CINCINNATI — It took over 10 hours, but the Bengals landed one of their top free agent targets on Monday night.
The 26-year-old had a breakout 2020 campaign, finishing with 13.5 sacks, which was tied with Aaron Donald for the second-most in the NFL. The Bengals only add 17 sacks as a team last season.
Cincinnati needed to replace Lawson the moment he bolted to New York, landing a three-year contract worth up to $47.4 million and $30 million guaranteed.
Hendrickson and Lawson will always be compared to one another. Did the Bengals make the right move? Should they have just placed the franchise tag on Lawson last week?
Both players are entering their fifth NFL seasons. Hendrickson was a third-round pick (103rd overall) in the 2017 draft. The Bengals took Lawson just 13 picks later (116th overall).
Now Cincinnati replaces the one with the other in hopes of Hendrickson becoming an every down player.
He was on the field for 53% (558) of the Saints defensive snaps in 2020. The Bengals didn't bring him in to be a situational pass rusher. They need him to take the next step in his development.
Hendrickson was on the field for 234 first-down snaps last season. Those numbers gradually declined on second (178) and third down (129). He rushed the passer on 369 of his 558 snaps.
All of those numbers have to go up next season. Hendrickson is trending in the right direction. He was on the field for more than 50% of the Saints' defensive snaps for the first time in his career last season. He finished with the third-highest pressure rate (16.3%) in the NFL and was first in the league in third-down pressure rate (25.5%) according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Hendrickson should be able to come in and make an impact in Lou Anarumo's defense. The Bengals will surely look to add another edge rusher in free agency, but a healthy Sam Hubbard should be effective with Hendrickson on the right side of the line.
A move like this was expected and shouldn't have much impact on the Bengals' plans in the draft. They'll probably take at least one edge rusher in the second-fourth rounds. This signing is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't change the overall outlook of the defense.
Replacing Lawson with Hendrickson just means the Bengals don't have a gaping hole at the right defensive end spot. They still need help on the edge.
The Bengals have plenty of cap space following the Hendrickson agreement. It looks like they'll incur a $12.5 million cap hit in 2021. Cincinnati could've lowered his cap number to $9.5 million if they paid more than the $10 million signing bonus that they gave to Hendrickson.
The Florida Atlantic product will make $20 million in 2021 according to Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer. He doesn't have any guaranteed money in his contract beyond that, but is scheduled to make $32 million over the first two years of the contract.
On the flip side, the Jets gave Lawson $30 million guaranteed over three seasons. The Bengals were never going to full guarantee the first two years of his contract, which is why they quickly shifted their attention to Hendrickson once Lawson agreed to terms (three-years, $45 million) with New York.
The Bengals entered Monday with over $40 million in room. There are still moves they can make to free up more space. Cutting Geno Atkins and Bobby Hart would save $15.3 million in cap space.
The Bengals were inactive for most of the day Monday, but they added one of the NFL's most promising young edge rushers before the clock struck midnight.
There's a chance Hendrickson was a "one-hit wonder" last season and his success was just a product of the team around him. There's also a scenario where he continues to develop and wreaks havoc on opposing quarterbacks for years to come.
The Bengals are banking on the latter. They believe Hendrickson can be a difference maker on a defense that desperately needs a talent infusion. Only time will tell if they made the right decision.
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