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The NBA-ification of the NFL, a Shakeup in the Bengals Secondary, and other Free Agency Musings from the AFC North

The NFL’s tampering period is in its second day, but already the landscape of the league has been permanently altered.  Kirk Cousins is gone in Minnesota and has softly landed in Atlanta, giving the Falcons the franchise quarterback they’ve been craving since Matt Ryan left town in 2022 – if he’s recovered from his Achilles tear, that is.  Christian Wilkins leveraged his status as the top defender on the market (after Chris Jones kindly vacated that position by re-signing with the Chiefs) into a massive deal with the Raiders.  Saquon Barkley and Aaron Jones both committed football treason (not really) and signed with their former teams’ most hated rivals.  It’s been a whirlwind – and we still have over a month to go before the draft!

While most of the big names are already off the board, there are still players – excellent players at that – who can make a big difference in 2024.  Chase Young still has massive potential as a pass rusher, Calvin Ridley can still be a reliable possession target, and Tyron Smith can still stonewall defenders when he’s healthy.  Just ask the Chiefs what kind of impact free agents like Jawaan Taylor, Donovan Smith, Charles Omenihu, and Drue Tranquill can have.

There’s a lot more to get into, so I won’t waste any more of your time.  Let’s get into it:

The NBA-ification of the NFL

Unless you live under a rock (or just don’t care about Cincinnati sports), then you probably heard the disconcerting news: Tee Higgins, the Bengals star receiver, has requested a trade from Cincinnati.  What’s the problem?  Apparently, the Bengals have not communicated with Higgins or his agent about a long-term contract since this time last year and Higgins has had it.  Or rather, his agent, David Mulugheta, has had it.

If that name rings a bell, it should.  Mulugheta hasn’t been around that long, but he’s already established himself as one of the toughest negotiating agents in the business.  He represents stars such as Jalen Ramsey, Deshaun Watson, and Higgins himself.  And what do all three of these players have in common?  That’s right, they all requested trades!

The news that Higgins wanted out shouldn’t have been particularly shocking – nor is it especially interesting either.  In fact, we probably should have seen this coming.  This is straight out of Mulugheta’s playbook.  Play hardball, demand trades, generally be unreasonable…this is what he does.

But how does this relate to the NBA?  The player-empowerment era that’s taken the NBA by storm is slowly trickling into the NFL – and soon, the league as we know it will be forever and irreparably changed.  Mulugheta is just at the forefront.

Get used to players asking out while under contract.  James Harden has made a cottage-industry of this in the NBA, and it’s only a matter of time before this is commonplace in the NFL.  Ben Simmons once asked for a trade with four years remaining on his contract and just two years after signing it.  Can’t imagine an NFL player pulling that kind of stunt?  Psyche!  Deshaun Watson already did it.

Better start mentally preparing yourself now.  These kinds of negotiating tactics are only going to become more and more ordinary.

But as for the specifics of Higgins’ trade request, maybe I’m in the minority but this just doesn’t seem like a big deal to me.  Don’t get me wrong: Higgins is a great player and teammate and someone I would love to remain in Cincinnati, but this isn’t the end of the world.  He had 656 receiving yards last year.  656.  That’s not a typo.  Higgins made $8.68 million over the first four years of his rookie deal, and he’s about to see almost triple that while on the franchise tag – one year after having unquestionably the worst season of his career.  Forgive me if I don’t exactly sympathize with Higgins on this one.

Big picture, it’s hard to see how Higgins plays anywhere but Cincinnati in 2024.  The Bengals know what they have in Higgins – prying him away won’t be cheap.  But again, who else is going to fork over a first-round pick for a guy who had 656 receiving yards in 2023 and has never had more than 1,091 in a season?  And believe me, the Bengals shouldn’t (and won’t) settle for less.

Frankly, this will be mostly forgotten by the time the NFL season rolls around in September.  Higgins will be back in Stripes (for one more year) and the Bengals will be back in the Super Bowl mix.  Once the season’s over, Higgins will leave – just like fellow Mulugheta-represented Jessie Bates III did in the previous offseason.  You can book that.

