In advance of March 14, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll begin this year’s series with the Cincinnati Bengals, who posted a 7-9 record and finished third in the AFC North a season ago.
Pending Free Agents:
- Russell Bodine, C
- Tyler Eifert, TE
- Jeremy Hill, RB
- Kevin Huber, P
- A.J. McCarron, QB (RFA?)
- Kevin Minter, LB
- Cedric Peerman, RB
- Pat Sims, DT
- Andre Smith, OL
- Chris Smith, DE
- Eric Winston, T
Top 10 Cap Hits for 2018:
- Andy Dalton, QB: $16,300,000
- A.J. Green, WR: $13,750,000
- Dre Kirkpatrick, CB: $9,600,000
- Geno Atkins, DT: $9,550,000
- Vontaze Burfict, LB: $9,510,000
- Darqueze Dennard, CB: $8,526,000
- Carlos Dunlap, DE: $7,300,000
- Adam Jones, CB: $6,666,668
- George Iloka, S: $6,200,000
- Michael Johnson, DE: $6,125,000
- Projected cap space (via Over the Cap): $37,436,799
- 12th pick in draft
- Must exercise or decline 2019 fifth-year option for T Cedric Ogbuehi
1) Offensive line, offensive line, offensive line: The Bengals’ recent dip in performance — the club made five consecutive postseason appearances from 2011-15 before slipping below .500 in each of the past two years — was presaged during the 2015 draft, when Cincinnati used its first two selections on a pair of offensive linemen: Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher. Given that starting linemen Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler were scheduled to hit free agency after the 2016 campaign, the Bengals were planning ahead by envisioning a future starting five full of youth.
That scheme has failed spectacularly: Ogbuehi has graded as a bottom-10 tackle in each of his two years as a starter, per Pro Football Focus, while Fisher hasn’t played more than 38% of Cincinnati’s offensive snaps in any of his three pro seasons. Russell Bodine continued his run as one of the worst starting centers in the NFL, Clint Boling settled in as a league-average left guard, and the Bengals relied on Andre Smith — in his second stint with the club — to play more than half their snaps. Cincinnati bottomed out in Football Outsiders‘ offensive line rankings, finishing 20th in adjusted sack rate and 24th in adjusted line yards.
Revamping an offensive line in a single offseason seems like a daunting task, but other clubs have managed the feat in the recent past. The Rams signed Whitworth and fellow aged veteran John Sullivan last spring and instantly fielded one of the the best front fives in the league. Same goes for the Vikings, who inked tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers and drafted center Pat Elflein. As a condition of his return as head coach, Marvin Lewis indicated owner Mike Brown is open to spending in free agency — something the Bengals rarely do — so additions could be on the horizon.
The free agent crop of offensive tackles is barren, however, meaning Cincinnati isn’t likely to find a blindside protector on the open market. Nate Solder is the clear No. 1 option available among free agent tackles, and two other Patriots — Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle — comprise the next best choices among an uninspiring group. Fleming, still just 25 years old and a consistent blocker over the past two seasons, could be an intriguing solution for the Bengals, but a draft choice seems like a more palatable route as the club seeks front five patches.
Drafting another first-round offensive tackle would represent an admission that the Ogbuehi selection has been a failure, and it’s time for Cincinnati to cop to that mistake. Texas’ Connor Williams is considered the top tackle available in 2018, according to Scouts Inc. (ESPN Insider subscription required), while Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey or Oklahoma’s Orlando Brown could also be in consideration. In his first mock draft of the year, Todd McShay of ESPN.com sent Williams to the Bengals in the first round.
While the Bengals may not be able to find a suitable tackle during the free agent period, there are a number of interesting interior offensive linemen with expiring contracts. Giants lineman Justin Pugh would seem to be a perfect match for Cincinnati, as the former first-round pick can handle either tackle or guard, giving the Bengals flexibility as they sort out their front unit. Pugh will be expensive (he’ll likely earn in excess of $10MM annually), as will the Panthers’ Andrew Norwell, the top guard available. Pugh’s New York teammate, center Weston Richburg, could also be on the Bengals’ radar if they want a massive upgrade over Bodine.
If Cincinnati wants to spend in the middle of the market as opposed to the top, it could target a few ex-Cowboys, especially given that it just hired former Dallas offensive line coach Frank Pollack. Like Pugh, veteran Byron Bell has the ability to play tackle and guard, while interior lineman Jonathan Cooper also has recent experience with Pollack. Other mid-tier free agent options could include Ryan Jensen (Ravens), Josh Kline (Titans), Daniel Kilgore (49ers), Alex Boone (Cardinals), and Matt Slauson (Chargers).
Restricted free agency is a rarely-used player acquisition avenue for NFL teams (just three RFAs signed offer sheets in 2017), but the Bengals would do well to assess the RFA market in the coming weeks. Broncos center Matt Paradis is hitting restricted free agency after three solid seasons in Denver, but general manager John Elway will likely use at least a second-round tender on Paradis, making him cost prohibitive. Titans guard Quinton Spain, however, has been quietly competent as a starter from 2016-17, and isn’t certain to require anything more than an original round tender, making him a potential Cincinnati target.
