There was a time when a 9-8 record would be respectable, even solid. But, for Cincinnati Bengals fans, those days are gone. And hopefully buried. This is Joe Burrow's country now, where anything short of a Super Bowl appearance is a disappointment.
There were lots of reasons why a team with Super Bowl aspirations barely cracked .500, and most of them involved injuries - to Burrow and DJ Reader, among others.
But, the 2023 season is behind us now, and changes need to be made if the Bengals hope to recapture lost glory. Holes need to be filled, and some should be filled from within.
With it looking more and more likely that Tee Higgins will be slapped with the franchise tag next year, Cincinnati needs a solid slot receiver if it hopes to recapture its explosive reputation.
And there are few better than Tyler Boyd, who will be a free agent next year. Boyd had a down year in 2023, averaging less than 10 yards per reception for the first time in his career, and his projected contract for 2024 is only $16.5 million over two years, with $7 million guaranteed.
The Bengals are currently sixth in NFL salary cap space at nearly $60 million and certainly have the means to make it work. Any comparable free-agent slot receiver would cost Cincinnati at least that much.
Jonah Williams turned out to be a serviceable right tackle this year but will likely be on the move in free agency, especially with contract projections in the range of $64 million over four years. Houston’s George Fant, who signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Texans this year, would certainly represent an affordable and comparable replacement.
Another need for the Bengals would probably be at tight end, although an argument could be made that the combination of Tanner Hudson and Drew Sample proved to be a more-than-competent duo. Hudson finished the season with 39 receptions for 352 yards and a touchdown, and Sample provided outstanding blocking and contributed two touchdowns and 163 yards on 22 receptions.
If Cincinnati opts to look outside for a tight end, Hunter Henry of the Patriots would be the ideal candidate. Henry recorded 42 receptions for 419 yards and six touchdowns and could probably be had on a one-year deal at around $10 million.
On defense, the Bengals’ most glaring need comes at defensive tackle, a position that has been held down over the past three seasons by the incomparable DJ Reader. Reader suffered a torn quad in Cincinnati’s Week 15 win over the Minnesota Vikings.
Despite the fact that Reader stands to earn over $15 million per year in free agency, the Bengals are not going to do any better. They can probably work something out with Reader, who has expressed a desire to remain in Cincinnati.
Finally, despite the Bengals having a pair of solid linebackers in Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson, an impact player like Baltimore’s Patrick Queen might be enough to put Lou Anarumo’s unit over the top. Of course, it would take some doing to fit Queen’s projected numbers of nearly $17 million per year under the cap, but who knows?