The Cincinnati Bengals have a lot of work to do if they hope to field a competitive football team next year. Of course, some of the pieces (Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, etc.) are already in place for the foreseeable future. Others need to be locked in, and sooner rather than later.
Pro Football Focus recently released its list of the top 100 free agents for 2021, and two Bengals made the list. And Cincinnati needs to get them off that list and back into the fold.
Topping the list, at No. 17, was cornerback William Jackson, III, Cincinnati’s first-round pick in 2016. PFF graded Jackson as the sixth-best cornerback after his first full season, but he has never shown the same shut-down ability on a consistent basis since.
Nevertheless, at only 27 years of age, Jackson still has tremendous upside and should only get better with Trae Waynes, the Bengals’ big cornerback signing of last season, back on the field. Waynes missed the entire 2020 season with a pectoral injury.
According to PFF, Cincinnati is expected to sign Jackson to a three-year deal that is very similar to the one it gave to Waynes. At an expected annual salary of just over $13 million, it will be money well spend if Jackson can find that consistency that has been lacking in his game.
Defensive end Carl Lawson came in at No. 28 on the list after putting together a season that saw him ranked among the best in the league at applying pressure on the quarterback.
Although his sack total of 5.5 did not reflect his dominance, PFF credited Lawson with 32 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles. The Bengals, who finished last in the league in sacks this past season and are desperate for help on the edge, are expected to re-sign Lawson on a four deal that averages nearly $14 million per season.
Another player Cincinnati should consider re-signing is cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Alexander, who was No. 80 on the list, is primarily a slot corner, but got moved all over the field because of the number of injuries at the position, yet still turned in a decent year.
According to PFF, Alexander is likely to sign a contract in the range of two years and $6 million, which would be a small price for the Bengals to pay to pay for the stability he would bring to the position.
There are a couple of other names on PFF’s list of top 100 free agents of 2021 that Cincinnati fans should be familiar with. One is Alejandro Villanueva, at No. 33, who had a tryout with the Bengals as a tight end in 2010, and went on to a solid career as an offensive tackle with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
PFF predicts that Villanueva will sign a three-year contract with the Chargers at an average of $15 million per year, which is probably too rich for Cincinnati.
And then there is wide receiver Marvin Jones, Jr., who PFF has tabbed at No. 45. Jones was a fifth-round selection of the Bengals in the 2012 NFL Draft and caught 65 passes for 816 yards and four touchdowns in 2015 before moving on the Detroit in free agency.
Jones, now 31, was a consistent and reliable addition for the Lions and only dropped more than four passes one time in a season. He would still be an outstanding option as a No. 3 receiver behind Boyd and Higgins, and PFF projects that Jones can be had on a three-year deal for as little as $9 million per season.
It is going to be another interesting offseason for Cincinnati, and the Bengals need to hit a home run in 2021 if they hope to join the ranks of the Steelers, Ravens and even Browns among the elite.