As far as the Cincinnati Bengals are concerned, the Monday kickoff to free agency was a lot more news-filled than anticipated. Cincinnati learned that they were re-signing a couple of starters on offense, while also losing a contributor and former third-round pick.
Let’s run down the Bengals’ happenings as Zac Taylor and Co. engage in their first offseason with the club.
Bengals re-sign Bobby Hart to lucrative deal
Three years, up to $21 million. That’s the contract the veteran tackle has signed in Cincinnati as one of the team’s “premiere signings” this spring.
At this contract value, Hart is basically being paid as a top-10 right tackle in the league. Additionally, if Hart is indeed making $7 million in 2019, he’s being paid more than Clint Boling, who is largely viewed as the team’s best offensive lineman.
This doesn’t quite seem like a well-aligned value for a guy who was rated very low by Pro Football Focus’ metrics.
Bobby Hart in 2018:— PFF CIN Bengals (@PFF_Bengals) March 8, 2019
56.2 overall grade (54th)
62.9 pass-blocking grade (55th)
54.2 run-blocking grade (46th)
Jermey Parnell in 2018:
65.3 overall (41st)
67.9 pass-blocking (49th)
62.3 run-blocking (T-31st)https://t.co/9q66Lj9uEv
Look, if the Bengals didn’t want to break the bank on Trent Brown, Kelechi Osemele, or another offensive lineman, that’s fine, but it seems as if Cincinnati may have been bidding against themselves here. We aren’t privy to wiretaps of the front office’s phone lines, but the prevailing opinion is that this isn’t a favorable deal for the Bengals upon first blush.
Let’s also be honest here: this is starter money. Mike Brown, Duke Tobin, Zac Taylor, Brian Callahan and/or Jim Turner all believe that Hart is and can be an effective starter going forward.
I guess if we’re trying to look for positives here, continuity is always a good thing on the offensive line. Hart is still young (turns 25 right before the start of the 2019 season) and durable, starting 16 games for the team last year, which was a first for his career.
Turner, the team’s new offensive line coach, seems to particularly like what Hart offers.
“I thought he did a great job. I thought he was phenomenal,” Turner said at the Combine about Hart’s 2018 performance. “I know he gave up some sacks and pressures and all this other business, but if you really watch him play, he played with passion and I thought he played well.”
“He played for Jimbo (Fisher), so I talked with Jimbo about him coming from Florida State. I just like what he brought to the table as far as energy is concerned. I think he’s an athlete and I think he’s a good player, a good, solid player.”
Yeah, no big deal: it’s just “sacks and pressures and all this other business”. You know, things that are at the top of an NFL offensive tackle’s job description to handle.
Cincinnati keeps one of four free agent tight ends in C.J. Uzomah
This offseason, Cincinnati knew it would have its hands full in not letting the tight end position group go to a total shambles. Injuries hit the group particularly hard last year, stunting the immense talent there from a variety of perspectives. There was no doubt that these injuries also stifled the potential of the 2018 offense.
It’s also made the negotiation process very difficult. It’s very likely that the team was put in the position of having to decide to keep either Tyler Kroft, or C.J. Uzomah—not both. If that’s the case, they decided on the latter with a three-year, $18 million contract.
Meanwhile, Tyler Kroft agreed to sign a deal with the Buffalo Bills (yes, that weird relationship between the two franchises is still thriving) to a very similar deal. If this was indeed an either/or situation, the Bengals made the right decision in sticking with Uzomah, if you’re asking this writer.
That’s no knock on Kroft, as he was a solid player who stepped up in the wake of many Tyler Eifert injuries. He was particularly effective as a red zone target in 2017 with seven touchdown grabs.
However, Uzomah seems to have superior athleticism and appears to be on a continuing incline. He set career-highs in receptions (42), yards (439) and touchdowns (3) last season. They may not seem like huge numbers, but this was in the wake of both sitting behind Eifert for the first month of the year and playing with a backup quarterback for the final month and a half.
There is still some uncertainty at the position, as only Mason Schreck, Cethan Carter and Jordan Franks are under contract behind him. Those three have combined for just two catches in the NFL—both by Franks last year.
Cincinnati is reportedly continuing conversations with Eifert, but even a potential signing there along with Uzomah doesn’t mean they won’t get another pass-catcher in the draft. Taylor’s offense needs weapons and the team needs to have contingency plans in place as a windfall for more potential injuries.
Bengals tender five restricted free agents
Cincinnati opted to tender offer sheets to five restricted free agents, including Trey Hopkins, Alex Redmond and Brandon Wilson. The backup safety and special teams player signed his one-year deal, aiding Darrin Simmons’ usually-stout unit.
Moving on to Hopkins, he was tendered at a second-round level, essentially ensuring his staying in Cincinnati this season. He is a valued member of the offense because of his versatility and common sense tells us that he’s going to be a swing backup for both center and guard.
Perhaps he pushes for the starting right guard spot, or he could start at center with a Billy Price move, but the offer to Redmond provides more cloudiness there. It’s possible that Redmond is being brought back in a backup capacity, but we doubt that notion.
Again, continuity from last year is the name of the game and if we’re looking for a light at the end of the tunnel here, one could point to Joe Mixon’s outstanding season and his three 100-yard performances in the final four games of last season.
Alex Redmond in 2018— PFF CIN Bengals (@PFF_Bengals) March 8, 2019
-56.4 overall grade
-57.7 pass-blocking grade
-59.0 run-blocking grade
T.J. Lang in '17 (only 282 snaps in 18)
Lang has earned pass-blocking grades of over 85 every year since 2014https://t.co/DCzagxBgp2
Even with these grades, the Bengals seem to be content in basically trotting out the same five starters in their same spots from 2018. Hopkins could change things and the NFL Draft has yet to occur, but with starter money given to Hart and the team returning their right guard who started 15 games last year, 2019 looks to be status quo up front for now.
If that is indeed the case, the Bengals may be narrowing down the No. 11 pick they hold next month down to linebacker, defensive line, cornerback, or maybe even quarterback.
Outside options that make sense and level of interest
When the Bengals sign players outside of their organization in free agency, there is a specific profile. Aside from need, affordability and not having an impact on their compensatory pick formula is the name of the game.
That basically means looking at players who have been released by their former club, not ones who hit the market of their own volition. On Monday, it was rumored that the Bengals are interested in former Broncos linebacker, Brandon Marshall.
He was productive and an overachiever with Denver, to some extent, and would aid a depleted linebacker group in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, his play has declined a little the past two seasons, but he’d still breathe life into a beleaguered group—both with Super Bowl experience and talent.
Jordan Hicks is another interesting option at linebacker and a name that keeps popping up in Bengals circles. He’s talented and had 91 tackles, as well as three sacks in 2018.
Ja’Wuan James made a lot of sense as a signing for the Bengals, but with the investment in Hart, that ship sailed and saw James end up with the Denver Broncos. Meanwhile, depending on what happens with Darqueze Dennard, Cincinnati could look at some other options like Jason Verrett at corner.
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