It’s not every day we get to hear from the Bengals’ general manager in all but title.
Director of player personnel Duke Tobin was placed in front of the microphone Monday morning for the first time in over a year. He said a lot in about 20 minutes, ranging from the current roster, free agency, and another unorthodox pre-draft cycle.
These three points in particular stood out to us, and it all starts up front.
Awareness of the offensive line situation
If you were swindled into thinking the Bengals were going to improve the offensive line last year, you were not alone. The o-line was terrible for yet another season in 2020 and it was the main reason why Joe Burrow eventually ended up having reconstructive knee surgery.
Actions, or in this case, inactions, have consequences. The first domino to fall was o-line coach Jim Turner, who parted ways with the team soon after the season ended. Turner was bad news in every way, shape, and form, but his departure is not enough to turn things around. It seems like Tobin knows this.
In response to the first question of his presser, Tobin propped up Burrow as the primary source of hope for the club.
“I think we’ve got one of the premier, best young quarterbacks in the game,” Tobin said. “And we’re gonna do everything we can to build around him, and give him the opportunity to really shine and show what he can do. So it’s gonna start with him.”
Tobin continued to go through the roster and highlighted players at every main position group on the team. He noted Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd at receiver, Joe Mixon at running back, Trae Waynes at cornerback, D.J. Reader at defensive tackle, and alluded to their tight ends, linebackers, and safeties.
Every main position group was at least mentioned, except the offensive line.
Frank Pollack didn’t replace Turner just so he could make the existing pieces work in front of Burrow’s new knee. There has been no indication of them believing in what they have at that position group ever since yet another lost season concluded in January. Pollack may be a familiar face, but the damage done by Turner and the neglect from Tobin and the front office was just too much.
Left tackle Jonah Williams is really the only young piece they have worthy of building around. Tobin praised the 23-year old blindside blocker, but he knows that Williams still has more to prove.
“Where we are right now, we feel good that we might have one,” Tobin said in regards to finding a left tackle in Williams. “And he’s gotta stay healthy, but he’s shown real flashes of being a very good player. So we’ll see how it goes and whether we add to the group or not, that’ll be something to be determined as we go forward.”
At this point, it’s not a matter of whether or not they add to the group, it’s a matter of whom they add to the group. Many believe a tackle will represent their biggest addition, but Tobin didn’t exactly rule out making a sizable investment at one of the guard spots.
“In terms of the guard position, it is something we’ll look at,” Tobin said. “We had a lot of guys playing and with the o-line in general with injuries, we had a lot of different combinations in there. When you’re switching your combinations in there, it’s normally not a recipe for success. We’ll have new faces in there. We’ll have guys that have another year of development under their hat. Hopefully, a healthier group that stays healthy. And when we get five guys playing together, hopefully they can play together a long time. It’s a group that we’re focused on—we’re always focused on it—but that group, in particular, will be an important group for us.”
The opportunity to spend is now
Not even Tobin knows how far the salary cap will fall. Because of that, he doesn’t know what the franchise tenders will be at each position.
There are plenty of unknowns as the new league year and free agency are set to begin. We can infer, however, that these unknowns won’t make the Bengals passive.
Tobin recognizes the team is in a favorable position to attack free agency with ample cap space compared to most clubs.
“The way we have managed our cap, and hitting it this year the way that we are, I think that we’ve certainly got an advantage that we’re gonna look to take advantage of. We are certainly not going to sit on our hands,” Tobin said. “We have flexibility, which is a good position to be in. We’re trying to best manage that number and come out of this free agency and the draft with the most help we can possibly get for our team.”
Last year, rumors circulated about the Bengals being more aggressive in free agency, and that certainly came to fruition. Tobin and the front office knew they were entering a window of increased liquidity with contracts coming off the books and a rookie quarterback set to give them flexibility. That window has not evaporated after just one year, despite a pandemic knocking the cap down a few pegs.
The Bengals will likely end up with at least $40 million in cap space, and that doesn’t even factor in the likely releases of Geno Atkins and Bobby Hart. They’d save about $15m in cap space by releasing those two players.
Oh, and here’s a quote about Atkins’ future:
“We’ll see as we go,” Tobin said. “We’ll see what if any of the room we need to do some other things. It’s a fluid situation. I don’t have any updates on it right now. I know we have high regard and high esteem, and he’s been a Bengal his whole career. We’ll see if we can keep that going.”
Translation: We’d like to keep him if money wasn’t a factor. But money is always a factor.
Cap space is one thing, but after taking Atkins and Hart out of the equation, the Bengals would only be on the hook for about $100m in cash commitments for this season. They usually spend more cash than the unadjusted cap floor every year, which means they may be in line to spend over $80m in cash this offseason. A good chunk of that will be put towards unrestricted free agency.
Money will be spent, but let’s not get carried away here. They won’t put pen to paper on multiple deals that will reset positional markets. They might get close to that for one player, with might being the keyword. All that matters is that all options are on the table because they can be. They have the ability to spend, which is something most of the league can’t say.
Re-hashing Injuries and stability
Nobody wanted to hear it, but you really didn’t think Tobin wouldn’t mention all the injuries they had?
Burrow, Mixon, C.J. Uzomah, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Atkins, Reader, and Waynes were all huge losses the roster suffered last year. You can throw Williams, Sam Hubbard, and Darius Phillips in there for good measure as well. The injury excuse is old and played out, but it doesn’t go away if the injuries continue to pile up as quickly as the losses.
That’s what Tobin mentioned first as to why they’ve struggled since Zac Taylor took over as head coach.
“We’ve gotta find a way to stay healthy,” Tobin said. “I know that is something we don’t get to control all the time, but it is something that’s reared its head over the course of the last couple of years.”
Simple reasoning told us back in January that Taylor wasn’t fired for this reason. The on-field results have been disappointing, but faith in Taylor’s future hasn’t wavered. Marvin Lewis was given a stable platform to establish himself for many years; it’s not surprising that Taylor is getting another year to do the same under that same mindset.
“We think stability will help us,” Tobin said. “We would have loved to have played with a lot of our key pieces this year. We see a trend in the right direction. We haven’t won enough games. I don’t have to sit here and tell you that. You already know that. You recited that. And everyone in this building knows that. But we were trying to do what we feel is best for the immediate future of the Cincinnati Bengals, and that future is now. We think we’ve got a quarterback that is trending in the right direction, and we think he’s got a comfort level with what we’re doing on that side of the ball.”
Add trench players, get healthy, get Burrow back on the field, profit? The plan is laid out for everyone to see and judge.