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Offense or defense: Which should be the focus of Bengals’ offseason? Why not both?

Yes, the Bengals can improve on both sides of the ball this offseason

NFL: Washington Redskins-Training Camp Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As the offseason nears the Bengals need to add talent to both sides of the ball, can they get this roster where it needs to be by Fall? With that question looming many fans want the team to focus their resources on one side of the ball: the offense. Yes, the offense should be a priority, but there is no reason the Bengals can’t get the defense where it needs to be as well.

The Bengals have a brilliant young single-caller under center in Joe Burrow. It makes sense to surround him with playmakers, and after he took a ridiculous number of hits in 2020, the last of which ended his season, it needs to be a priority to protect him. Today’s NFL is a quarterback-driven league, so helping Burrow be successful should be priority-one, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do more.

One argument I hear is that the offense is closer than the defense. My question is this: closer to what?

The Bengals have their quarterback, which is the biggest piece of the offensive puzzle. So this fact alone puts the Bengals well on the path to having a top-5 offense.

Is the defense on that path? No, but that’s not the goal in today’s NFL. This league is no longer built for top defenses like the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to be the driving force behind a Super Bowl run. This is not to say that defense is not important, it is, but teams need a proficient defense, not a dominant one to go all the way.

So how close is the Bengals defense to being proficient? Closer than you might think.

Two things really hurt the defense this season: A limited pass rush and the lack of a true CB2. Unfortunately, these two areas are where their biggest free agents play. If they let Carl Lawson and William Jackson walk, their defense will be in a big hole. In that case, they would be much farther away from where they need to be than the offense.

If they re-sign William Jackson, the return of Trae Waynes from injury takes care of the problem at cornerback. They obviously need to add depth and if they lose Mackensie Alexander, they will need a slot as well, but they could figure that out. The big problem would be repaired.

If they re-sign Lawson they will still need help with the pass rush. This year they expected some production out of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, but that never came to fruition They need one more pass rusher on the outside and one more player on the inside who can get after the quarterback. Yes, pass-rushers cost a lot of money, but these don’t have to be big money moves. They don’t even necessarily have to be starters. They could be role players who come in on passing downs. At least one of them could be acquired on Day 2 of the draft, and the other could take the form of an aging, formerly highly productive pass rusher who is not better suited as a role player. This won’t be cheap, but they don’t have to break the bank either.

So if the Bengals re-sign Lawson and Jackson, they would be only a couple of players away from having the defense they need, and they wouldn't even have to spend much on them. Depth at both positions needs to be improved, but that can come through lower cost free agents and late draft picks

“But Matt, they focused on defense last year.”

Yes, in free agency, but they also spent their two top picks on offense. Burrow and Tee Higgins had a bigger impact this season than Waynes, Alexander, Vonn Bell, Josh Bynes, and D.J. Reader. They can focus on offense this year, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make a couple of targeted moves to get the defense right.

Now for the offense. What does this offense need to be a top offense? They need a wide receiver, a tackle, and a guard (or two). Unlike the defense, which can add role players after signing their free agents, the offense needs plug-n-play starters. The Bengals will need to spend either big money or their top pick to get an offensive tackle. They could get a good one in the 1st Round. Penei Sewell (Oregon) and Rashawn Slater (Northwestern) are both highly acclaimed prospects who opted out of the 2020 season. At least one of them will make it to the 5th overall pick.

There is a good group of offensive tackle’s in this year’s draft, but they will go fast. Waiting until Round 2 would be risky, but if the Bengals decided to trade back in the 1st Round, they could still land Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech), Samuel Cosmi (Texas), or Alex Leatherwood (Alabama).

Fans would love to see them make a big splash at guard by signing Joe Thuney or Brandon Scherff. This would be out of character for the Bengals who have notoriously not valued the interior offensive line, which would make it even more exciting.

They may be able to get what they need with a mid-round pick or a budget free agent, but that has gotten them in trouble in the past. Their Week 1 starting guards were former 4th Round pick Michael Jordan and journeyman Xavier Su’a-Filo. Jordan could very well develop into a good player and Su’a-Filo was adequate when not injured this year, but I think you can see my point.

They need to add at least one quality starter at guard and this offseason. This could mean dish out money for a free agent or using a Day 2 pick on an interior lineman.

This is a good year to need a wide receiver. There are a lot of potential free agents who could fill the role. They could sign one of them or use a mid-round pick on a guy like Anthony Schwartz (Auburn), Dazz Newsome (North Carolina), or Tylan Wallace (Oklahoma State), but there is a possibility they could take a wide receiver with the 5th overall pick. Reuniting Burrow with his old LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase is an exciting proposition. Tyler Boyd, Higgins, and Chase would make an incredible trio. If they can give Burrow time, that offense would be hard to stop.

So why can’t you do both? Let’s look at a couple of scenarios, both of which are figuring that Jackson and Lawson are re-signed.

It seems extremely likely that the Bengals will use their 1st Round pick on either a wide receiver or an offensive tackle.

Let’s say it’s a tackle, perhaps Sewell. They can sign a wide receiver in free agency, maybe Josh Reynolds or Curtis Samuel, and let’s say they dish out a big contract to bring in Thuney at guard. That puts the offense in a pretty good position. So what if they made another big move in free agency bringing in Larry Ogunjobi and drafted a defensive end like Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham or Pittsburgh’s Patrick Jones in the 2nd Round?

That’s a huge offseason.

Alternatively, let’s say they went for a tackle like Taylor Moton in free agency. If they could get Chase in the 1st Round and turn Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey into a guard with their 2nd Round pick, that would be a huge improvement for their offense. They could address the defensive line in free agency with Ryan Kerrigan on the end and (let’s get crazy) Ndamukong Suh on the inside. They could supplement the Suh signing by drafting a younger defensive tackle in the 3rd Round, perhaps Pittsburgh’s Jaylen Twyman or Florida State’s Marvin Wilson.

The Bengals have enough money to have another big year in free agency and two top-40 picks (not to mention at 3rd in the top 70). There is no reason why they cannot address their needs on both offense and defense this offseason. Protecting Burrow and maximizing his talents should be priority one, but that doesn’t mean they can’t improve the defense and make this team competitive in 2021.