Sam Schneider | March 23rd, 2020
BREAKING NEWS: Mike Brown’s checkbook must have known that an Ohio ‘stay at home’ order was coming because it went out and had a little fun last week. The Bengals dropped over $109 million on committed contracts so far in the free agency period following a historically bad 2-14 season in 2019 under first-year head coach Zac Taylor.
You heard right: $109 million in contracts. During a tumultuous offseason that has seen yammering from the likes of Dan Patrick and Colin Cowherd suggest that Joe Burrow doesn’t want to play for the Bengals and that the Bengals never spend any money, the brass made it rain like Pacman Jones at The Gold Club on their first few free-agent finds and are looking towards flipping the script moving into the 2020 season. Considering the needs on both sides of the ball there are still gaps to be filled, but the Orange-and-Black have taken a big first step and helped position themselves well one month before the NFL draft.
First on the list was housekeeping, as Cincinnati (predictably) placed the franchise tag on wide receiver A.J. Green. Green had stated publicly that he didn’t want to play under the tag, but it was a necessary evil in order to give the two sides time to work on a long-term deal. Brown loves Green and has never been bashful (despite the rumors) about extending the contracts of his own guys, and Green has often repeated his desire to stay in Cincinnati. The tag was important as free-agency and the draft were approaching, and this enables the team to negotiate a contract that will benefit both. They’ll need that time to find common ground; Green has an injury history and played only 9 games over the last two seasons but will still command a high price tag.
Defensive backs Clayton Fejedelem and Darqueze Dennard both sought new homes in 2020 (they signed with Miami and Jacksonville, respectively) as well as defensive tackle Andrew Billings (Cleveland) and cornerback/special teams Tony McRae (Detroit). Outright cuts included cornerback B.W. Webb and right guard John Miller. The loss of Fejedelem and McRae will surely be felt on a special teams unit that ranked at or near the top of the standings in the 2019 season. In a Saturday signing that didn’t mean much to the casual eye, though, the Bengals picked up former Rams wide receiver “not Michael” Mike Thomas. The terms have yet to be disclosed but this is clearly a Taylor signing, bringing in a good football player from his years in L.A… Thomas barely even looks to be the type of player to fight for that sixth wide receiver spot (he’s got little experience on the field with just ten catches over four seasons) but was a very useful gunner on Rams coverage teams in the past and likely will fill a big special teams role on a minimum contract.
The big first signing in free agency was that of D.J. Reader (four years, $53 million) who was rumored to be a Bengals target for quite a while. The magnitude of the signing cannot be overstated, considering the reputation that Cincinnati has in free agency. Reader is one of those guys that gets signed while ownership is tilted back in their Barcaloungers waiting for day eight to roll around before getting serious. This year they went out right away and grabbed a top free agent that checks all the boxes. Reader is an outstanding run-stopper but also is strong enough and physical enough to get to the quarterback. Putting him next to Geno Atkins with capable rushers on the edge not only leaves the quarterback no place to go but will shore up the middle against the run which was the Achille’s heel of the Bengals for most of the season. In short, Reader is exactly what the Bengals had hoped for out of Andrew Billings… they just hit the fast-forward button.
After dumping John Miller, the Bengals quickly signed Xavier Su’a-Filo to a contract (three years, $10 million) to fill the position. Su’a-Filo, once credited with bringing stability to the Dallas Cowboys’ line, began his college career at UCLA playing multiple line positions.
His primary position was at left guard where as a senior he earned second-team All-American honors. He has been in and out of the starting lineup in the NFL with the Texans, Titans, and Cowboys and for all intents and purposes is basically John Miller without the penalties but with significantly more experience. He’s not flashy or dazzling but is good enough to play either guard position (and tackle, if necessary) on any given day. Even with the return of Jonah Williams the team will have a lot of work to do with depth on this line.
With uncertainty surrounding Dre Kirkpatrick’s production and cap hit ($12 million) paired with the departing Darqueze Dennard, Cincinnati took care of the secondary. They didn’t have to look very far before landing two of former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s Minnesota Vikings in Trae Waynes (Wednesday, 3yrs/$42 million) and Mackensie Alexander (Thursday, 1yr/$4 million). While Waynes’s contract is a touch more bloated than some will like, you don’t have to wonder if he’s going to be on the field in certain situations; they signed him to be a starting outside corner and he’s an upgrade over all of the other options. The only thing lacking is turnover potential (seven picks over five seasons), but if he can knock the ball away and tackle with both arms, Bengals fans will be all-in. Alexander comes on a one-year deal, he’s planning to have a great season and betting on himself to cash in for 2021. An immediate starter in the slot, he’s one of only five cornerbacks in 2019 to play over 500 snaps with zero penalties.
The only major questions remaining on the current roster are whether Andy Dalton will get moved in a dried-up market or if he and his roughly eighteen million dollar salary will be cut before June 1st, extensions for Green and Joe Mixon, and a potential contract restructure for Kirkpatrick. After a 2-14 season, there is obviously a lot of work to be done. But the Bengals have significantly improved their roster in a week’s time and essentially have two first round picks in number one overall and left tackle Jonah Williams. Add pick #33 and A.J. Green to that mix and there is going to be a lot of excitement in WHO DEY nation, and rightly so. We’ll have another mock draft for you coming before you can say “quarantine”.
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