Four Burning Questions for the Bengals Offseason
Photo Credit: AlexanderJonesi, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
There was so much hype and fallout from the AFC Championship, it almost feels as if the Chiefs and Bengals met in the Stadium Very Briefly Known as Burrowhead just yesterday. The fact that the Super Bowl is going to be played in two days is surreal. The Bengals should have beaten the Chiefs - but they didn’t, and now all that’s left is to ponder how the Bengals finally break through next year.
Even though the offseason is still in its infancy for the Bengals, so much has already happened that you could be forgiven for thinking it was already mid-March. There was the legal drama with Joe Mixon (resolved without charges, thankfully), the sudden Tee-Higgins-trade speculation, and the still-looming mega-extension for one Joe Burrow that’s sure to make him one of the highest-paid players in the NFL. It’s been a long time since the Bengals were involved in so much offseason chatter, and for once it’s (mostly) positive.
Here’s the bad news: prepare for some poaching. This happens to every team that has so much success. Lesser teams are going to want a taste. But here’s the good news: the Bengals currently sit at $35 million under the cap (according to Spotrac), they’ve found excellent bargains on the free agent market, and they’ve been drafting really, really, really well. There’s going to be some turnover, but nothing they can’t handle.
1. What Does the Secondary Look Like?
The secondary has been a very underrated part of the Bengals success over the last two seasons. The wider NFL communities know the name Jessie Bates III, but the credit for this unit’s turnaround goes to the collective over one singular star. Secondaries can live and die by their weakest link, and no team has gotten more out of less like the Bengals. Now, heading into 2023, the Bengals depth in the secondary is going to be tested more than ever.
Big questions abound. Bates is a free agent after playing on the franchise tag, and he’s sure to command a large salary. His running mate at safety, Von Bell, is also a free agent, and after a season in which he received some All-Pro consideration, he could also be a pricey keep as well. The likelihood is, unfortunately, that one probably doesn’t return (most likely Bates) and one of the NFL’s best safety tandems is broken up.
The other pressing concern is the status of cornerback Eli Apple. Now, Apple has had his share of down moments, but the fact remains that he’s been a serviceable corner for the Bengals. Apple was able to step in at the #2 corner role for Trae Waynes last year, and this year took up the mantle as #1 corner after Chidobe Awuzie was lost for the season with a knee injury. His value shouldn't be underestimated. Finding surprise contributors is key for any successful team, and while Apple wasn’t exactly a “playmaker”, he also wasn’t the massive weak link many expected (or hoped) he would be.
Fortunately, the Bengals were prepared for this moment. They drafted three defensive backs, including first-round pick Dax Hill and second-round pick Cam Taylor-Britt. Both saw plenty of action in the second half of the season and the postseason, with Taylor-Britt, in particular, looking like a future cornerstone. Fifth-round safety Tycen Anderson never saw the field in 2022, but his combination of size (6’2”, 210 lbs.) and speed (4.36 in the 40-yard-dash) make him an intriguing development piece.
Furthermore, expect the Bengals to be active in adding to their secondary in the offseason, whether that’s through the draft or in free agency. Corner, especially, is a position the Bengals have not been shy in addressing. It’s almost a certainty that the Bengals select a defensive back in the upcoming draft at some point. In the end, though, things will look a bit different. But thanks to some forward thinking by the Bengals front office, some savvy drafting, and hopefully the retention of a few key players, there shouldn’t be much - if any - dropoff.
2. Can the Bengals Afford New Additions to the Offensive Line? Or Better Yet, Can They Afford Not to Address It?
The biggest story for the Bengals last offseason was major additions to the offensive line made via free agency and the draft. In the Super Bowl versus the Rams, the offensive line was the clear culprit, and so out the door went Quinton Spain and Trey Hopkins, 2021 second-rounder Jackson Carman went to the bench, and three new starters came aboard in Alex Cappa, Ted Karras, and rookie Cordell Volson. The season didn’t get off to a great start for this group (but facing T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons in the first two weeks will do that to you), but they rounded into form down the stretch.
Unfortunately, the injury bug hit the Bengals offensive line - hard. It started in Week 16 when right tackle La’el Collins tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Two weeks later, the Bengals lost right guard Alex Cappa. A week later, left tackle Jonah Williams was lost.
Backups Hakeem Adeniji, Max Scharping and Carman performed admirably, in particular in the Bengals dominant win over the Bills, but fell apart in the face of Chris Jones and a potent Kansas City Chiefs defensive line. Once again, the Bengals Super Bowl dreams were derailed by poor offensive line play. It can’t happen a third year in a row…can it?
Because the Bengals spent so heavily on the line last offseason, and because there are several big names with big extensions coming their way, the Bengals probably can’t afford to overhaul the position like they did last year. Any new additions will have to come from free agency’s bargain bin, which isn’t exactly where you want to be shopping when your franchise quarterback is about to become one of the highest-paid players in the NFL.
