Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Next up? The Bengals, who need to make moves on offense in order to avoid any sort of regression in the wake of Hue Jackson’s departure. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
DE Wallace Gilberry, CB Leon Hall, S George Iloka, CB Adam Jones, WR Marvin Jones, LB Emmanuel Lamur, S Reggie Nelson, LB Vincent Rey, WR Mohamed Sanu, OT Andre Smith
Player(s) that must be re-signed
Iloka or Nelson, Rey, Marvin Jones or Sanu: Both of Cincinnati’s starting safeties are on the verge of free agency. Waiting to move up the depth chart are Shawn Williams, who made four starts in 2015, and ’15 draft pick Derron Smith. Only Williams appears ready for a permanent starting job. Because of that, the Bengals are almost certain to make retaining one of Iloka or Nelson a priority. Which one will it be? There are arguments in each direction.
Nelson, 33 in September, produced a career-high eight interceptions last season and has been an anchor in the Cincinnati secondary for several years now. Iloka is the younger option, at 26 next month, and has developed into a rising all-around defender.
The price tags might not differ all that much. Nelson should be in line for a bump from the $4.8 million cap number he carried last season—such perks come with playing 97% of your team’s snaps and leading the league in INTs. Iloka’s market is a little more difficult to pin down, but landing somewhere around $7 million per year is not out of the question. Iloka has the higher upside, but knowing how the Bengals operate, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them lean toward Nelson.
Rey led the Bengals in tackles during the regular season with 98, but he’s not a superstar at linebacker by any means—a combo that should keep his valuation near the Bengals’ wheelhouse. Their linebacker corps is heavy on bodies (Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict, A.J. Hawk, Paul Dawson), low on sure things. Burfict has struggled to stay healthy and now is facing a three-game suspension for his playoff hit on Antonio Brown, while Dawson barely had a chance to show any rookie development.
The Bengals should look for wide receiver help regardless of what happens with Jones and Sanu. Keeping one or both, however, would make life a lot easier on coach Marvin Lewis and owner Mike Brown, who share GM responsibilities. Jones has a shot to score a massive deal, given that he’s near the top of an underwhelming WR free-agent class.
Retaining Adam Jones wouldn’t be a bad move either. His year, like Burfict’s, ended in meltdown mode but he was outstanding throughout the regular season. Add in his experience and abilities as a return man, and Cincinnati likely has interest in keeping him.
Most important position to improve
Defensive tackle: The Bengals haven’t become a perennial playoff team by accident. They rarely get caught in deep waters when it comes to replenishing the roster, and this year is no different. There are spots where they could use a couple bodies, but they have strong foundations all over the roster. Case in point is at defensive tackle. That’s where Pro Bowler/All-Pro Geno Atkins resides, joined by longtime Bengal Domata Peko, under contract and coming off a surprisingly strong season.
Why this should be a point of emphasis anyway is that both Pat Sims and Brandon Thompson are headed toward free agency. Counting on Peko (a 2017 free agent) to maintain what he did this past season is asking a lot—he was on the hypothetical chopping block last off-season as the Bengals picked through their roster.
Now would be the time to find Peko’s eventual replacement, as well as to stockpile players for the DT rotation.
Other positions to improve
Cornerback, defensive end, linebacker, safety, wide receiver: Put an asterisk next to the secondary. If the Bengals do manage to keep Iloka/Nelson and Leon Hall/Adam Jones, they won’t be panicking much. It is important that Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard and Williams all take the necessary steps forward this off-season. While Kirkpatrick inched his way toward improvement during the 2015 season, the jury remains very much out of Dennard. Part of the gamble in relying on a draft-and-develop mantra is the development aspect is a crap shoot.
A rotational pass-rusher might be in the cards at the draft. Again, the floor is high, at DE thanks to Carlos Dunlap. Michael Johnson was serviceable opposite him, producing 5.0 sacks, but there’s room to improve.
The Bengals also need more speed at the linebacker spot. Re-signing Rey and keeping Burfict healthy would go a long way in that regard. Finding a versatile option who could pass rush off the edge and drop in coverage would, too.
There may be more uncertainty at wide receiver than anywhere on the roster. A.J. Green remains the obvious No. 1 target, but what happens behind him if Marvin Jones and Sanu depart? This is the position where the answers seem likeliest to be of the external variety.
Overall priority this off-season
Avoid a step back on offense: The potential causes for concern start up top, where QBs coach Ken Zampese will inherit the offensive coordinator job left vacant by Hue Jackson. Zampese has been heavily involved in Andy Dalton’s progression, but Jackson’s job maximizing the Bengals’ offensive talent cannot be undersold. He will be missed.
Zampese could face an even taller hurdle if Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher or a TBD roster addition cannot lock down the right tackle spot. The previous owner of that position, Andre Smith, likely will walk in free agency following an inconsistent seven-year stint. Veteran Eric Winston, another impending free agent, could be an option again.
And then there’s possibility of upheaval at receiver. Marvin Jones is on the brink of turning into a 1,000-yard player and Sanu is among the NFL’s most versatile offensive weapons, despite his limited production. Neither would be replaced all that easily. Mario Alford and James Wright, the only two WRs outside of Green under contract for 2016, combined for four catches in 2015, all by Alford.
Oh, and about Andy Dalton ... was his work prior to a season-ending thumb injury him finally turning a corner as an NFL starter? Or did he reach his peak under Jackson?