The Bengals made a big splash this off-season, landing LT Orlando Brown Jr. While many of us, concerned about the o-line with Jonah and Collins coming off of major injuries, were hoping the front office would address it in free agency, no one saw a move of this magnitude coming. Thus, before I criticize them for not doing enough, let me applaud the job they did in landing a player of this caliber on such a team-friendly contract. Now for the rest of my message...
Either by design (Bates, Bell, Hurst) or misfortune (Perine), the team let several key contributors walk this off-season and have mostly sat on their hands during a weak FA market in which many safeties, TEs, and RBs were forced to accept below-market contracts.
This, in spite of Duke Tobin's assurance that the team would "spend to the cap" this year. Yes, I fully understand that it's going to be pricey to resign Burrow, Higgins, and eventually Chase and that the team needs to plan in advance, but they're currently sitting at $18 million over the cap, and this figure may soon rise to over $30 million if they find a suitor for Jonah ($12.6 million cap hit) and even close to $37 million if they also release or restructure Mixon.
In the meantime, as one good FA after another signs with other teams, I'm left to wonder what exactly is the front office's plan? Do they plan to fill all these holes in one draft or do they truly believe they already have suitable replacements in house?
Don't get me wrong - I'm not complaining that they didn't sign any more big-ticket free agents, just miffed that they failed to take advantage of a buyer's market to fill a few glaring vacancies in their starting line-up while they had the chance. With over $18 million in 2023 cap space, the opportunity was there to fill those holes with reasonably priced vets on front-loaded deals or 1-year prove-it contracts.
I believe the front office feels they've done enough to please the fan base and are in fact done with free agency. Shame on those of us who believed the spin that the "new Bengals" would spend what was necessary in order to compete for a Super Bowl. Instead, I'm sure we'll soon see the perennial announcement on the lack of cap space, with an inflated $7-8 million allocated for rookie contracts, another $5-10 million for in-season injury replacements, and at least a $10 million rollover to next year!
Just for gits and shiggles, here's how the $18 million could've been spent, with my assessment of needs vs. the front office's likely assessment:
Me: Safety (1 vacant starting position) - Need a safety with solid starting experience alongside Dax, who may have growing pains. Gardner-Johnson, a younger, more athletic upgrade over Von Bell, could've been had for a prove-it deal of $8 million (or possibly a 3-4 year deal at around $10 mil/year). Otherwise, quality starters such as Thornhill and Love were available on multi-year deals with cap hits ranging from $6-7 million. Even at $10 mil a year, Gardner-Johnson would've represented a bargain compared to Bates, and the team wouldn't go into the season with a question mark at the position.
FO: Safety (1 vacant starting position) - The team opted to sign a fringe starter, Nick Scott, to a bargain contract with an AAV of $4 million. We'll see how he pans out alongside an inexperienced rookie, but needless to say, they'll either be lauded for finding a diamond in the rough or criticized when the secondary is exposed this year.
Me: Tight End (1 vacant starting position) - As the team chose not to tender Wilcox and is unlikely to resign Sample, the cupboard is truly bare here. Trying to match the Falcons offer for Hurst, who'll turn 30 this year (a 3-year deal at an AAV of $7 million a year) wouldn't have made a lot of sense. However, I would've been proactive in locking up Wilcox, who shouldn't cost more than around a million. While the top two TEs (Schultz and Gesicki) signed reasonable 1-year prove-it deals with total compensation of up to around $9 million with incentives, this is still a little rich for a team like the Bengals, which doesn't utilize a pass-catching TE much. Not a lot of options aside from the draft here, but it wouldn't hurt to take a flyer on a cheaper option like an Irv Smith Jr. since it usually takes draft picks a couple years to learn the nuances of the position.
FO: Tight End (1 vacant starting position) - I'm sure the team sees it the same way as it's been crickets here. Maybe the master plan was to reunite Burrow with Foster Moreau, but as we all know, the up-and-coming tight end has a bigger battle to fight now than football.
