Everyone is still riding the hype train over the Cincinnati Bengals signing Orlando Brown Jr. to one of the biggest contracts they have ever given an outside free agent. In the wake of that, it is a great time to look back at how well Cincinnati has utilized free agency to help build this team back up from being one of the worst in the NFL in 2019.
2020 free agent hits
This free-agent class laid the roots for what would become this team’s identity in free agency. They went out and got several players entering their prime (ages 24 to 27) and either got them on prove-it type one-year contracts or multi-year contracts with low signing bonuses.
The most notable guys signed here are defensive tackle D.J. Reader, safety Vonn Bell, and linebacker Josh Bynes. This team had one of the worst defenses in history in 2019, and it was clear they needed change quickly. These guys instantly came in and changed the mood of the whole locker room.
Obviously, Reader and Bell went on to have several years of success, but Bynes played just as big of a role. He was brought in to mentor a very young linebacker room with Germaine Pratt, Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey. Wilson mentioned after Bynes’ departure how much he helped him develop by being there as that veteran player.
Other players who played well: CB Mackensie Alexander
Misses: CB Trae Waynes (injuries) and G Xavier Su’a-Filo
2021 free agent hits
This was the year that made fans admit that this team knew what they were doing. They let cornerback William Jackson and defensive end Carl Lawson go after being promising young players. What they did after was honestly what would help propel them to a Super Bowl appearance.
The team signed defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who was coming off a career season that many attributed to playing with another top pass rusher. They landed cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton for essentially what Jackson got on the open market. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi joined the team on a one-year prove-it deal to show he could rush the passer when given the opportunity. They also added Samaje Perine to backup Joe Mixon in the backfield. Finally, they added offensive tackle Reilly Reiff to fill the hole at right tackle.
All of these names were absolute home runs. Hendrickson and Ogunjobi proved they could both rush the passer at a high lever. Awuzie and Hilton played about as well as you could imagine, and Perine and Reiff both proved to be reliable pieces in areas the Bengals really needed them to be.
Other players who weren’t disappointments: WR Michael Thomas and S Ricardo Allen
Misses: Arguably none
2022 free agent hits
The hits just keep on coming. This year the front office decided they absolutely had to attack the offensive line and out the gate landed offensive lineman Alex Cappa and Ted Karras to help sure up the middle of that offensive line. They would also eventually land La’el Collins who I will put in the hits since towards the end of the season things were coming together on the offensive line.
What many need to remember about the offensive line is that there were five guys now who had never played a meaningful snap together during Week 1 with a quarterback who had missed all of training camp due to getting his appendix removed. It wasn’t a great recipe for success, but they all started to gel later on. Unfortunately, injuries to three of them derailed the whole thing.
Then there was tight end Hayden Hurst. He was signed following C.J. Uzomah shocking everyone by signing with the New York Jets. Hurst was a former-first-round selection by the Baltimore Ravens that never got an opportunity to be the top pass-catching tight end in an offense quite like the Bengals. His stats won’t pop out at you as amazing, but if you re-watch games, how many times did he turn a five-yard play into an eight and get the first down? How many times did he absolutely drag defenders and get everyone excited by the extra effort? And also, he put up the kinds of numbers you’d expect from a guy who is realistically fourth or fifth in the pecking order.
The rest of free agency was spent retaining players like defensive tackle B.J. Hill, Eli Apple, quarterback Brandon Allen, safety Michael Thomas and defensive tackle Josh Tupou. Not a miss to be had other than allowing Larry Ogunjobi to walk following the season.
The Bengals' front office has earned the right to do what they do and be questioned later. This off-season’s biggest priority is getting Joe Burrow his extension as well as possibly wide receiver Tee Higgins.
They lost quite a few familiar faces in Bell, safety Jessie Bates and Perine, but we have to trust that a team with this hitting average the past three years will get it right in the end until proven otherwise.