2) Bring back Tyler Eifert, or find a new tight end: Eifert has long been referred to as “Rob Gronkowski Lite,” as the two share a penchant for red zone touchdowns, wear similar arm braces, and — unfortunately — struggle to deal with injuries. Through five NFL seasons, Eifert has appeared in less than 50% of the Bengals’ games (39 of 80) and has never played a full 16-game slate. In 2017, Eifert underwent back surgery and was placed on injured reserve after just two contests, so a long-term deal is likely out of the question given his recent injury history.
If the Bengals do re-sign Eifert, it will likely be a one- or two-year deal that is heavily laden with per-game roster bonuses, meaning Eifert would have a significant amount of money riding on his health. For that reason, I’d expect Eifert to land elsewhere and sign with a club that will insert performance-based incentive language into his next contract (something Cincinnati typically won’t do). As a last-ditch option, the Bengals could consider deploying the franchise tag on Eifert, but that would require a commitment north of $10MM.
With Eifert sidelined, backup tight end Tyler Kroft posted the best season of his three-year career by managing 42 receptions for 404 yards and seven touchdowns (the latter figure was good for sixth among NFL tight ends). The Bengals could certainly head into the 2018 campaign with Kroft as their starting tight end, but it’s not out of the question that the club pursues an upgrade. Depth behind Kroft is also an issue, as C.J. Uzomah, Cethan Carter, FB/TE hybrid Ryan Hewitt, and rookie Mason Schreck combined to play just 368 snaps in 2017.
Jimmy Graham isn’t a Bengals-type target, but there are two free agent tight ends who could be fits in the Queen City: Trey Burton (Eagles) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Jets). Burton is expected to cash in after playing second fiddle to Zach Ertz in Philadelphia, but Cincinnati has enough cap space to afford a second-tier tight end such as Burton. New York, meanwhile, isn’t likely to “go crazy” in order to retain Seferian-Jenkins, meaning the Bengals could have an opportunity to land the 25-year-old. Neither Burton nor ASJ are effective blockers, but each would add a new dimension to Cincinnati’s passing attack.
If the Bengals expand their search for tight end help, the Seahawks’ Luke Willson could come into play, especially if Cincinnati is looking for a blocker. Dwayne Allen, too, is excellent in the run game (No. 4 run-blocking TE, per PFF), and should come cheap once he’s released by the Patriots. Richard Rodgers (Packers) is still just 25 years old despite having four pro seasons under his belt. A draft pick — Matt Miller of Bleacher Report calls Miami’s Christopher Herndon the biggest sleeper of the 2018 class — is also on the table.
3) Add another linebacker: The Bengals’ 2017 linebacking corps was, in a word, a mess. Vontaze Burfict was a star when available, but he played in only 10 games thanks to a suspension and injuries. Backup extraordinaire Vincent Rey was once again stretched when asked to serve as a full-time starter. And free agent acquisition Kevin Minter couldn’t even play ahead of sixth-round rookie Jordan Evans, and barely saw more action than undrafted free agent Hardy Nickerson.
Cincinnati is in desperate need of more depth — if not another starter — at the second level of its defense. The numbers bear that need out, as the Bengals ranked 22nd in yards per attempt allowed, 24th in rush defense DVOA, and 31st in DVOA against opposing tight ends. While there are varying opinions as to whether selecting a linebacker on Day 1 of the draft is a worthwhile investment, but Cincinnati should the opportunity to take a play-making ‘backer with the No. 12 overall pick.
The most obvious candidate to be selected with that 12th pick is Georgia’s Roquan Smith, who is widely considered the best linebacker available in 2018. Smith’s résumé is a chock full of accolades, as he earned the Butkus Award (given to the nation’s top LB), SEC Defensive Play of the Year, and was named a consensus All-American. Luke Easterling of DraftWire calls Smith “the kind of defender who can instantly transform the identity of an entire unit,” and the ex-Bulldog ranked fifth among linebackers in run stop percentage and sixth in tackling efficiency, per the PFF 2018 Draft Guide.
Turning to free agents, Zach Brown, Tahir Whitehead, Anthony Hitchens, and NaVorro Bowman figure to earn the largest contracts among 4-3 linebackers. Whitehead and Hitchens are coming off productive seasons and are both age-27 or younger, so they should command multi-year deals. Brown and Bowman will probably require contracts in excess of one season, although Brown’s 2017 decline and Bowman’s age could limit their overall markets.
On the cheaper side, the Bengals could look to Mason Foster, whose asking price should be reduced given that injuries limited him to five appearances last season. Christian Jones has been written out of the Bears’ defensive plans (just 10% playing time in 2017), but he’s just 26 years old. Barkevious Mingo is a failed former first-round pick who can’t rush the passer, but he graded as the second-best coverage linebacker in the league a year ago, per PFF. Finally, Demario Davis just finished the best season of his career, but his age (29) and spotty record of play through six pro seasons could make him affordable.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.