As the new NFL league year begins Wednesday afternoon, the first wave of free agency is magically over. Funny how that works when no one ever talks before the legal tampering period opens just two days beforehand.
It’s both surprising and unsurprising that the first big moves the Bengals made this year match exactly what they did last year. Trey Hendrickson, a defensive lineman, Chidobe Awuzie, a cornerback, and Mike Hilton, a slot defender, are the headliners of this year’s free agent class thus far. What does this mean for the Bengals’ coaches and players already here? Let’s examine some winners and losers of the last two days.
Lou Anarumo: The much-maligned Bengals defensive coordinator has been the direct beneficiary of the club’s two most aggressive free agency periods in history. D.J. Reader, Trae Waynes, and now Hendrickson are the biggest acquisitions the team has ever made, and Vonn Bell, Chidobe Awuzie, and Mike Hilton are not that far behind when you think about it. The Bengals went defense first once again, and Anarumo’s excuses for fielding a solid unit grow thinner.
Trae Waynes: It was highly speculated that both William Jackson III and Mackensie Alexander were not going to be retained, which would’ve left Waynes all alone in the cornerbacks room. The additions of Awuzie and Hilton give Waynes solid company in the secondary, and Waynes is by far the highest paid cornerback on the team now. He’s the No. 1 going forward, and he now has a promising supporting cast.
Xavier Su’a-Filo and Bobby Hart: An emphasis on defense means the offensive line was, once again, left on the back burner. This is troubling news for a couple guys we’ll get to later, but it’s good news for their incumbent starters. Su’a-Filo and Hart are still penciled in as starters for now. By the time April comes around, the NFL draft will definitely impact the position group more, but Su’a-Filo and Hart have survived the first wave.
Auden Tate: A.J. Green is considering options as we speak, and John Ross III already found another opportunity with the New York Giants. Until the Bengals add some speed to their receivers room, Tate has become the unofficial next man up with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. You have to figure Tate will be involved regardless in the offense next season. Any upcoming addition will likely be a complementary piece, so Tate’s standing shouldn’t be impacted too much.
Joe Burrow and Joe Mixon: The status quo has not changed. Burrow and Mixon’s protection remains a giant unknown as the second wave of free agency begins. The draft will absolutely have to be utilized to significantly alter the dynamic of the o-line. This isn’t to say a guard or two won’t be signed before then, but the Bengals are banking on unknowns once more at their weakest part of the roster.
Frank Pollack: Tacking on to that last point, the coach that will be working with unknowns will also have his work cut out for him. Pollack has made semi-decent lemonade out of rotten lemons before with the Bengals, but he’ll likely be working with questionable veterans and rookies after most of the quality lineman have found other destinations.
Mackensie Alexander: Unlike Jackson, Alexander has yet to find another team and his starting spot was just given to a former divisional foe. It can be tough for slot corners on the open market, but Alexander put some solid play on tape last year. He’ll get a shot elsewhere, we just don’t know where or when.
Darius Phillips: Entering his contract year, Phillips is either going to compete for a starting job, or has already been regulated to his usual fourth cornerback designation. Considering the cash given to Awuzie and Hilton, it’s safe to say Phillips is going to be a spot starter for the upcoming season. That’s ideal for Cincinnati’s defense, but Phillips will have to continue scrapping for snaps in his fourth year.