One of the worst responsibilities of an NFL team’s front office has got to be firing nearly 40 people in one weekend.
The Bengals coaching staff had to take a group of almost 90 football players and get that number down to 53. What goes into their decision-making process? How did they decide which 53 were worth keeping?
It depends on a lot of different factors: Talent, work ethic, money, age, and scheme just to name a few. So, the players that the Bengals decided to keep (and later add to the practice squad) say a lot about what the Bengals want out of this team.
They are basically releasing a statement about what they value, who they trust, what kinds of players they were looking for, and the expected result by the end of the season.
From all of the roster moves this preseason — the roster cuts, the practice squad signings, and everything in between — here’s what we learned.
The Bengals tried (and succeeded) to get younger
The Bengals usually let veterans hang around until well after their primes, but this year, they opted to go with youth instead in several areas. By the end of the day on Saturday, the Bengals had the youngest roster in the NFL.
George Iloka, Chris Baker and Brandon LaFell are players that historically the Bengals might have kept. Baker and LaFell were each 31 years old and could no longer keep up with the youth in two of the deepest position groups on the roster.
So by letting go of two 31-year-olds, as well as three 28-year-olds (Ryan Hewitt, George Iloka and T.J. Johnson), the Bengals drastically lowered their average age.
This is important for a couple of reasons. First of all, there is the obvious advantage that these players should be around longer. Potential stars such as John Ross, Joe Mixon, Carl Lawson, Billy Price will all be in Cincinnati for another 3-5 years minimum.
Perhaps they will go on to sign contract extensions, but they will be in their physical primes while under contract for the Bengals. In the NFL, it is entirely likely that some of them will suffer serious injuries or have some off-the-field issues that hinder their game, but the Bengals will get the best out of them before such things might happen.
The second advantage to fielding a younger team is that it makes room in the budget to sign star players to bigger contracts. We will get to that more later, but having most of the team on their rookie contracts will help free up the funds to keep players like Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and William Jackson around longer when they go to sign new deals.
No longer opposed to cutting veterans
The Bengals did something this preseason that they have not done on this scale in a long time. They cut ties with underperforming veterans.
Typically, the Bengals let veterans play out the length of their contracts so that they will be able to sign them less guaranteed money up front. The players are fine with getting less guaranteed money knowing they will make up for it in total salary throughout the life of their contract. However, the Bengals have been turning new leaves this offseason and they have decided to part ways with many of their veterans.
They briefly cut Johnson, their former Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, to make room for younger prospects, though the eventually signed him back on Sunday.
They realized Baker wasn’t back to his original self as they had thought, so they let him go.
Not only did the Bengals cut some players that were on the downsides of their careers, but they cut a couple who didn’t fit schematically anymore. The Bengals have new full-time coordinators on both sides of the ball this year, so players like Ryan Hewitt and George Iloka were poor fits in the new systems.
While each have done well in a Bengals uniform under previous coordinators, the Bengals knew that they would not do nearly as well this year.
The Bengals are already planning for next year
The Bengals have 19 players on their team that will be free agents at the end of the season. That means well over a third of the players on their current roster could walk out the door next year if they are not re-signed.
Players needing new contracts include Darqueze Dennard, Tyler Eifert and Preston Brown. Three out of the four tight ends, six of the ten offensive linemen and two of the three specialists are playing on expiring contracts.
Not to mention, A.J. Green will be due for a new deal in 2020, and, even though he will be 32 years old, the future Hall of Fame inductee will command a high salary.
So, the Bengals cleared some space and now have more money to work with for the next few years. It won’t be a lot, but they cleared up around $16 million, which could end up being a couple of contracts.
The Bengals are in “win-now” mode
The Bengals are confident enough in this year’s 53-man roster that they don’t need any extra veteran leadership.
Perhaps in a rebuild, the Bengals keep around guys like Baker, LaFell, and Iloka because of their experience and leadership. Especially with such youth at their respective position groups, they each could have been extra coaches for the youngsters behind them.
Usually, a team that is rebuilding will keep several veterans around until the young guns are ready to spring into action. This is the year that the Bengals forsee the youngsters taking over, so they wanted to maximize the talent on the roster. They valued the skill on the roster more than the experience because they think that the skill will win them games.
While they did clear up some money for the future, they also cleared up some roster spots for some difference makers on the team. The Bengals don’t want to start winning next year, they are going to win today.
Dedication to developing own prospects
The Bengals added eight players to their 53-man roster that started their careers on the practice squad, while four of them will be on the roster on opening day for the first time.
Vincent Rey, Alex Redmond, Trey Hopkins, Brandon Wilson and Tra Carson started out on the practice squad in their rookie seasons, with Carson making his first appearance on the roster this Sunday.
Hardy Nickerson, Josh Tupou, and Tony McRae were all on the practice squad last year and were promoted at some point during the season, but are making their first opening day appearance on the roster this year.
When the Bengals created their practice squad, they signed seven players that they had originally drafted or signed a priority free agents. Three of the others had spent training camp and the preseason with the Bengals, so the only players signed to the practice squad that has no previous time in the organization is Christian Hackenberg, whose signing was a bit of a surprise anyways.
While the Bengals were more active in free agency this season than they were normally, they are still committed to the prospects they have scouted, drafted, or signed. They want to see these players rise through the organization, like Rey, Hopkins, and Redmond were able to do.
Marvin Lewis might actually be changing things
When Marvin Lewis was brought back to serve as Bengals’ head coach for his 16th season, one of the main frustrations was that the Bengals were complacent with the status quo.
But Lewis changed that narrative when he made several personnel changes among the coaching staff. Lewis hired a new defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, and promoted the “interim” title from the offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s title (which was for all intents and purposes the same as hiring a new one).
Lewis fired the Bengals’ offensive line coach of 23 years and brought in one of the best replacements available, Frank Pollack. He brought in several more position coaches that have had success where the Bengals had not.
With the new coaching changes came new attitudes. Lazor installed a more aggressive playbook on offense. Austin immediately began preaching the importance of turnovers and the impact a defense can have in changing the game. Pollack introduced a new aggressive and hardworking attitude. Before we knew it, many of the things we never saw from Lewis were finally coming around.
And now, Lewis has cut ties with several players that a complacent coach would not have the guts to do. The Bengals are finally taking risks in young players than just going with what they know.
Will Sam Hubbard, Jordan Willis, Andrew Billings, and Ryan Glasgow translate their great preseasons into regular season success?
Will Jessie Bates be a better fit than Iloka?
Taking these kinds of risks are something we are not used to seeing out of Lewis. Has he finally realized that success requires risk taking? It seems so.
Let’s hope that Marvin 2.0 is the real deal and can finally get the Bengals over the hump.