CINCINNATI — This is one of the most crucial offseasons in Bengals' history.
They've had five straight losing seasons and won just six games in the past two years. Despite their poor record, there's one reason to be hopeful for the future. They found a franchise quarterback.
Joe Burrow exceeded expectations in the 10 games he played in 2020. The 24-year-old flashed his potential on the field, was a leader in the locker room from day one and showed the rest of the NFL that he could become one of the future greats at the position.
The Bengals have their quarterback.
Now they need to do three things this offseason to put Burrow in a position to be successful in 2021 and beyond.
The Bengals can't be afraid to say goodbye to some of their veteran players. Geno Atkins has been great for a decade, but if he isn't willing to restructure his contract, then moving on and saving over $9 million in cap space is a no-brainer.
Bobby Hart is coming off of the best season of his career and he's a serviceable backup tackle, but he isn't worth the $7 million they're scheduled to pay him in 2021. Cutting him would save $5.9 million in cap space.
The same goes for great locker room guys like Giovani Bernard and C.J. Uzomah.
Bernard is entering the final year of his deal and while he's a valuable member of the team, freeing up an extra $4 million in cap room would be big for a team that needs to be aggressive in free agency.
They should be able to trade Bernard to a contender that needs a reliable pass catching and pass blocking running back. Tampa Bay and Green Bay would be two ideal landing spots for the 29-year-old. If they can move off of his money and gain a draft asset, then they should do it.
Uzomah is a great guy and a quality player, but he has a $6.3 million cap hit in 2021. An extension that spreads that money out over the next few years would be ideal, but he's another potential cut candidate, especially since he's still recovering from a torn Achilles.
The Bengals don't need to move on from all of these players, but they can't be afraid to part with Atkins, Bernard, Uzomah, etc just because of past contributions. This franchise needs to move forward, even if saying goodbye is easier said than done.
Be Aggressive in Free Agency
The Bengals have to spend money this offseason. They can't sit on their hands because their spending spree in 2020 didn't work out like they planned.
Cincinnati committed $130 million to seven unrestricted free agents last offseason. Injuries derailed DJ Reader and Trae Waynes' season, which hurt a defense that was hoping to be much improved.
Those guys will be back in 2021. Hopefully they will be accompanied by a few more veteran free agents that are entering their prime.
The Bengals' roster has plenty of holes. They can't address them all in one offseason and they aren't going to be able to fix all of them in the draft.
Spending money on proven talent can speed up the process.
Burrow is on a rookie contract, which allows the team to put more money into other position groups. Now is the time to spend money and put a competent team around their star quarterback.
Get the Offense
The Bengals need to spend money on offense. They used most of their major assets on defense last season.
How can this team use free agency to make Burrow's life easier?
They need to go out and sign a proven offensive tackle. Not a backup or journeyman.
Trent Williams, Taylor Moton, Daryl Williams and Russell Okung should be on their radar. They can't be afraid to spend $15-18 million per season on Moton or (Trent) Williams.
Okung and (Daryl) Williams won't cost as much, but both would be upgrades.
Some want the Bengals to spend big money on Joe Thuney and that would certainly help the cause, but they can find capable guards in the draft. There are plenty of options in the second and third round that could come in and be an upgrade on the interior of the line.
They could also sign a veteran guard, which would be wise, but tackle should be their priority in free agency.
Taking the money they'd pay Thuney and putting it towards the tackle spot gives the Bengals flexibility in the draft. It allows them to take a star skill player like Ja'Marr Chase, Kyle Pitts or DeVonta Smith.
It shores up a line that desperately needs tackle help. It would allow the Bengals to use a day two draft pick on a tackle or a guard that can contribute right away.
Signing a top tackle wouldn't take them out of the Penei Sewell sweepstakes either. If he's clearly the top player available at No. 5, then take him and move Jonah Williams to guard.
Suddenly the offensive line has a potential to be a strength.
Keeping Burrow upright and giving him as many weapons as possible should be the Bengals' goal this offseason. They won't be able to fix everything, but they can make life much easier on their star quarterback.
That doesn't mean they shouldn't retain Carl Lawson or William Jackson III, but most of their resources should be used to help Burrow succeed in year two.
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