Still, with the way the fully intact line looked at the end of the year, there’s reason to believe that major additions won’t be necessary for the Bengals to take the next step to become Super Bowl champions. Williams had a down year, no question, but he’s been a dependable lineman for the Bengals for four years now. Cappa was playing the best ball of his career up to that point. Collins might be a cut-candidate if the Bengals feel like they can find an upgrade elsewhere, but even he had some strong performances this year, especially in the run game.
More importantly, Carman looked vastly improved in year two. Let’s be honest: he was a bust at guard as a rookie. But in the most critical portion of the year, when the pressure amped up to crazy levels in the postseason, Carman played exceptionally well filling in for Williams at left tackle. It was a massive surprise, but a very welcome one. If Carman’s improvement is real, the Bengals could be in good shape.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the rest of the roster and with the pending extensions for Burrow and Higgins, it’s incredibly unlikely that the Bengals dip into the free agency waters this offseason. It’s hard to imagine, though, that the Bengals don’t look to invest a mid-round pick in someone they can develop into a quality lineman. After all, they spent a fourth-round pick on Volson and he became a starter right away. There might not be any immediate difference-makers out there, but as this past year has taught us: when it comes to the offensive line, depth is key.
3. Can the Bengals Figure Out a Way to Keep Tee Higgins Around Long-Term?
Ask any Bengals fan who the two most important pieces for the future are, and they’re sure to give you the same two names: Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase - and for good reason. Burrow is a special, special player. His pinpoint accuracy, outstanding decision-making skills, and tremendous leadership will serve this team well for years to come. And Chase, meanwhile, is already one of the best receivers on the planet, with a combination of explosiveness and smarts that’s nearly unmatched at the position. Those two will continue to be focal points of the offense for the remainder of their careers.
With Burrow about to sign his mega-extension this offseason, and with Chase’s extension on the horizon, Higgins has often been portrayed as the odd man out. It makes sense. As the clear #2 receiver on the Bengals, Higgins might look to spread his wings. And for the Bengals, it’s going to be hard to find enough money to play two receivers that command top dollar.
Here’s the thing, though: as far as I’m concerned, pay Burrow, pay Chase, and pay Higgins. After that, let the rest of the chips fall where they may. With those three in the fold, the foundation for a championship offense is in place. The front office will need to be creative with limited funds in order to fill the inevitable holes that will arise, but keeping the Bengals Big Three is key to contention.
Sadly, in order to facilitate the dollars it will take to keep Burrow, Chase and Higgins, Mixon and slot receiver Tyler Boyd will likely not end their careers in stripes. They’ve both been great Bengals, but running back has become an extremely devalued position in the NFL, and the fact that Burrow has been able to elevate the game of an undrafted player like Trenton Irwin suggests that paying three WRs big money is unnecessary. Given the Bengals can save nearly $16 million in cap space by cutting both this offseason, it’s highly possible we’ve already seen their last days in Cincinnati.
Another potential cap casualty could be Collins. Though he was serviceable this year, there are several factors working against him, namely, his age (he’ll be 30 in July), his injury history (ACL tear in 2022 and missed all of 2020 with a hip injury), and the promising Carman waiting in the wings. If the Bengals choose to cut him, they’ll save about $6 million - and every penny counts when you’re trying to sign three stars.
4. Will the Bengals Make Joe Burrow the Highest-Paid QB in the NFL?
Let me be clear: Burrow has every right to ask for the moon. He’s been everything and more that the Bengals could have asked for when they selected him #1 overall in 2019. He’s been a playmaker and a leader. He’s put Cincinnati back on the map. His pregame outfits are now dissected on a weekly basis. In short, he’s been spectacular.
What happens when spectacular QBs are up for contract extensions? They get paid a spectacular amount of money - and in Joe’s case, deservedly so. Even if the Bengals don’t make him literally the highest-paid player in the NFL, Burrow’s new extension could cripple the Bengals financially. Hopefully, that doesn’t come to pass, and fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be Joe’s M.O.
In an interview with the NFL Network, Burrow’s favorite target Ja’Marr Chase had some interesting and insightful comments about his QB: “At the end of the day, I don’t think Joe’s really too worried about how much money he’s gonna make because he’s already making a tremendous amount. It’ll work out for itself, it will all work out. I think Joe knows what he wants and how he wants to set up his contract to keep some of his weapons around him. And I think that’s the biggest part for him.”
If you’re a Bengals fan, you can’t help but crack a smile after reading those words. If you’re anyone else, you’re cringing because you just know the Bengals are going to be at the top of the AFC for a loooooong time. Twitter might be convinced the Bengals are going to move Tee Higgins, but if Burrow wants it, he can keep his arsenal intact - while still being compensated like the franchise-changing player he is.