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Grading the Bengals’ 2021 offseason

Reflecting on what the Bengals have done so far this year.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals Rookie Minicamp Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

As we’ve seen, NFL Draft grades can sometimes be silly, purposefully or not. But what about grades for the entire offseason?

NFL teams are starting up voluntary organized team activities as Spring starts to feel like Summer. The offseason is not over, but this does feel like a good time to put a bow on the Cincinnati Bengals’ overall offseason activity.

At the heart of every offseason is roster turnover, unless you’re this year’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In total, the Bengals retained 22 players from last year’s roster and added 27 new players; 10 veterans, and 17 rookies. Those 27 additions help counter the loss of 20 veterans by way of cuts, one trade, and simply not re-signing them.

Those are the numbers, but we’re really here for the quality of the turnover, not the quantity. There were plenty of goals that the Bengals needed to accomplish over the last five months. Let’s see how they did.

Offensive line quandary

You can’t have a conversation about the Bengals without the offensive line getting brought up. The position group remained a major weakness for the club last season, and it was responsible for rookie quarterback Joe Burrow getting banged up far too often and eventually getting injured.

The level of putridness they exhibited last year actually worked to the front office’s advantage this offseason, as there’s only one way to go if you’re at the bottom. This wasn’t the only reason the Bengals didn’t go all out to bolster their o-line, but it did make their efforts appear more commendable.

They came up with three different solutions to their three problematic spots. In free agency, they replaced right tackle Bobby Hart with Riley Reiff at right tackle. They later re-signed Quinton Spain, setting up a battle between him and Xavier Su’a-Filo at left guard. The end result should net them with an upgrade over Michael Jordan. Finally, they drafted Jackson Carman to take over at right guard, which was previously manned by a handful of undesirable players. A couple more draft picks were used to address potential meeds for the future.

It wasn’t signing Joe Thuney and drafting Penei Sewell. That route would’ve better appealed to the masses, but it also would’ve been much more costly. Having a franchise quarterback is priceless, but resources to build a team are finite. The Bengals went the cost-effective route and still managed to improve the unit where it needed to be improved. That’s a positive.

Going on the defensive

The first four external free agents the Bengals agreed to terms with were defensive players. That was a bit of a surprise considering the whole offensive line situation, but looking at what they were preparing to lose on defense, they couldn’t just sit on their hands.

Carl Lawson was the first to go out the door, and he was quickly replaced by Trey Hendrickson. You would not be wrong to say Hendrickson has work to do before calling the sequence anything better than lateral move. A similar case can be made at cornerback. Chidobe Awuzie was pursued and obtained even before William Jackson III left town and burned a bridge. Slot cornerback Mike Hilton and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi do appear to be upgrades over respective predecessors Mackensie Alexander and Geno Atkins (at least the 2020 version).

Once the secondary was filled out via the depth signings of cornerback Eli Apple and safety Ricardo Allen, the trenches were put back in the spotlight. Four of the team’s 10 draft picks were defensive linemen, and three of them play on the edge. Replacing Lawson cannot just fall on Hendrickson’s shoulders, and rookie edge defenders Joseph Ossai and Cameron Sample will fit right in with a hungry defense. Nose tackle Tyler Shelvin’s impact will be interesting to observe against divisional offenses.

The Bengals did not want to go another season light in the secondary or up front. Injuries dismantled the depth at both positions. They went out this offseason with a clear intent to make sure depth would be had. The question remains if certain additions will have them looking improved or just treading water.

Clear offensive objective

This is Joe Burrow’s team, so the construction of his offense should match what he works best with. The Bengals seem to agree.

In selecting Ja’Marr Chase with their first-round pick, Burrow now has three legitimate receivers at his disposal; reminiscent of his historic 2019 season at LSU. The reunion between Chase and Burrow is indeed a unique story, but Chase is an ideal fit regardless of his background and history with his quarterback. He is the explosive deep threat the offense sorely lacked in 2020.

The message at running back was loud and clear: It’s Joe Mixon’s show. Giovani Bernard was handed his walking papers, and the Bengals don’t see an offense with Mixon not on the field with it. This looks to be Mixon’s emergence as a true three-down back, but in an offense being orchestrated by Burrow, this should mean more receiving and blocking opportunities for Mixon as well. The re-signing of Samaje Perine should alleviate some of the ground pressure off of Mixon, allowing him to see more targets thrown his way.

An offense with this many competent weapons doesn’t normally come with future continuity attached to it. Burrow, Mixon, Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd are all under contract through at least 2023. Whew.

The grade

Objectively, it’s easy to say the Bengals’ offense should be better this year. The arrow was pointing up for the unit before Burrow’s injury, and they’ll now start the season with a (relatively!) much improved o-line and receiving corps featuring players who are known commodities with Burrow. Mixon running more efficiently in a scheme designed by o-line coach Frank Pollack is expected as well.

Assessing the defense is a bit more difficult. More effort was made on this side of the ball, and that’s reflected from the financial side as well, but how much better can we expect them to be here? The defensive line is deeper, and maybe that in itself will make a big enough difference. Hendrickson building off his 2020 campaign would help the pass rush the most, as Ossai may not be fully ready to win with his hands against NFL tackles. The secondary is also deeper, but Awuzie and Trae Waynes playing their absolute best football would make the group a true strength of the team.

More could’ve been done to ensure this roster would be ready to compete for the AFC North title, but in no way did the Bengals sit on their hands. Some of their solutions are less riskier than others, which is this offseason falls short of an elite grade. But with every risk comes the opportunity for reward.

  • Grade: 7 out of 10 Cicada Chirps

The Bengals have assembled their offseason roster just in time to be joined by millions of local fans, all of whom were sleeping for 17 years. The mating calls of Cincinnati cicadas should make for an excellent crowd noise simulation for the upcoming spring practices.