Geno Stone Shakes Up the Bengals Secondary

The Bengals biggest move of free agency so far has been to acquire one of free agency’s smallest players in safety Geno Stone, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens.  The move accomplishes two things: one, it fills a massive need for a player who can cover in the middle of the field; and two, it guts the Ravens a little bit.  Both are equally important.

Last year, as you probably well-know, the Bengals defense was a disaster.  They couldn’t prevent big plays, they couldn’t stop the run, and they couldn’t tackle to save their lives.  Stone doesn’t fix all those problems by himself, but he goes a long way towards solving the first.

With seven interceptions last year, Stone was a prolific ball-hawk who made life really, really hard on opposing QBs.  His play was of course boosted by defensive coordinator/wunderkind Mike Macdonald, who parlayed his impressive year with the Ravens into a head-coaching gig with the Seattle Seahawks, but if anybody can get the best out of a defensive back, it’s Lou Anarumo.

And while the Stone signing was worthy of all the attention it received, what’s infinitely more fascinating is what this signing means for the rest of the Bengals secondary – specifically, 2022 first-round pick Dax Hill.  The third-year safety got his first opportunity to be the Bengals starting free safety, and the results were…mixed.  Scratch that, they were bad.  Not awful, just bad.

Hill looked lost at times.  And his tackling wasn’t great either.  But safety isn’t an easy position to get the hang of in the NFL – most need some seasoning before they become great.  And Hill sure got seasoned last year.  Seasoned, baked and burned.

On the bright side though, Hill probably won’t be asked to be the same kind of player he was last year.  His days of being the primary centerfielder are over – and frankly, it wasn’t soon enough.  The Bengals were probably a little greedy in trying to pigeon-hole Hill as a proto-typical free safety.  He’s so, so, so much more than that.

Don’t be surprised to see Hill lining up at linebacker on first down, blitzing from the slot on second down, and splitting out wide to cover a receiver on the boundary on third down.  This isn’t even a hypothetical – this is just an extension of what he did in college.  With Stone in the building and Jordan Battle emerging at strong safety last year, Hill will be free to be the versatile defensive chess piece he was at Michigan.

With one move, the Bengals have quickly created one of the most versatile, talented, and unique safeties groups in the league.  Expect the Bengals to have three safeties on the field a ton in 2024.  With the league continuing to move further and further away from the ground-n-pound days of the past, it’s encouraging to see the Bengals on the defensive forefront.  The defense isn’t fixed yet, but life just got much harder for the rest of the QBs in the AFC North.

The Running Back Market Isn’t Dead…Yet

The reports of the running back position’s death have been greatly exaggerated.  Sure, the days of RBs taking up massive payroll percentages are long gone, but you can still make a pretty penny by toting the rock in today’s NFL.

Despite having fewer than 1,000 rushing yards in three of the last four seasons, Saquon Barkley found a home in Philadelphia to the tune of $13 million per year.  Josh Jacobs signed with the Packers for $12 million per year.  Derrick Henry got $8 million per from the Ravens.  The Bengals even managed to get the Houston Texans to trade them an actual draft pick for Joe Mixon.  This after widespread reports that the Bengals were planning to cut him for nothing following the signing of Zach Moss.

So, is this the running back renaissance we’ve been waiting for?  Sadly, no.  At best, this might be the position’s last dying gasp at relevancy.  The only thing left is for the position to finally, fundamentally change.  We should stop trying to Make Running Back Great Again, and start trying to Make Running Backs Wide Receivers.

Frankly, the future of the position is guys like Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey, and it’s no coincidence they both play for a forward-thinking team like the San Francisco 49ers.  The situation is twofold: one, the traditional, downhill running back skill-set is being coveted less and less by evaluators; and two, because those skills are desired less, young players will be doing anything and everything to play receiver at the next level to guarantee a better payday.  It’s neither good nor bad – it’s just the sport evolving before our eyes.

Guys like King Henry?  They’re dinosaurs.  Right now, Samuel and McCaffrey amaze us with their rushing and receiving, as well as their ability to line up anywhere on the field, but in a decade this will probably be the norm.  The running back position as we know it will be dead – instead, we’ll have a bunch of athletes who line up all over the place and do whatever is asked of them.  Samuel and McCaffrey aren’t anomalies; they’re the vanguard.

