16 tackles. Injuries got in the way for Minter and his second contract and the Bengals wasted little time in moving on.
An injury at MIKE linebacker wasn’t new to the Bengals defense, and long-time backup and spot starter at the position Vincent Rey once again was forced onto the field to relieve the vacancy.
Unfortunately, Rey dealt with his own injuries late in the year and really put the linebacking corps in a bind, as undrafted rookies Hardy Nickerson and Brandon Bell each shared time at MIKE and the defense as a whole suffered accordingly.
The main hope with signing Preston Brown is stability. He has yet to miss a game in his four-year career and despite his athletic shortcomings that led to the end of his time in Buffalo, his presence was reliable within his own capabilities and his production spoke to that. A competent linebacker next to Vontaze Burfict has been a difficult find for the Bengals and when Burfict returns to the field in Week 5, that is the expectation. Cincinnati is where Brown called home as a kid, and he wanted nothing more than to come home and play for the team he grew up watching.
2. Billy Price over Russell Bodine (center)
I’ll admit the order of these last two may be up for debate, but mainly for the sake of experience, the rookie is behind the veteran.
Billy Price doesn’t have to be the second coming of Nick Mangold to be considered an upgrade over Russell Bodine. The praise the coaches had for Price mostly pertained to the intangibles he possesses and the personality that make Price who he is as a student of the game and leader in the locker room. Having your head on right is never a bad thing! The support Price has received and the output he’s produced thus far have been positive as he prepares to start his career exactly like the player he’s replacing.
Four years ago, the Bengals had a rookie center come in and be the unquestioned starter; the difference with Price is simply in the talent that he possesses. Price may not have been the best center in the draft, but he deserved to be drafted relatively high for his career at Ohio State and being a capable starter from day one. His resume is much better than Bodine’s coming into the league, and that will translate to at the very least, more level quality of play.
1. Cordy Glenn over Cedric Ogbuehi (left tackle)
The trade that was too perfect to happen and then it actually happened. From 2016 to 2017, Cordy Glenn spent half of his time on the sidelines with Buffalo dealing with lower body injuries. His durability issues made him a candidate for the trading block with a young heir in Dion Dawkins waiting behind him to take over, and the Bengals provided the perfect deal for both sides and a landing spot for Glenn.
Glenn will be starting at left tackle next to his former Georgia teammate Clint Boling and playing in the same offense as his Georgia roommate A.J. Green. His injuries effected the perception of his ability, as he’s an above average left tackle when 100 percent. Considering Cedric Ogbeuhi has only had a handful of above average reps in his three years with the team, Glenn brings the biggest positive shift in talent at any starting spot.
The common theme with all these additions is a connection between the player and team/city. Making a big impact on new team in year one isn’t expected for everyone, rookie or veteran. But being in a comfortable scenario — involving more than just scheme — is crucial for maximizing ability. If the injury bug is kind to these newcomers, they should all prove worthy of the opportunity with which they’re presented.