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Cap casualties, trade pieces, pay cuts? Ways the Bengals can create cap space

A handful of Bengals will be released in the coming days. Don’t expect more activity than that, though.

NFL: OCT 18 Bengals at Colts Photo by MSA/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Even in an abnormal year, the Bengals are still operating within their usual financial standards. Only a handful of NFL clubs have more salary cap space than the Bengals have right now.

The league-wide salary cap has yet to be finalized, but whatever cap space the Bengals will eventually be listed with, that number will change before the new league year begins on March 17th.

To prepare you for when that happens, here’s how the Bengals will—and could—create more cap flexibility

Expected cuts

These are the names that have essentially been taken off the Bengals’ books going forward. The moves aren’t official yet, but these three players are so heavily speculated to be released that we can consider their contracts already voided.

Geno Atkins

  • Cap savings: $9,500,000 or $12,100,000 with post-June 1st designation

Man this is sad to type out. There is so much to be said about Atkins as a person and as a player. If he’s not the best Bengals player of the last 10 years, he’s definitely in the top two, and his work off the field is even better. But as a soon-to-be 33-year old defensive tackle whose previous season featured just eight games played, one tackle, and one quarterback hit, there’s no justifying his cap hit of $14.7 million. That number even increases to $16.05m in 2022.

The Bengals will cut Atkins because the only other option is to ask him to take a pay cut, not a restructured deal. Pay cuts simply don’t happen very much in today’s NFL. The good news is that the incoming cap savings will not be sat on.

The amount of savings depends on if the Bengals eat all $5.2m worth of dead cap this year, or push half of it into next year. The Bengals have never done the latter when releasing a player with multiple years left on his deal, but they’ve also never operated with a salary cap that is smaller than the previous year.

Bobby Hart

  • Cap savings: $5,837,500

There isn’t much of a story with Hart like there is with Atkins. Along with saving money, the Bengals need to find an upgrade over Atkins. That’s really the whole story when it comes to Hart.

There’s plenty of negative stigma that surrounds Hart’s time in Cincinnati. None of that really matters in the Bengals’ eyes. They invested in Hart, and, in time, he developed into the best possible player he could be. But that caliber of player simply isn’t good enough to start for an offensive line that will look very different this year. And his cap hit of nearly $7m makes him too expensive to be a reserve player. This is as cut-and-dried as it gets.

B.J. Finney

  • Cap savings: $3,275,000

Along with a measly seventh-round pick, Finney is all the Bengals got in return for Carlos Dunlap (whose contract, by the way, will still impact the Bengals’ books this year). Finney never took a snap for Cincinnati’s offense during the nine games he was on their roster. That seems a bit damning when you consider how messed up the offensive line was when he got there.

Finney, like Hart, is probably not good enough to start for a team, and his current cap hit is a bit too high to just sit on. The Bengals also didn’t inherit any of Finney’s guaranteed money, which only makes Finney’s chances of sticking around worse.

Running total cap savings: $18,612,500 or $21,212,500

Logical, but unlikely cuts

The Bengals can clear up even more space pretty easily. A few contracts stand out as incredibly disposable, but the club doesn’t appear wanting to let go of the players that are attached to the contracts.

C.J. Uzomah

  • Cap savings: $5,075,000

Theoretically, a player like Uzomah wouldn’t have too much job security. He played just seven quarters of football last year before a torn Achilles ended his season. His backup, Drew Sample, was a second-round draft pick just two years ago and started to show signs of development. Uzomah only has one year left on his deal and his remaining base salary is smaller than what the Bengals would save by releasing him.

But all that doesn’t seem to outweigh the team’s commitment to Uzomah’s leadership and overall presence. The 28-year old tight end is already one of the offense’s most experienced players, and his relationship with Joe Burrow has grown immensely since the they’ve been rehabbing their injuries together. Keep in mind that Burrow targeted Uzomah 11 times in the two games they played together.

The cost to keep Uzomah isn’t big enough to invalidate those intangible aspects, so he’ll get an opportunity to come back from his injury and play at least one more year in stripes.

Giovani Bernard

  • Cap savings: $4,100,000

A lot of the things said about Uzomah can be said about Bernard. The opportunity to move on is an intriguing one, especially since Joe Mixon’s second contract will start to affect the cap this year. Bernard is a high-end complementary player in the offense, but a complementary player all the same. And it’s just not wise to use $13m in salary cap space for two running backs.

Bernard has been with the Bengals since 2013 and still plays his modest role at a high level. The captain’s patch on his jersey should tell you all you need to know about how they view him in the locker room. It would be shocking to see the front office end his time in Cincinnati before his deal expires.

Xavier Su’a-Filo

  • Cap savings: $2,441,666 or $2,775,000 with post-June 1st designation

The only reason why Su’a-Filo is likely to stick around is because they need some in-house options at one of the guard spots. Su’a-Filo was very affordable to sign last year and former offensive line coach Jim Turner envisioned him starting at a position he never played before. Injuries took Su’a-Filo out of the equation for most of last season, so there’s not a lot of recent tape to examine where he is right now.

Su’a-Filo is still not very expensive to keep around, so cutting him would also not save the Bengals a lot of cash. This feels like a wait-until-final cuts situation.

Running total cap savings: $30,229,166 to as much as $33,162,500

Trades and or restructured contracts? Probably not

Honestly, whom could the Bengals trade for a high-enough draft pick that wouldn’t also make them a worse team right now? They could offload a player or two for some Day 3 picks, but that wouldn’t move the needle very much. That’s why you won’t see any trades involving the Bengals offering one of their own players. They have nothing to offer without crippling themselves.

You rarely see the Bengals trading players away in general, let alone for cap purposes. The only time they consider it is when a player decides he would rather give up football than continue to play for them.

The Bengals also rarely restructure their own contracts because the contracts they always offer are primarily team-friendly. They don’t offer incredibly high salaries at most positions relative to the rest of the league, and they are never uncomfortably close to the cap because of that.

There isn’t any contract on their books that even needs to be restructured. This process is usually done by converting base salaries or roster bonuses into signing bonuses. Again, the Bengals aren’t paying anyone too high of a base salary for their talent, and Trae Waynes and D.J. Reader are the only veterans earning roster bonuses of at least $1,000,000.

Waynes’ contract might be the only one that’s worth discussing. He’s due a $2,000,000 roster bonus this month and has a base salary of $8,400,000 for this season. The Bengals can convert some of that into a signing bonus, but Waynes only has two years left on his deal. This means that any money the Bengals move would all go into next year, and his 2022 cap hit would then be in the range of $20,000,000 or more. That’s just not going to work.

The Bengals could extend Waynes’ deal to get around this, but Waynes hasn’t even played a down of Bengals football yet. This all seems crazy to think about when you consider that fact.

You wouldn’t normally expect the Bengals to act desperate in order to create cap space. Despite the cap shrinking from last year, you shouldn’t expect them to change now.