CINCINNATI — This may be the most important offseason in Bengals' history.
The team is fresh off of a disappointing 4-11-1 season that was filled with injuries and underwhelming performances.
They had their moments, which included wins over Tennessee and Pittsburgh, but there were far more lows during the 2020 campaign.
If the Bengals are going to turn things around, then they need to get it right this offseason.
Their margin for error is small. They have to find the best players—both in free agency and the draft—that can have an instant impact on their team.
Free agency is one month away. Teams can begin to reach out to players on March 15. Those players can sign when the 2021 league year officially begins on March 17 at 4 p.m. ET.
The Bengals are known for being frugal in free agency, but that wasn't the case last offseason.
They committed $130 million to eight unrestricted free agents, including cornerback Trae Waynes and defensive tackle DJ Reader.
Those acquisitions didn't pay off in 2020 due to injury, but the organization has to stay aggressive.
“How do we acquire the best players that we can and go get them? There’s not been a day I’ve been in this building where I’ve been frustrated in that regard," Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said last April. "Everybody’s been on the same page. We all want to win and we all want to do whatever we got to do to make sure that works. It’s been a great process.”
If that's still the case, then the Bengals are going to have to retain some of their best players set to hit free agency and also bring in premium talent at key positions.
Here's how the Bengals can use free agency to set themselves up for success in 2021 and beyond.
Keep Your Own
The first thing the Bengals need to do is re-sign both Carl Lawson and William Jackson III.
These are two blue chip players that are entering their prime years. Signing Waynes can't get in the way of a deal with Jackson. It wouldn't cost them much to part ways with Waynes after the 2021 season.
Locking up Jackson long-term gives the Bengals a No. 1 corner and insurance just in case Waynes is underwhelming after missing an entire season.
Jackson will command around $15 million per season. The Bengals should offer him a three-year, $45 million contract.
The former first-round pick would be wise to take that deal because Cincinnati could also franchise tag Jackson for $15.2 million. Instead of risking it, he could take the deal from the Bengals and still be able to test free agency again when he's 30-years-old.
The Bengals also need to re-sign Lawson, who could cost less than Jackson. Offering him a four-year, $50 million contract would be fair. Cincinnati should be willing to go a bit higher than that considering Lawson was productive in 2020 despite being a one man band from a pass rushing standpoint.
Re-signing both Lawson and Jackson would be ideal, but locking up one of them long-term and placing the franchise tag on the other might be the best case scenario.
Both players have dealt with their fair share of injuries over the past few seasons. Instead of committing big money to both of them, playing it safe with a one-year deal worth anywhere from $15-18 million.
Lawson would cost $3 million more on the franchise tag because he's a defensive end.
Let's say the Bengals sign Jackson to a three-year, $45 million extension, but they don't get a deal done with Lawson and place the franchise tag on him.
Lawson's cap hit in 2021 would be $18 million. Jackson's would be around $10 million depending on how the contract was structured.
This is where the Bengals need to get creative. They'd have less than $10 million remaining in cap space for the 2021 with those two moves.
The 2021 salary cap is expected to be around $181 million and won't drop lower than $175 million. The uncertainty surrounding the cap due to the coronavirus might make some teams uneasy, but the Bengals have to push forward if they're going to build a winner.
Step Outside Their Comfort Zone
Cincinnati moved on from veterans like Dre Kirkpatrick and Andy Dalton last offseason, which isn't something they normally do. That theme should continue in 2021.
They can create plenty of cap space to add quality pieces to their offensive line by moving on from a few veteran players.
Releasing veteran defensive tackle Geno Atkins would free up $9.5 million in cap room.
They could save an additional $2.6M in cap room in 2021 by designating Atkins as a post June 1 termination. They would then carry $2.6M in dead money into the 2022 season which is something they usually don't do.
Given the current climate and the uncertainty surrounding the cap, they may go that route to free up as much space as possible.
Parting ways with Bobby Hart would free up $5.9 million in cap room. They could also move on from BJ Finney to clear another $3.5 million in space.
Those moves alone would give the Bengals an extra $20 million to work with this offseason.
Giovani Bernard and C.J. Uzomah are two other players that could be released or traded to free up more space. Bernard is set to make over $4 million in 2021. He's in the final year of his deal.
Spending over $14 million on two running backs isn't ideal, especially for a rebuilding team. Trading Bernard to a team in win-now mode would free up $4.1 million in cap space.
