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Best Bengals Free Agent Fits

NFL teams had until March 5th to place the franchise tag on a player, but the Bengals didn’t need that long to put the kibosh on Tee Higgins walking out the door in free agency.  On February 24th, approximately two nano-seconds after it was announced that the NFL’s salary cap would jump by an unexpected $30 million, the Bengals locked up their star free agent wide receiver with the tag, taking one of the best available players off the market and erasing a massive potential hole in their offense.  The Bengals could still look to move the 25-year-old Higgins in a potential trade package, but for now, the framework of one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses remains intact for another year.

While placing the tag on Higgins takes one massive need off the board for the Bengals, their roster could still use a little TLC in free agency.  And besides – Higgins isn’t the only notable Bengals free agent either.  D.J. Reader, Tyler Boyd, Chidobe Awuzie and Jonah Williams each played massive roles in the Bengals success over the last three years, and each could play elsewhere in 2024.  Combine that with some truly horrific defensive performances over the last season and a still-unreliable offensive line, and there are more than a few directions the Bengals could take to get themselves over the hump.

For now, though, it’s pure speculation time.  The NFL’s legal tampering period (aka, the period of time teams have to legally negotiate with prospective free agents before free agency actually begins) doesn’t begin until Monday – but everybody knows this rule isn’t exactly followed to a T.  How else could we get such important and detailed contracts completed and signed within mere minutes of the free agency period opening, hmmmm?

If we put our collective heads in the sand, we can at least pretend like some of these free agents haven’t already begun searching for their new living arrangements.  Right now, in theory, every free agent is available to the highest bidder.  With that in mind, here are some of the best free agent fits for the Bengals as they begin their work on returning to the Super Bowl:

DT Chris Jones (Kansas City Chiefs)

The ultimate free-agent prize of 2024, the 29-year-old Jones is a premier interior defender and one of the most disruptive players in the NFL, full stop.  From game-breaking sacks to batted passes to mauling opponents in the run game, Jones is the complete package at defensive tackle, and would likely provide an immediate and enormous impact to any team he signs with, Bengals included.  It’s unlikely, given the consistent reporting that Jones and Kansas City still have the hots for one another, but if for whatever reason a deal between the two falls through, the Bengals would be nuts not to at least kick the tires on the five-time All Pro.

Of course, stealing a highly-productive player from a major rival is always a boon, but signing Jones would help the Bengals just as much as it would be a killer to the Chiefs.  The Bengals last year had one of the NFL’s worst defenses, much of their struggles stemming from an utter inability to stop the run.  With Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader also a free agent and coming off another season-ending quad injury, swapping him for Jones would provide an immediate boost to the interior of their defensive line, giving them a player who can not only fill gaps in the run game, but neutralize the opponent’s passing game as well.

Sadly, this is more of a pipe-dream than a realistic option.  Jones, if the Chiefs don’t lock him up beforehand, will have a massive market for his services.  Anyone – and I mean anyone – could use a DT of his caliber.  The price tag will be jaw-dropping, but well-deserved for such an impact player.  The Bengals don’t typically swim in those free agent waters; they tend to like to wade around with the middle-tiers.  But then again, the Orlando Brown Jr. signing was a surprise for that very same reason.  It’s unlikely, but if the Bengals can find a way to woo Jones away from the defending champs, their path to the Super Bowl gets a lot easier.

DT Christian Wilkins (Miami Dolphins)

While signing Jones may be on the more improbable end of the spectrum for the Bengals, fortunately there’s another option for DT-needy teams: Wilkins.  Though he doesn’t have Jones’ accolades or name-recognition, he’s a sturdy, well-built defensive lineman with chops against the run and the pass.  He’s the off-brand Jones for teams that miss out on the Chiefs superstar.

It was a surprise when the Dolphins chose not to franchise tag the 28-year-old Wilkins, but given their messy salary-cap situation, they might not have had another option.  And with Jones looking more and more likely to remain in KC, Wilkins suddenly looks to be the player with the largest market for his services.  Remember: everyone can use a defensive tackle that can throw his weight (literally) around in the run and pass game.  Everyone.

