Analysis

Cincinnati Bengals Free Agency Outlook

Cincinnati Bengals Free Agency Preview

The Cincinnati Bengals were one of the best stories of the 2021 NFL season and saw their magical ride come up just three points short as they fell to the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI by a score of 23-20. Cincinnati made the playoffs for the first time since 2015, executing a remarkable turnaround from a moribund 2019 season in which they finished in position for the first overall pick.

The Bengals alternated wins and losses throughout 2021, never sporting a losing record but failing to ascend more than four games above .500. Quarterback Joe Burrow had a remarkable comeback from a torn ACL in his rookie season, throwing for 4,611 yards and 34 touchdowns in 16 games. His college teammate Ja’Marr Chase had a dynamic rookie year with 1,455 receiving yards and 13 scores while fellow receiver Tee Higgins had over 1,000 yards himself.

Offseason signee Trey Hendrickson had 14 sacks and validated the substantial investment the Bengals made in him as he spearheaded a solid defense. The Bengals project to have the fourth most cap space in the league with over $49 million to spend, and with a roster that had the fifth-youngest average age, they are in prime position to be successful in 2022 and beyond.

Update: The Bengals now have $34,640,967 available in cap space.

Cincinnati’s Impending Free Agents

  • LG Quinton Spain
  • CB Eli Apple
  • TE C.J. Uzomah
  • RT Riley Reiff
  • DT Larry Ogunjobi
  • DT B.J. Hill
  • DT Josh Tupou
  • CB Vernon Hargreaves III
  • CB Tre Flowers
  • LS Clark Harris
  • P Kevin Huber
  • WR Mike Thomas
  • RG Xavier Su’a-Filo
  • WR Auden Tate
  • NT Zach Kerr
  • QB Brandon Allen
  • CB Darius Phillips
  • S Michael Thomas
  • K Elliott Fry
  • LB Jordan Evans
  • TE Mason Schreck
  • LB Joe Bachie (ERFA)
  • CB Jalen Davis (ERFA)
  • WR Trenton Irwin (ERFA)
  • LB Clay Johnston (ERFA)
  • LB Wyatt Ray (ERFA)
  • TE Mitchell Wilcox (ERFA)
  • OT Fred Johnson (RFA)
  • WR Stanley Morgan (RFA)

The most notable free agent for the Bengals is safety Jessie Bates III, who has been a leader in Cincinnati’s secondary over the past couple of seasons. While Bates’ play in 2021 wasn’t up to his excellent 2020, he remains a linchpin on that side of the ball for the Bengals. Cincinnati’s secondary is poised to lose additional depth with cornerbacks Eli Apple, Vernon Hargreaves III, and Tre Flowers scheduled to hit free agency. Apple has certainly been a lightning rod for fans and opponents alike, especially in the NFL playoffs, but played over 87% of snaps for the Bengals. Flowers was acquired in-season after being cut by the Seattle Seahawks and was often used to match up on tight ends.

Notable offensive free agents for the Bengals are tight end C.J. Uzomah, left guard Quinton Spain and right tackle Riley Reiff. Uzomah played nearly 73% of snaps and turned in 49 receptions for 493 yards and five touchdowns as he developed into a reliable weapon for Burrow. On an offensive line that received plenty of attention for all the wrong reasons, Spain played over 90% of snaps and performed moderately well during the season. His lasting impression for many will be getting (understandably) dominated by Rams’ defensive tackle Aaron Donald on a fourth-and-one that was the final offensive play of the Bengals’ season. Reiff is sure to attract plenty of interest in free agency as any offensive lineman with a heartbeat tends to attract.

Franchise Tag 

  • Jessie Bates III

The Bengals do have one legitimate possibility to be franchise tagged in safety Jessie Bates III. Bates’ 2021 season was a step back from his 2020 season during which he was a second-team All-Pro. The franchise tag for safeties will be $12,911,000, which would place Bates ninth among all safeties in AAV. Interestingly, because Bates has been on his rookie contract to begin his career, he was the fourth-highest paid safety on the Bengals in 2021.

Update: The Bengals did end up franchise tagging S Jessie Bates III.

Team Needs

  1. Offensive Guard
  2. Cornerback
  3. Offensive Tackle
  4. Tight End
  5. Safety
  6. Defensive Tackle

While every roster in the league has holes to be filled and positions of weakness, the Bengals are relatively more complete than many other teams. The offensive line, particularly at guard and tackle, remains the weak link in a strong Cincinnati chain. With Spain and Reiff set to be free agents, there is certainly a viable path to upgrades – the question remains if the Bengals are willing to spend substantial money to do so. The team is also set to lose substantial bodies at cornerback and defensive tackle, and despite retaining their top starters at both positions, will need to supplement the depth of both.

Tight end and safety are two positions where the Bengals have a key contributor set to be a free agent. Drew Sample is currently the only tight end under contract for 2022, making either a re-signing of Uzomah or acquisition of another capable tight end an important priority. There are multiple avenues to retain Bates for 2022 and beyond, but the free-agent market is flush with safety talent. The Bengals have just one other safety under contract for 2022 who played more than 16% of defensive snaps in 2021 and will be hard-pressed to maintain defensive continuity without Bates.