Uzomah is a leader in the locker room and he has a good rapport with Joe Burrow. Instead of releasing him, they could sign him to a one or two-year extension that lowers his $6.1 million cap hit in 2021. Releasing Uzomah would free up over $5 million in space.
Now that the Bengals have cap space, who should they use it on?
Protect Joe Burrow
Protecting Burrow has to be the Bengals' top priority this offseason. It's why they can't bank on Penei Sewell, Rashawn Slater or some other rookie to come in and save their entire offensive line.
It's one thing to have a draft pick start, it's another to expect multiple rookies to be instant upgrades in year one.
The Bengals need to add one of the top tackles in this free agent class.
Panthers offensive tackle Taylor Moton should be at the top of their list. He's just 26-years-old and received an 81.2 overall grade from Pro Football Focus last season.
Moton allowed three sacks in 1,032 snaps in 2021. It's looking more and more like the Panthers will place the franchise tag on him if they can't agree to a long-term deal. Signing Moton would be a no-brainer, but he probably won't be available next month when free agency opens.
The most talented tackle in this class is Trent Williams, who is expected to hit free agency.
Williams is one of the most gifted left tackles in the league. He's a special athlete. He was PFF's highest graded tackle this season, finishing with a 91.9 overall grade.
He has had some injury issues, but he appeared in 14 of 16 games in 2020. He missed one game after contracting coronavirus and didn't play in the season finale.
If Moton doesn't hit free agency, then there's no reason why the Bengals shouldn't throw big money at Williams. He's more talented and one of the premiere tackles in the NFL. He will cost more than Moton and turns 33-years-old in July.
Offering Williams a four-year, $80 million contract would be a wise move.
He could start at left tackle and Jonah Williams could move to right tackle. The Williams brothers could hold down the edges in the trenches for the foreseeable future.
That's a move I would make, but it may be a bit unrealistic for the Bengals.
With that said, the bar needs to be high for this team. Offensive line is an issue. They have to spend money to fix it. Signing two quality offensive linemen in free agency is required this offseason.
It may be Williams and a lower end starting guard like Larry Warford.
Maybe they swing big at guard and sign Joe Thuney or Brandon Scherff. If they do that then Bills tackle Daryl Williams should be on their radar. Russell Okung would also be an upgrade at tackle.
The best and most realistic combination might be Scherff and (Daryl) Williams. The duo will likely command around $25 million per year combined, but they would likely stabilize an offensive line in desperate need of help.
Thuney is a name that many fans have mentioned in recent months. He's a Cincinnati native and would be a huge upgrade at guard.
The Bengals should be prepared to commit anywhere from $25-$35 million per season to two quality offensive linemen.
For those wondering about space, the actual cap number for two offensive linemen would be much less than their average annual salary in 2021.
The Bengals could structure the contracts at lower cap numbers for the upcoming season. For example, Waynes signed a three-year, $42 million contract last offseason, but only had a $10 million cap hit in 2020.
They could do that with Jackson, Lawson and any linemen that they sign in free agency.
Signing two offensive linemen would give the Bengals plenty of flexibility in the draft.
They could still take Penei Sewell with the fifth pick if he's the best player on their board, but it wouldn't be the end of the world if he wasn't available.
Cincinnati could feel good about taking Ja'Marr Chase or Kyle Pitts. They wouldn't have to think twice about not addressing their offensive line in the first round.
Protecting Burrow is the priority, but the Bengals have to do much more this offseason if they want to build a winning team.
Bringing in multiple proven offensive linemen allow them to add a weapon or two in the draft. Instead of reaching on Slater or another offensive lineman in round one, they can take the best player available.
Even if they do sign two studs like (Trent) Williams and Thuney, they should also add multiple linemen in the NFL Draft. Spending a second or third rounder on a tackle or a guard should be in play, especially if they pick a skill player at No. 5.
If the Bengals re-sign Lawson, Jackson and find a way to add two quality starting offensive linemen in free agency, then there's no reason why they shouldn't be much improved next season.
That would pave the way for Cincinnati to draft a potential star like Chase, Pitts or even Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith with the fifth pick.
Money makes the world go round and it's the key to the Bengals' offseason. They can become a winning team, but they have to spend money in the right places.
You May Also Like:
Be sure to keep it locked on AllBengals all the time!