DE Danielle Hunter (Minnesota Vikings)

After nine seasons with the Vikings, Hunter is finally a free agent – and he couldn’t have picked a better year to do it.  The 29-year-old defensive end put together his finest season, setting career highs in total tackles (83), sacks (16.5), and forced fumbles (4), reaching the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive season, and setting himself up for a lucrative payday.  Like the Dolphins, the Vikings are facing their own tricky salary-cap situation, which means Hunter may be on the move.

The Bengals do employ one of the better pass rushers in the NFL in Trey Hendrickson, but adding Hunter to the mix would provide an immediate boost to a frustratingly inconsistent area of their defense.  Outside of Hendrickson, the Bengals lack anyone who can get to the QB with regularity.  Sam Hubbard is a fine run defender at the edge, but his performance in the pass game left much to be desired.  Reader, if he returns, can collapse the pocket from time to time, but rushing the passer isn’t his forte.  B.J. Hill is a good complimentary piece, but he’s far from a game-wrecker.  Unless Myles Murphy explodes in year two, it’s hard to see the Bengals pass rush improving significantly without outside help.  Enter Hunter.

If the Bengals can find a way to get the four-time Pro Bowler in Stripes, the trickle-down effect on their defense will be tremendous.  Hendrickson and Hunter would be a nightmare for offensive tackles, and with offenses unable to expend extra resources to stop the pass rush up the middle, Hill, Reader, and Hubbard (when he kicks inside), should have a field day.  Pass rush is always a hot commodity in free agency, so Hunter will have plenty of suitors.  This move may make a lot more sense if the Bengals move on from Reader or if Hubbard is cut or restructures his contract, but either way, Hunter could elevate this defense in a way few other players can.

OT/OG Mike Onwenu (New England Patriots)

If you’ve watched the Bengals at all over the last three seasons, you know there’s been one, specific, consistent source of frustration: the unreliable pass protection.  Simply put, the Bengals haven’t been good enough.  Burrow can make up for a lot of shortcomings, but he can only do it when he’s on the field, and the injury-concerns are mounting for the star QB.  His season-ending wrist injury may have been flukey, and no one can blame the Bengals for his appendix bursting, but 148 sacks taken over four seasons is a number that should terrify everyone.  The Bengals must be better at protecting their $275-million-dollar-man.

Onwenu may not be a household name, but he’s been a reliable starter in New England for four years now, making appearances at multiple positions including right tackle, left tackle, and right guard.  With his positional versatility, Onwenu could allow the Bengals to mix-and-match their pieces to create the very-best unit possible, replacing potential free-agent departure Jonah Williams at right tackle, or upgrading the Bengals leaky left guard spot.  Either way, the 26-year-old, 350 lbs. Onwenu is a hulking, man-mover with enough untapped potential to be a steal in free agency – and one the Bengals should have squarely in their sights.

WR Curtis Samuel (Washington Commanders)

Tyler Boyd will hit free agency after eight seasons in Cincinnati, and after posting an extremely disappointing 2023 season, it’s no sure thing that he’ll return.  The Bengals prepared for this eventuality, drafting two receivers in Charlie Jones and Andrei Iosivas in the 4th- and 6th-rounds, respectively, but adding a do-it-all weapon like Samuel could take this offense to another level of ferocity.

There are a number of reasons Samuel could be a big upgrade over Boyd, but the biggest is his unique skill-set.  Like 49ers star Deebo Samuel (no relation), Samuel is a compact, bruising receiver with the rare ability to threaten defenses vertically and horizontally with his combination of speed and elusiveness.  He can create yards after contact in screen plays and jet sweeps, he has reliable hands, and he can occasionally take the top off the defense for big gains.  For all of his success in Cincinnati, Boyd did nearly all of his damage in one spot: over the middle.  Samuel gives the Bengals some much needed offensive versatility.

Pick a Tight End

  • Hunter Henry (New England Patriots)

  • Noah Fant (Seattle Seahawks)

  • Hayden Hurst (Carolina Panthers)

Another sore spot for the Bengals in 2023 was tight end.  After getting an excellent performance from Hurst on a one-year deal in 2022, the Bengals opted to do the same with Irv Smith Jr.  It…didn’t work.  Not even remotely.  In thirteen games for the Bengals in 2022, Hurst put up 414 yards and scored two touchdowns.  Smith put up less than half those numbers.  Needless to say, Smith won’t be back in 2024.