Me: Running Back (1-2 vacant starting positions) - With all the talent in the draft this year, I can understand the team's unwillingness to give Perine assurances that he'd be the number one back (or at least 1a). However, I would've made every effort to sign another third-down back, and several players were/are available who wouldn't have broken the bank, including Devin Singletary (1 yr. $3.75 million to the rebuilding Texans), Damien Harris (1 yr. unreported to the Bills), and Kareem Hunt (still unsigned). This would've given the team leverage in convincing Mixon to agree to a pay cut (if not, bye bye Felicia).
FO: Running Back (1-2 vacant starting positions) - The team's failure to sign a viable replacement for Perine makes it a virtual certainty that we won't see a Mixon restructuring. The team will either be forced to spend two draft picks on the position or fork over $10 million to a RB who doesn't appear to be a great fit for their system.
Me: Cornerback (0-1 vacant starting positions) - While there are no gaping holes here, Awuzie is coming off of an ACL tear and may not be back to full strength until midseason, CTB may experience growing pains, and Hilton is pushing 30 and only under contract through 2024. Since there are a lot of question marks and you can never have too many good corners, I would've seriously considered an upgrade to Eli Apple if the price were right, like Sean Murphy-Bunting (1 yr. $5 million to the Titans) or Rock Ya-Sin (still unsigned).
FO: Cornerback (0-1 vacant starting positions) - Since the FO hasn't done anything to address the position, maybe we see the return of mediocrity (Eli Apple).
With the lack of activity, here are the positions that will now need to be addressed in the draft (possibly as many as 8!):
RT - While I would give Carmen the chance to compete at RT with Collins (who's likely to be PUP''d), I would spend a high pick on a future franchise RT, if for no other reason than to improve the depth, so hopefully we never have to see Hakeem Adeniji starting again. However, the FO, which never likes to admit defeat when it comes to high draft picks, probably feels that the line's in great shape with Carmen as the starter and scrubs like Adeniji and D'ante Smith for depth.
LG - I would spend a mid-round pick to bring in competition for Volson, who showed signs of improvement but doesn't have the athleticism to be a plus starter. Doubt the FO sees it this way though.
TE - Too many other pressing needs to use a first rounder on the position, but a solid pass-catching TE needs to be addressed in Round 2 or 3. If Wilcox or Sample don't return, the team will need to double dip and add a blocking TE in the later rounds. I fully expect the FO to become enamored with the position in the first round and expect them to reach for a workout warrior like Washington or Kincaid.
RB - If Bijan Robinson is still on the board, I'd think long and hard about it. Otherwise, the second round seems to be the charm for the Bengals and Charbonnet would be tempting. If they draft either one of those two, I'd send Mixon packing to free up space. As the Bengals have a history of letting underperforming players play out their contracts, they probably don't see a need to draft a RB high and I imagine we'll see a backfield of Mixon and Traveon with perhaps a late-round draft pick thrown into the mix.
DT - The starters are in place here, but Reader turns 30 in 2024 and the team is unlikely to have the space to resign him. A rotational 3-tech that could help the pass rush would also be a nice luxury. While good run stoppers are usually available in the middle rounds, talented pass rushers normally go off the board earlier. If there are no players worth the pick at a greater position of need, I could see going BPA and using a first-round pick; otherwise, both spots would need to be addressed in the middle rounds, if at all. I think the FO felt the impact of Larry O's absence on the pass rush and expect them to address at least 3-tech this year.
CB - Depth is needed here. I would consider spending a mid-round pick on a slot corner who could eventually succeed Hilton. As the FO normally values the position highly, I wouldn't be surprised to see them address the position, possibly even adding another boundary corner if one falls to the bottom of the first round.
Safety - As I wouldn't count on Scott or Tycen Andersen for anything more than depth, I would look to address the position in the middle rounds. I'm sure the FO doesn't see it this way and is hoping their bargain signing pans out but they're likely to add one on day 3 for depth.
DE - The starters are set here, but it's possible the team may want to address the position as sack numbers were down last year, with little pressure when Hendrickson was out. As I don't see this as as big of a need as a rotational 3-tech and am content to roll with Ossai and Sample, I'd only address it if a clear BPA becomes available who trumps other needs. The team may however feel differently since the contracts of Hendrickson (who'll be 30), Ossai, and Sample all expire in 2024.
I'm sure I'm going to catch plenty of flack for this, but nonetheless, let me know your thoughts!