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The Bengals are getting younger, but not for the reason you think

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Marvin Lewis posted his youngest roster last year. With a handful of roster moves already made this summer, the team could become younger. But is that narrative substantiated in Cincinnati?

NFL: Preseason-Cincinnati Bengals at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

This is one of those postings that may only interest me — AKA, I’m thinking about something and I answer it via the Chop Block. There may be very little insight, story structure, or analysis here; I’m just answering random musings from the couch during a stormy Cincinnati afternoon. There might not even be a conclusion; I’ll just stop when I’m finished.

Cincinnati signed veteran defensive tackle Chris Baker to a one-year deal worth $3 million on May 7, 2018. After 109 days, along with a handful of practices and two preseason games, the team terminated his contract. Baker, 30, has a history of success, even generating 100 tackles and 9.5 quarterback sacks between 2015 and 2016. Then he signed a three-year deal with Tampa Bay worth $15.75 million in 2017, but was released after only one season.

You hate when players lose their jobs; we can only imagine how this impacts their family. However, when you watched practice this summer and both preseason games, you built a running commentary that he wasn’t going to make the 53-man roster. Against Chicago and Dallas, he looked slow, struggled to disengage from blocks, and rarely had a significant impact.

This establishes a running narrative that Cincinnati is purposefully getting younger.

There’s evidence of this:

  • Cincinnati’s average age during opening day last year was 25.45 years old. This ranked third in the NFL, and was Marvin Lewis’ youngest roster yet. With departures like Brandon LaFell, George Iloka, and now Baker, the team might be even younger this year. If you’re wondering if age has any correlation to success, consider that Cleveland had the youngest opening day roster in the NFL last year at 24.17 years old.
  • The Bengals let Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler leave after 2016; these moves were more about cost than a conscience effort to become younger. Whereas Los Angeles signed Whitworth to a three-year deal worth $33.75 million and $15 million guaranteed, Cincinnati reportedly only offered a one-year deal worth $10 million. All the 36-year-old did last year was earn a spot at the Pro Bowl and be named to the First-team All-Pro squad on a Rams team that led the NFL in points scored. A year later, Cincinnati took on the salary of Cordy Glenn with an $11.25 million cap number; roughly $1 million less than Whitworth’s in Los Angeles. Yes, I still feel strongly that the team handled Whitworth poorly, starting with considering Cedric Ogbuehi a replacement. At least the argument for Zeitler’s departure is reasonable; few people are going to pay $60 million for an offensive guard who hasn’t even earned one Pro Bowl nod. Age, or cost? A combination?
  • The Bengals let George Iloka leave and replaced him with second-round rookie Jessie Bates... however this isn’t an issue of age either. First of all, Iloka is 28. He’s not long in the tooth by any means. Iloka’s termination was an argument about productivity and turnovers; Cincinnati wanted more production out of their free safety and aimed to replace him. They spoke with players like Kurt Coleman and Eric Reid, settling on Indiana native and Wake Forest safety Jessie Bates. If this is their view, fine. It’s cool. My only confusion is why they felt the need to release Iloka rather than demoting him. Were they afraid of locker room friction? Would the cost savings really impact future extensions, despite having enough cap room for this year? What happens if Bates is hurt? Yes, cost played a role here as well — paying someone $6 million to ride the pine doesn’t make sense, unless you’re Teddy Bridgewater.
  • Cincinnati released Brandon LaFell. This might be the closest transaction designed specifically to become younger. Players like John Ross, Tyler Boyd and Josh Malone are healthy and have impressed coaches since spring practices. The team likes Cody Core and Alex Erickson; this Auden Tate fellow is also complicating roster discussions. However, there could be questions regarding consistency heading into the regular season. LaFell, not a superstar nor a constant touchdown threat by any means, was steady and reliable. However, how are your young players going to grow if they don’t play? Keep in mind that this touches on a personal philosophy of mine; I want to see it before believing it; it’s the John Locke vs. Jack Shephard debate of Faith vs. Science. What you know vs. what could be. Show me you can do it first.

Maybe “getting younger” is a flawed narrative. On the outside it appears they’re purposefully getting younger... older players are being released (or not being re-signed), and they’re been replaced by youth. However, in most cases, the players who were released or signed elsewhere, weren’t discarded simply because of their age. There’s productivity and cost associated with that. Especially cost. That’s good though. You want several arguments, as opposed to one, for making decisions. In Cincinnati, the hierarchy of priority goes: 1) cost 2) cost 3) cost 4) productivity 5) age.

It all points to the same conclusion, regardless of how we get there. The Bengals are young and getting younger, even if that talent is raw. This rawness on the roster, this new car smell, this youth movement, will lead to mistakes on-the-field. It could cost the team a few games. And yet, it might make Cincinnati stronger, too.

That being said, it doesn’t escape me that I might be overthinking this way too much.