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Salary Cap: How Bengals can pay Joe Burrow and others

Joe Burrow is going to be Monopoly Man rich.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has finished his third season in the NFL, making him eligible to sign an extension this offseason. Winning 27 games, appearing in back-to-back AFC Championship games, and falling three points short of a Super Bowl title is more than enough for the front office to begin the process of drafting his new contract.

It’s unclear as to what kind of contract Burrow will be looking for. Will he take a team-friendly deal so the Bengals can keep talent around him, similar to what Tom Brady did for years with the Patriots, or will he want to be the highest-paid player in NFL history? No matter what, he’s worth it.

Here are some ways the Bengals can save money to keep not only Burrow but others in stripes for the next several years.

Move on from Joe Mixon

The way it stands right now, the Bengals will owe running back Joe Mixon a little over $12.7 million when the 2023 season starts. As far as his cap hit goes, he’ll have the seventh largest of any running back in the NFL. Aaron Jones, Ezekiel Elliot, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook are the only running backs with larger cap hits and one thing they all share in common is none of them played in the Super Bowl or a conference championship this past season. In fact, only two on the list, Elliot and Cook, made playoff appearances.

Now, let’s take a look at the two teams who recently played in the Super Bowl, and how much they paid their starting running backs. The Eagles paid Miles Sanders $1.7 million and the Chiefs paid Isiah Pacheco just over $700,000 (they did pay Clyde Edwards-Helaire a bit over $2.9 million, but he hasn’t played since suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 11).

Mixon finished the 2022 season with only 814 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, and while he did contribute more in the passing game this year than he had in the past (441 receiving yards and two touchdowns), his 3.9 yards per carry were not worth the over $11.4 million he was paid.

Samaje Perine averaged 4.2 yards per carry, and he only cost the Bengals $1.8 million. To make it really simple, the Bengals paid Perine $4,695 per yard, and Mixon was paid $14,030 per yard.

I’m not going to comment on the charges filed against Mixon; they have been dismissed but could be refiled. The fact is, the Bengals would be smart to move on from Mixon this offseason regardless of any potential legal trouble he could be facing, mainly because of the lack of production in 2022, and the fact that he will cost a lot more than they should be willing to pay any running back. If the club were to designate him as a post-June 1st cut, they would save over $10 million in salary cap space.

Drafting a running back would be cheaper, and there are several backs in free agency that could fill the starting role for a much smaller price tag.

Release or trade Tyler Boyd

I love Boyd. He has been a very good wide receiver for a very long time and is one of the best slot receivers in the NFL, but with a $10.28 million cap hit, he’s likely a luxury the Bengals could do without and still be explosive offensively in 2023. Boyd finished the 2022 season with 762 yards and five touchdowns, which is his lowest yards total since the 2017 season.

I’m not sure if he lost a step, but he will be 30 years old this year, and with Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase on the outside, there are just too many mouths to feed, especially if your highest-paid receiver is going to be the least productive one.

If they were to cut Boyd, they would save a little over $8.8 million, and that’s whether or not he’s pre-June 1 cut. It could be possible for the Bengals to trade Boyd, though. He’s on the last year of his deal, and a wide receiver-needy team like the Chicago Bears, New England Patriots, or Green Bay Packers would be instantly improved with Boyd on their roster. The Bengals haven’t been in the habit of trading their top players, even when they’re nearing the end of their deals because they don’t believe they’re in the business of making other teams better. However, these Bengals have broken many trends of late, so seeing Boyd moved still wouldn’t surprise me.

Cincinnati could look to fill their slot receiver position in the draft, or possibly in free agency with a younger and cheaper option.

Extend and restructure D.J. Reader’s contract

Reader is one of the best nose tackles in the NFL. He’s one of the main reasons the Bengals have been one of the better defensive teams in the league. He finished the season with an 85.2 grade, per Pro Football Focus, which is seventh best among interior defensive linemen, and 2023 is the last year on his current contract.

If things stay the same, Reader will be paid over $15.5 million this season, but then he would hit the market as an unrestricted free agent. What the Bengals could try to do is extend Reader for a couple more years and stretch that cap hit out over that period of time, saving the Bengals a few million to help keep guys like Higgins, Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt.

In the end, the reason the Bengals sold the naming rights to the stadium to Paycor and the rights to several gates was that they knew they would need to come up with a ton of cash to keep Burrow in Cincinnati, but hopefully, they can go beyond that and keep the weapons Burrow has had success with as well as some key pieces on defense.

The Super Bowl window is open wide right now, and it’s time to make smart decisions with money to build not only a championship roster, but also a championship roster that can be maintained for sustained success. Moving on from Mixon, Boyd, and reworking Reader’s contract could go a long way to making that a reality.