If the NFL free agency period was restricted to just one day, the Bengals would have been screwed. Before anyone could even blink on March 13, the Bengals had already lost both of their starting safeties to NFC South teams. Starting tight end Hayden Hurst would leave for greener pastures in short order too. That’s three key pieces - gone in a flash. Good thing free agency isn’t just one day, huh?
Saying the sky was falling was a tad dramatic, but Bengals fans had good reason to be upset. Bates, Bell, Hurst…these weren’t just three random, inessential players. They were playmakers. Assets. Fan favorites. Guys (especially Bates and Bell) who had been critical in the Bengals turnaround over the last three or four years. To see them walk away was a bitter pill to swallow, particularly when the Bengals seemed not to be in the running on most of the big-name free agents. For anyone who followed the Bengals in the early 2000s and 2010s, it was eerily similar to Marvin Lewis’s “if we don’t sign any free agents, we can never have a bad free agent signing” strategy.
Patience, they say, is a virtue, and the Bengals rewarded their fans’ patience with one of the biggest, literally and figuratively, signings in the history of this franchise: the Bengals signed Orlando Brown Jr., arguably the top free agent on the market and one of the best left tackles in the NFL. It was a stunner. Not only was this kind of signing out of character for the Bengals (when was the last time this team ponied up for a top-of-market free agent?), it was also shocking because it came at the expense of their arch-rival, the Kansas City Chiefs, where Brown had protected Patrick Mahomes’s blindside for the last two seasons.
Brown, for those that aren’t aware, is a massive human. He measures about 6-8 and tips the scales at 340 lbs. His game isn’t all about strength, though he’s got plenty to spare. The four-time Pro Bowler is light on his feet and makes his presence felt both in the run and pass game. With Brown in the fold, the Bengals offensive line is upgraded in a big, big way.
But the Bengals weren’t satisfied with just Brown, even though his signing would have been more than enough to satisfy every Bengals fan. They also went out and added fifth-year lineman Cody Ford from the Arizona Cardinals. If you include last year’s free agent spending spree which brought in three other lineman, that’s six players added to the Bengals offensive line in two seasons. There have been makeovers less extensive on Fixer Upper. When you have a once-in-a-generation type quarterback like Joe Burrow, though, it makes these kinds of monetary decisions a lot simpler.
But while the signings of Brown and Ford garnered a lot of fanfare, and rightly so, not everybody was super stoked about it. Jonah Williams, the Bengals former first-round pick and left tackle of the past four seasons, requested a trade in light of the Brown signing. It’s understandable. With Brown in the picture, Williams’s days at left tackle are officially over in Cincinnati. The Bengals would love for Williams to compete for the right tackle spot – and that’s still a possibility – but Williams could potentially fetch a mid-round pick, and that’s something the Bengals have to consider.
Still, even if Williams leaves at some point, the Bengals offensive line is markedly better than it was last year. Williams had been a solid player – and arguably the Bengals best lineman over the last four years – but he struggled in 2022 and was near the top of the league in sacks allowed. Brown is a definite upgrade. Ford, for his part, has never been a consistent starter at tackle in the league, but he’s a veteran with experience at multiple positions. After the Bengals offensive line was decimated by injuries heading into the playoffs this past season, even swing lineman like Ford can make a huge difference, and the Bengals are counting on not just improvement from their starting five, but also in the guys backing them up as well.
As it stands, the Bengals have three spots absolutely set in stone: Brown at left tackle, Ted Karras at center, and Alex Cappa at right guard. That leaves left guard, which was manned all season by rookie Cordell Volson, and right tackle. Volson is a good bet to get another shot at the starting role, given his youth. He wasn’t necessarily good as a rookie, but he was competent, and that’s all the Bengals are looking for at this point.
Right tackle is where things start to get really interesting. Last year, La’el Collins manned the position with inconsistent success. Williams would probably have the edge in a competition, as he’s been the most consistent lineman in Cincinnati for years now. He’s also younger than Collins by a good four years, and while Williams, like Collins, also suffered a season-ending knee injury, his outlook and previous injury history are far more positive. But Ford will have his say too, and don’t forget about Jackson Carman, who looked extremely impressive in limited action in the playoffs – at least, relative to his disastrous rookie season.
All in all, it’s a good problem to have. Yeah, you’d wish Williams wasn’t looking for a new home just because the Bengals signed a better player, but oh well. As Vincent Gambini would say, "Win some, lose some."