Though they have plentiful needs, the Cincinnati Bengals run in free agency could help the team make major renovations. While they’ll have an optimal position to fill in some gaps with the draft, their cap space allows for some major upgrades. Plus, with key players likely headed out the door in free agency, the team to act is now. The Bengals need to build a contender around Joe Burrow and that mission starts this off-season.
What the Cincinnati Bengals Free Agency Period Needs To Address in 2021
Coming off a 4-11-1 season, the Cincinnati Bengals free agency swing needs to be sizable and efficient. The team is expected to have north of $45 million to spend in free agency according to Spotrac, which is the fifth-most in the NFL. That of course comes at the expense of some long-term starters. Key figures including A.J. Green, Shawn Williams, Geno Atkins, and John Ross seem likely to find new teams in the coming weeks. Even though some are departing, replenishing the roster should be a priority for the organization. Though those are tough shoes to fill, the time has come for the Bengals to create a new core.
Spending in free agency and the Cincinnati Bengals organization hasn’t always been a common pairing. However, the club banked in a record $131 million on free agents, trailing only the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins on the 2020 off-season. With so much room to spend this off-season, the team has the ability to make some serious splashes. In particular, they have the cash to build a line that’ll do a better job keeping Burrow from harm. The team’s hopes and confidence hit the ground with Burrow in Week 11 against the Washington Football Team. With the 2021 off-season picture starting to gain clarity, it’s easier to start projecting free agent targets. Additionally, the retention of Zac Taylor and his staff give clear direction on the types of players and personalities the Bengals will target.
Joe Thuney, Guard
The Cincinnati Bengals free agency period could be a huge success if it starts with the landing of Joe Thuney. The free-agent left guard is very unlikely to be retained by the New England Patriots, where he won two Super Bowls and offers a massive upgrade to a floundering Bengals line. Landing Thuney would be a massive upgrade for the long-depleted guard position on the Bengals’ roster. Since Kevin Zeitler bolted through free agency in 2017, there’s been a revolving door.
Thuney has five seasons of NFL experience and hasn’t missed a start in his career. His 73.1 pass block and 70.2 run block grades in 2020 from Pro Football Focus are impressive. His veteran position and Super Bowl runs would be a welcome addition to their roster. Tying everything together in a nice bow? Thuney is from Dayton, Ohio and grew up a Bengals fan. This target makes a lot of sense for Cincinnati.
Ronald Darby, Cornerback
Entering his second trip to the free-agent market, Ronald Darby is a free agent fit that fills a potential void in Cincinnati. It seems that re-signing William Jackson III could prove to be a bit rich for the organization and Darby is a solid replacement, especially in a pairing with Trae Waynes. Darby played a key role in a really nice defense in Washington a season ago. He started in all 16 games and allowed a catch rate of just 54.1% to opposing receivers. Health is a part of the narrative for Darby, who’s missed time in three of the last four seasons due to injury. However, the 27-year-old with good speed and system flexibility makes sense for the Bengals roster.
Josh Reynolds, Wide Receiver
Entering free agency, the Cincinnati Bengals are presented with Josh Reynolds as an intriguing option. Compiling 618 yards and two touchdowns a season ago for the Los Angeles Rams, he’s a solid, trustworthy, and affordable option for Cincinnati. He also spent his rookie and sophomore NFL seasons working directly with Zac Taylor. Taylor was the assistant wide receivers coach for the Rams in 2017 and would have plentiful familiarity with Reynolds. Though they could address receivers early in the 2021 NFL Draft, Reynolds fits the Bengals’ current and future plans. A versatile fit, Reynolds could be a low-cost solution and an upgrade at the team’s third wide receiver spot.
Mike Hilton, Slot Corner
There’s always a sweetness to stealing rival players and signing Mike Hilton away from the Pittsburgh Steelers could be a nice one. Stabilizing the slot corner position is a smaller, but important part of the Cincinnati Bengals free agency and off-season periods. Mackensie Alexander is unlikely to return and the Bengals can target affordable and effective options. Hilton is a gritty slot corner and can be used in blitz schemes, adding value as a run stopper as well. While he might be one of the pricier slot corner options on the market, he’d bring effort and experience to the building Bengals.
Shelby Harris, Defensive Tackle
With a franchise cornerstone in Geno Atkins headed out the door, signing a new nose tackle like Shelby Harris would fill a key gap. Harris is 29-years-old and hitting free agency for the first time. While he’s contributed just 16.5 sacks throughout his career, he’s got a ton of value in the trenches. His 83.5 pass-rush grade from Pro Football Focus a season ago showcases Harris’s ability to generate pressure.
For players like Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard, interior pressures are keys to creating sacks from the outside. After adding D.J. Reader to the defensive interior a season ago, Harris brings even more life to the Bengals pass rush and run stop. He would be a strong, though potentially expensive, replacement for Atkins. Further, it gives the Bengals a chance at redemption with Denver Broncos free agents. In 2018, the Bengals contract mishap with Shaquil Barrett led the Super Bowl star to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now, the Bengals can fix the gaffe with Harris.
BONUS: Cincinnati Bengals Free Agency Lands Rob Havenstein
In a move that makes a lot of sense for a number of reasons, the Bengals land a veteran right tackle in Rob Havenstein. Havenstein isn’t out the door yet but a likely victim of the Los Angeles Rams overhaul. Right now, the potential exists for Havenstein to be landed in a trade. That route could be worth it for Cincinnati, especially if it means guaranteeing Havenstein doesn’t chase a different opportunity. He’s a seasoned starter and was part of a Rams team that ranked seventh in the league with a 63% pass block win rate. The 28-year-old tackle with six seasons of starting experience worked with Zac Taylor for two seasons before the coach joined the ranks in Cincinnati. Now, they could be reunited in a mission to protect Joe Burrow.
The Cincinnati Bengals free agency period can bring some serious excitement to the city this off-season. Certainly, they’ll be able to add more exciting pieces in the draft as well. However, with cap room to spend and some intriguing options on the table, Cincinnati needs to make some moves. First and foremost is protecting Joe Burrow. After that, the team could go in many directions.
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