The Cincinnati Bengals and their fans have known the big names that are set to hit the open market in a few days for far longer than that. It is why the ending they had this season stung quite a bit more than the year before.
The front office has said that it will focus on retaining their proven talent, but we will have to see what happens if and/or when they get outbid for a few of these guys. Three pillars on a very talented defense and a surprise safety blanket for Joe Burrow last season were highlighted by ESPN’s top 100 free agents list. Here they are and some thoughts on them.
5. Jessie Bates, Safety
With post and split-field range over the top and a history of creating on-the-ball production (14 career picks), Bates is an easy fit as a versatile defender in both single-high and two-deep schemes. He had four interceptions, eight pass breakups and 38 solo tackles last season. He allowed 15 catches on 30 targets for 243 yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, ranking third in the league among safeties who played at least 250 coverage snaps. Bates, who played 2022 on the franchise tag, will be coveted.
Bates heading elsewhere this off-season seemed like it was an inevitability after he and Cincinnati failed to come to terms on a long-term contract and he played on the franchise tag.
While this one will hurt because we as fans have watched him grow into one of the best safeties, he simply is worth too much to keep. When you phrase it like you could keep Bates but lose Tee Higgins or Ja’Marr Chase down the line, then it seems like the Bengals have a fairly clear vision of their future.
This is just a problem that teams with tons of young talent face, and hopefully, Bates gets paid and has plenty of success where ever he goes. The Bengals prepared for this by taking Daxton Hill in the First Round last off-season. He will have the biggest shoes to fill.
39. Vonn Bell, Safety
Bell has the ability to match up against tight ends, and he plays with a physical demeanor in the box. He’s a dependable and tough veteran safety who can play top-down from split-field alignments and make plays on the ball. Bell intercepted a career-high four passes and added eight pass breakups last season. On nearly 500 coverage snaps, he didn’t allow any touchdowns as the nearest defender in coverage, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Bell was one of the original outside free agents brought in to completely overhaul a defense that was historically bad. No one will ever forget when he hit JuJu Smith-Schuster on Monday Night Football in a game that really seemed like a turning point for the Zac Taylor era.
It would be nice to keep Bell, and he may still be in the plans for next season. Having him next to Hill would alleviate some growing pains of having two relatively young players taking over major starting roles. He is also just a great role model for younger players and has brought that mindset of going after the ball and attacking the offense to the forefront during his tender. If he leaves, this is a position Cincinnati could try and land a mid-tier free agent to replace him. Drafting a replacement would be a real setup for disaster in the short term.
43. Germaine Pratt, Linebacker
Pratt has the movement skills to play on the outside in a 40 front, can track the ball from the second level in the run game and creates coverage disruption as a three-down defender. He has logged over 90 total tackles in each of his past two seasons, while posting two interceptions and 10 pass breakups in 2022.
If Pratt ever has to buy his own drinks or food in Cincinnati for the rest of his life, we have failed as a fan base. He had the interception against the Las Vegas Raider in 2021 that ended almost a 30-year-old drought of winning a playoff game. He also forced the fumble that Sam Hubbard returned nearly 100 yards this season in the Wild Card round that completely changed that game.
On paper, it seems Pratt is the one free agent that this team is most set to let walk away. They have Logan Wilson set to get extended next season, and they have two young guys in Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey waiting in the wings as well. However, he is probably the free agent this team would miss most. If Bell is the player who brought that attitude this defense has had the past couple of years to the forefront then Pratt has been the enforcer. You can probably count on one or two hands how many times Pratt allowed a ball carrier to fall forward, and he often is calling out the opposing team’s plays based on a pre-snap read.
The linebacker market seems a bit bloated this year, so Pratt returning on a one-year deal isn’t off the table. It could actually be super beneficial to both sides. Although, Pratt would probably like the reassurance that he will get to prove he can play on third downs before he returns.
86. Hayden Hurst, Tight end
Hurst has the route traits to test the seams and produce after the catch on underneath throws. He will have suitors as an in-line tight end who can flex out. In 2022 with the Bengals, he caught 52 passes for 414 yards and two scores.
Finally, we come to Hurst. Many fans were shocked when CJ Uzomah left Cincinnati to join the New York Jets last offseason. He was a huge locker room guy and it just left an unexpected hole in the Bengals’ plans. That spot was filled by Hurst — who after being taken by the Ravens in the First Round — had spent most of his career being replaced or passed over.
Joining the Bengals gave him a chance to show he was a reliable option as a pass-catching tight end in the NFL, still. It also gave Cincinnati a weapon at tight end that they really haven’t had since Tyler Eifert’s days in the jungle. Hurst missed a few games, but he made several clutch conversions for first downs on the season.
The Bengals have spoken to many of the tight ends in April’s upcoming NFL Draft, but they should still find a way to bring Hurst back if possible for at least a short-term deal. It is going to be hard for a rookie to step in and do what Hurst did last season.