D.J. Reader was the highest profile free agent the Bengals have brought in for a very long time.
Reader was considered by most to be the top defensive tackle in free agency when the Bengals signed him to a four-year, $53 million contract.
Not only was Reader a high quality signing, but he represented a change in the Bengals’ front office philosophy. In the past, the Bengals would have preferred to come out of free agency net negative so they could acquire compensatory picks and build through the draft. But instead, the signed the best player they could at a position they needed.
In that offseason, the Bengals spent over $100 million in free agency. Then, they drafted Joe Burrow first overall. The Bengals were rebuilding, and rebuilding aggressively.
Reader would pair well with Geno Atkins on the interior, while the Bengals developed Josh Tupou and Renell Wren behind them. Then they would have Carlos Dunlap on one side of the line, and Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard on the other.
That was the theory anyways.
As it turns out, Atkins, Tupou, and Wren never started a game due to injuries and opt-outs. The Bengals brought in Mike Daniels and Xavier Williams, and traded for Christian Covington. Dunlap had the least productive season of his career, and it bled into the locker room, leading to a trade. As a result of all the talent lost on the defensive line, the Bengals’ had the worst run defense in the NFL for most of the season.
It was clear that the Bengals had a problem early on. In Week 2 against the Browns, the Bengals gave up 210 yards and three touchdowns to Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who combined for 6.6 yards per carry.
In that game, Reader had six combined tackles and one tackle for a loss. That game was a microcosm for the entire season; while Reader was playing at a high level, those around him were treading water.
In the first five game of the season, Reader had 19 combined tackles, and a PFF grade of 69.6. In the fifth game of the season, Reader suffered an injury that cost him the rest of the year.
Luckily, he is under contract with the Bengals for another three seasons. Reader will be 27 in August, so he is still in the prime of his career.
The Bengals need him desperately, after they will, in all probability, release Atkins. Wren would be back after healing from the quadricep injury he suffered during training camp last year. The Bengals would like to have Tupou if he decides to play again this year.
But even if the Bengals get all of those pieces, Reader would be the only proven veteran in the group.
Lawson’s free agency also looms large. It’s entirely possible that Reader would be the only big name on the defensive line.