No one saw the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals coming. Even the most optimistic fans saw maybe a playoff appearance or win as the height of what this young team would be capable of.
Fast-forward to Joe Burrow being swung to the ground by Aaron Donald on fourth down and the Super Bowl ending with yellow and blue confetti dropping.
Many looked at that game like it was the clock striking midnight on Cinderella. The magic was gone, and the story was over. However, the Bengals’ front office had a clear goal for this offseason, and it wasn’t to just sit there and be content with last season. They strategically improved this roster in ways that are starting to become the norm for Cincinnati.
It was no secret the Bengals had to upgrade the offensive line in front of their franchise quarterback. Burrow has been sacked a total of 83 times over his first two seasons in Cincinnati, and that number goes way up to 102 with the 19 sacks he took last postseason. We have already seen him suffer one serious leg injury, and it was very questionable why we didn’t see more capital committed to improving protection in the 2021 offseason.
The Bengals made up for lost time by coming out the gate with a big-name signing: Alex Cappa, previously Tom Brady’s guard for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This was right after Brady returned from retirement (we all remember when he retired right?), and it was actually noteworthy that the quarterback tried to get Cappa back in Tampa. Burrow ended up with a huge upgrade at right guard, which was one of the biggest weak points on the line last season.
Quickly thereafter, Cincinnati announced the signing of Ted Karras, who can play center or guard, but it appears he will be Burrow’s new center. An intelligent player who does exactly what you need him to do.
The final addition was a saga for Cincinnati fans. Rumors began swirling that the Dallas Cowboys were looking to trade offensive tackle La’el Collins. Collins is pretty much the ideal guy in many ways for the Bengals. He fits their scheme perfectly. He is a physical tone-setter. The biggest thing he had going for him was familiarity with Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who originally coached the offensive lineman when the Cowboys drafted Collins.
The Bengals and Cowboys played a grueling game of chicken at the fans’ expense, but eventually Dallas cut Collins to avoid his cap hit. Another stretch of drama-filled days that felt like months of refreshing Twitter for updates finally ended up with Collins as the Bengals’ newest right tackle.
It wasn’t all good news, though. Cincinnati quickly lost out on re-signing Larry Ogunjobhi, who provided crucial interior pressure throughout the season before suffering a serious knee injury in the playoffs. He eventually ended up failing a physical, but the fans still felt that initial pain. Even worse, Cincinnati lost their heart and soul from 2021, tight end C.J. Uzomah.
On paper, Uzomah isn’t this irreplaceable player. He is a solid big target who is a pretty good blocker. However, he had a way of rallying this team, and he was often the first to speak after head coach Zac Taylor in postgame meetings.
The Bengals were able to replace both of these losses on the field by retaining defensive tackle B.J. Hill and signing free agent tight end Hayden Hurst. We will have to see how that loss of leadership on a young team plays out.
The biggest thing that everyone is talking about with the Bengals is them hitting safety Jessie Bates with the franchise tag after not giving him the deal he feels he deserves. He absolutely deserves whatever he is asking for. He has been one of the best safeties in the NFL since being drafted four years ago. It seems more like Cincinnati’s front office is looking ahead at extensions for players like Burrow, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase. The quarterback and receiver market has been exploding lately, and those three will command top dollar.
What was a bit surprising was seeing the Bengals go so defense-heavy in the draft. Many will look at the pick of defensive back Daxton Hill as a Bates replacement, which he could be. It is the rookie’s versatility to be able to line up at so many positions with that kind of speed that makes him more of defensive weapon in general rather than a pure replacement.
Outside of the Bengals selecting offensive guard Cordell Volson in the fourth round, it was all defense. It is great that they are adding some young depth to the defensive backs and defensive line. The main issue is the depth at offensive line still looks like a serious issue. It is great they added three starters, but some of their worst-performing offensive linemen from last season are still merely an injury away.
The most head-scratching move is Quinton Spain not being on the roster. He was a solid left guard who would be an outstanding starter to have surrounded by a line like the Bengals have now. The Bengals seem more than happy to let Volson battle it out with last year’s second-round pick, Jackson Carman, at left guard. Cincinnati fans have seen how this usually plays out, banking on underperforming players to take that next step.
Overall, the Bengals didn’t have very many hurdles in keeping a Super Bowl team mostly intact. Most teams would have struggled to do that. Cincinnati could have used the excuse of needing money for future extensions to sit completely on their hands, but they still took some major swings in free agency.
That could make a world of difference in an AFC that keeps getting tougher and tougher.