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Making sense of the Bengals’ offseason path

Getting back to the Super Bowl remains the goal for Cincinnati.

Syndication: The Enquirer
Tyler Boyd
Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Much has been made about the salary cap hurdles the Cincinnati Bengals will face in the upcoming season. How do the Bengals pay everyone they need to pay in order to keep that Super Bowl window open? And how do they add the talent they need to take that next step?

There are plenty of suggestions floating around, from jettisoning Joe Mixon, Tyler Boyd, Germaine Pratt, and Jessie Bates III, to restructuring the contracts of players like DJ Reader.

Hiding in the background of the financial hurdles is the continuing problem of the offensive line which, despite undergoing a nearly complete overhaul this past season, still finished as the fifth-worst unit in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

Let’s start with the salary cap issues.

As much as I hate to say it, letting Mixon go is a no-brainer. As talented and dependable as he has been, the draft is full of running backs with the ability to succeed at the NFL level.

Tyler Allgeier of the Atlanta Falcons is a great example. Allgeier finished with 1,035 yards rushing, three touchdowns, and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. He was named to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie team after being selected in the fifth round last year.

Letting Mixon go would save the Bengals up to $10 million against the 2023 salary cap.

Bates is another easy call. Despite occasional glimpses of brilliance, he’s had an up-and-down career with the Bengals, though usually shining under the playoff spotlight.

According to most projections, an extension Bates would cost Cincinnati at least $15 million per year, and that is just not in the cards. It’s now time for Dax Hill, the Michigan first-rounder who saw limited playing time this year, to step up.

Boyd is another easy call. Show him the money! We are talking about one of the best slot receivers in the NFL, and a key cog in the Bengals’ offense. Boyd went over 1,000 yards in both the 2018 and 2019 seasons, when he was forced to fill in as the No. 1 receiver. He still managed 762 yards, 58 receptions and five touchdowns this year, and just flat makes this offense better.

Of course, no matter how talented your receiving corps may be, it doesn’t mean much if your offensive line can’t give your quarterback enough time to throw.

Despite all the positive things Joe Burrow and company had to say about the Bengals’ offensive line this season, the stats tell a different story. Burrow was sacked 44 times in the regular season, tied with the Eagles for 11th worst in the league, despite playing one fewer game. And Cincinnati’s porous front allowed another 10 sacks in the playoffs, including five in the AFC Championship loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

So how do we fix the line, without impacting the salary cap?

Two of the three additions the Bengals made in free agency last year, center Ted Karras and right guard Alex Cappa, lived up to expectations. Cappa was the most consistent performer as he allowed just three sacks and 20 pressures all year while earning a run-blocking grade of 62.3 from PFF. Injuries kept right tackle La’el Collins from making much of an impact. Cutting Collins now would save the Bengals just over $6 million in cap space.

Rookie left guard Cordell Volson played every snap of every game and allowed five sacks and 38 pressures. He finished with an overall grade of 51.6, which put him in the middle of the pack.

Left tackle Jonah Williams, on the other hand, took a step back instead of forward. Sacks are not directly an offensive line stat, but he was still responsible for 12 of them, 43 pressures, and he was one of the lowest-rated tackles in the league. The Bengals already picked up Williams’ fifth-year option at a fully guaranteed cost of $12.6 million. They won’t save any money by cutting him, and unless they want to place him on the bench at that figure, they’re riding him out on the edge.

One bit of good news, however, was the play of Jackson Carman, the Bengals’ 2021 second-round selection out of Clemson who had been something of a bust throughout the early stages of his career. But an injury to Williams in the Wild Card win over Baltimore forced Carman into action, and he responded. In three games, Carman allowed one sack en route to a pass-blocking grade of 67.1 and was flagged for just two penalties.

But much more needs to be done. PFF’s final rankings had the Bengals’ offensive line at No. 28, and that’s just not good enough. The easiest and most cost-effective way to address those deficiencies is through the draft, but Cincinnati picks at No. 28 this year, and there won’t be any lineman left at this point worthy of the pick.

One solution could be to trade up. The Tennessee Titans own No. 11, and some mock drafts have them going with Northwestern left tackle Peter Skoronski.

At 6-4 and 315 pounds, Mel Kiper, Jr.’s Big Board has Skoronski listed as the sixth-best overall player in the nation. His 93.0 pass-blocking grade from PFF led the nation this past season. Skoronski dominated from the moment he first stepped on the field as a true freshman for the Wildcats, and never earned a season grade below 81.0.

PFF projects Skoronski, who allowed just six pressures and one sack all season long, as a day-one starter.

So what is it going to take to move up to Tennessee’s No. 11 spot, which is probably what it will take to get Skoronski?

According to the NFL Draft Trade Value Chart, Tennessee’s No. 11 selection is worth 1,250 points. Cincinnati picks at No. 28, which is worth 660 points. In order to move up, the Bengals would have to part with their Round 2 pick this year (300 points), along with the No. 2 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. And that’s just to break even.

According to Spotrac, the projected contract for the No. 11 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft is $20,925,002 over four years, with a salary cap hit of $3,804,546 in 2023. By contrast, Orlando Brown, Jr., PFF’s top-rated free agent offensive tackle, is projected to earn a five-year contract of around $105 million, with a projected cap hit of $21 million. When you look at it this way, a trade-up makes sense.

Of course, there is always the chance another team drafts Skoronski, but isn’t that what makes all of this prediction stuff so much fun? I guess we just have to wait and see.