The rest of the Bengals depth chart isn’t inspiring either.  Drew Sample is a solid blocking tight end, but he offers little in the pass game.  Tanner Hudson had some encouraging moments, but he’s a 29-year-old journeyman for a reason.  Maybe Hudson takes a leap with another offseason of work with Burrow, but the Bengals would be wise to add some competition.

Henry is the cream of the free-agent-tight-end crop.  A dependable receiver and blocker, Henry would give the Bengals a dose of consistency that they’ve been severely lacking.  Fant has been a breakout candidate for a few years, and although he hasn’t quite lived up to the hype, he’s a decent player with youth, intriguing athleticism, and run-after-catch ability.  Like Hurst in 2022, Fant could provide a significant boost without costing the Bengals a premium.

Finally, Hurst himself is available and a potential reunion with Cincinnati could be a great fit for both parties.  The 30-year-old was released despite signing a three-year deal with Carolina in the offseason, following a tumultuous season in which Hurst missed time with a scary bout of post-traumatic amnesia.  There might be too much risk in signing Hurst to be an every-down player, but as a relatively inexpensive role player, he could be a worthwhile investment.

Any of a Number of Rotational Pass Rushers

  • Chase Young (San Francisco 49ers)

  • Josh Uche (New England Patriots)

  • Leonard Floyd (Buffalo Bills)

  • Carl Lawson (New York Jets)

  • AJ Epenesa (Buffalo Bills)

  • Marcus Davenport (Minnesota Vikings)

  • Darrell Taylor (Seattle Seahawks)

  • Yannick Ngakoue (Chicago Bears)

The Bengals rarely go big fish hunting in free agency, and between Burrow’s massive extension, Higgins’ franchise tag, and a looming extension for Ja’Marr Chase on the horizon, the Bengals may not have an appetite for some of the more expensive options.  In that case, let me introduce you to a bevy of potential candidates the Bengals could look to for a cheap boost to their pass rush.

Young is a former #2 pick and will likely draw the most interest of this group, but his tenure in Washington was forgettable and his brief exposé in San Francisco wasn’t encouraging.  There might be some who think a reunion with former Ohio State teammate Hubbard might bring out the best in the 24-year-old Young, but if Nick Bosa couldn’t do that in Frisco, what evidence is there that Hubbard can?

The rest of the list has its flaws as well.  Uche regressed massively from a breakout 2022 season, while Lawson hasn’t been the same since an Achilles tear in 2021.  Epenesa has been productive in Buffalo, but whether he can remain effective away from Sean McDermott’s defensive scheme is uncertain.  Davenport, Taylor and Ngakoue would all be inexpensive and offer a baseline level of pass rushing competence, but you’re not getting much more than league-average with those options.

Floyd, meanwhile, has a proven track-record away from Buffalo and may be the best option of the bunch.  With at least 9.5 sacks over the last four seasons, Floyd is a proven commodity as a pass rush specialist.  In Cincinnati, Floyd could pair nicely with Hendrickson, Hubbard and a still-developing Murphy to cause headaches for offensive tackles on an every down basis.  If Murphy manages to take the next step, the need for another edge rusher diminishes, but adding a proven vet like Floyd could not only provide insurance in case of injuries, but also allow the Bengals to utilize the draft to target other areas of weakness.

There are a number of free agents I didn’t mention that the Bengals could look to sign as well.  Jermaine Eluemunor is available if the Bengals can’t re-sign Williams at right tackle, while Za’Darius Smith continues to be an edge menace even as he continues into the back nine of his career.  The Bengals could also look to add help at running back or defensive back if the price makes sense.  For as many ways as the Bengals could tackle free agency, the reality is the Bengals are darn close to getting back to the Super Bowl.  Burrow is still the only QB who has shown the ability to compete with Patrick Mahomes at the highest level. Their most important pieces are still in place, and if the front office can nail one or two signings and Burrow can stay upright for the entire season, the Bengals will remain one of the elite teams in the AFC and a viable threat to win it all.

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