What Are the Bengals Doing at Tight End?

After fielding the worst tight end group in the league in 2023, the Bengals have already taken steps to ensure that won’t be the case in 2024.  Drew Sample returns fresh off signing a three-year deal to continue knocking heads as one of the best blocking TEs in the league, though his work in the passing game still leaves plenty to be desired.  Tanner Hudson will also be back after flashing at times, while the biggest move was the addition of Mike Gesicki.

While Gesicki’s 2023 stats don’t look like much (29 receptions, 244 yards and 2 touchdowns in 17 games), incredibly they still outpace Smith’s production (18 receptions, 115 yards and 1 touchdown).  More importantly, that was in a crowded Patriots tight end room that also included Hunter Henry (who was re-upped by New England for $27 million) and Jonnu Smith (who signed with the Dolphins for $8 million), and all while catching passes from the atrocious combination of Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe.  It’s a miracle Gesicki even put up those numbers with a situation as miserable as New England’s.

Now, he’s in a perfect spot to recapture his status as one of the better receiving tight ends in the league, a status he vacated after consecutive disappointing seasons.  He’s only 29-year-old, and now he gets to catch passes from Joe Burrow, and going from Jones/Zappe to Burrow has to be like going from commuting to work every day in a horse-drawn buggy to suddenly being behind the wheel of a Pagani Zonda.  Let’s hope Gesicki survives the culture shock.

There has been some speculation that this is the end of the Bengals’ moves at TE, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the case.  Certainly, the need for a TE is less today than it was on Sunday night, but this still isn’t a great unit.  If Brock Bowers is there at pick #18 – and yes, that’s probably a pipe dream – the Bengals will likely take the Georgia playmaker off the board.

Like running back, the traditional TE-label is going out of fashion.  These players are more versatile than ever, and confining them to the TE-box isn’t just a disservice to their talents, it doesn’t paint the full picture of their impact either.  It’s not right to call Rob Gronkowski just a TE when he also blocked like a lineman.  It’s not fair to Travis Kelce either – he’s about as good of a receiver as you’ll find in the NFL, full stop.

Bowers might not live up to his billing, but based on his tape in college, he shouldn’t be thought of as a great TE prospect.  He’s unique, and he’s a weapon.  The NFL’s two most-recent dynasties both featured one-of-a-kind talents at the position – and the Bengals would be wise to follow in the Patriots and Chiefs footsteps.  Bowers won’t look like Gronk or Kelce in the NFL, but different doesn’t mean worse.  Often, it actually means better.

The Russ-Bus Stops in Pittsburgh

The rumors started before free agency began in earnest, but Russell Wilson is officially a Steeler.  Is it a good fit?  Is he going to get back to the player he was in Seattle?  Does it even matter?  I don’t know, probably not, and not really.

It’s no secret that the Steelers needed to breathe some new life into their quarterback room.  Former first-rounder Kenny Pickett isn’t getting the job done, and while Mason Rudolph looked adequate in the final weeks of the season, he’s primarily been a third-stringer in Pittsburgh for a reason.  Wilson at least gives the Steelers some stability.  He might have played like crap for two years now, but damnit is he durable.

The most important piece for Pittsburgh is his salary.  He’s barely making above league-minimum, and for a starting QB, that’s more than a bargain.  If the Steelers are going to make noise in 2024, it’s because the rest of their team balled out and Wilson managed not to get in the way.  But Wilson isn’t the only QB who can do that – Pickett and Rudolph will get their shot to…uh, not get in the way too.

The real question is what happens if Wilson fails.  Pickett has already gotten more chances than he probably should have, and Rudolph definitely isn’t a long-term solution.  I’d say Mike Tomlin’s run of never having a losing season is in jeopardy, but we’ve been saying that in some form or fashion since Big Ben retired.  I’m not falling for that one anymore.

The Steelers, then, will almost certainly be competitive, but competitive isn’t what Steelers fans sign up for – Super Bowls are what they want.  But unfortunately for Pittsburgh, no matter who starts at QB, they will almost certainly have the worst player at the position in the AFC North (Deshaun Watson may have something to say about this).  That’s a really difficult place to begin a Super Bowl run.  But right now, it’s the best the Steelers can hope for.

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