The Cincinnati Bengals shocked the football world by advancing to Super Bowl LVI in 2021. Cincinnati's unforeseen achievement was extremely heartwarming as a perennial underdog franchise finally delivered some well-deserved joy to a fan base that was starving for success. The impending offseason is all about putting the pieces in place to sustain that success. General manager Duke Tobin finds himself in an excellent position to achieve just that. The Bengals possess a staggering $48.7 million in cap space, via Spotrac. That financial freedom firmly places them in the top five in the available money category among all franchises, and that number may still rise before mid-March. The Bengals will likely be aggressive players in free agency as they look to recapture last season’s dream playoff run. Cincinnati's underperforming offensive line qualifies as a clear weakness on their roster, and Tobin might be tempted to splurge on a stud offensive linemen or two. Joe Burrow is a bonafide franchise quarterback. The former LSU standout is a leader and his presence should keep the Bengals contending for years to come. The Bengals have done an excellent job surrounding him with elite playmakers. Defensively, retaining playmaking safety Jessie Bates III should remain a high priority. The Bengals can afford to do that while adding several other crucial pieces. With cap, team needs, pending free agents, and draft selections all put into consideration, here are three offensive and defensive free agents Cincinnati could target when the signing period begins on March 14.
TERRON ARMSTEAD, OT, NEW ORLEANSLet's start with a sizable addition. Starting offensive tackle Riley Reiff is set to become a free agent and the Bengals could land an upgrade given the financial resources at their disposal. Reiff is a replacement-level starter that trends toward being a part of the problem as opposed to the solution. The New Orleans Saints are likely going to lose franchise left tackle Terron Armstead this offseason. The Saints are facing an uphill battle against the salary cap and Armstead is expected to reach the open market. It's extremely difficult to poke holes in Armstead's skill set and he’s one of the biggest fishes in this year’s available talent pool. He's an extremely talented and well-balanced blindside protector that would immediately transform the left side of Cincinnati's offensive line from a weakness to a strength and would allow Jonah Williams to move to right tackle. The 30-year-old Armstead remains in his prime and would help the Bengals sustain their newfound success. He's a scheme-versatile talent that could thrive in any offensive system. Armstead will likely demand roughly $20 million annually on a long-term contract, but he's worth every penny. Armstead is simply one of the best left tackles in all of football. The Bengals could afford to stack some high-end contracts while Burrow remains on his affordable rookie contract. The young and exciting Bengals are already within their Super Bowl window and should feel comfortable adding a player like Armstead.
CONNOR WILLIAMS, OG, DALLAS COWBOYSThe Bengals will almost certainly sign two quality offensive linemen this offseason—Tobin should secure the services of one tackle and one interior player. We've taken care of the tackle by signing Armstead, and now we turn our attention to the guard position. The likes of Hakeem Adeniji and Jackson Carman were woefully poor at guard and the Bengals can't possibly trot them out as starters next season. Connor Williams is a high-level starter that would qualify as a plug-and-play talent at guard. Williams is an excellent athlete that would fit Zac Taylor's diverse system like a glove. Offensive line coach and run game coordinator Frank Pollack helped transform and improve Cincinnati's rushing attack in 2021 by better marrying their passing game to their running game while still identifying with the wide-zone system Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan prefer to execute. Joe Mixon had better success as a downhill runner from under center in 2021 partially because the Bengals can pass and run the ball from the same formations and concepts, an achievement that keeps opposing defenses on their toes. Adding Williams, a scheme-versatile talent that has shined in zone-heavy concepts previously, would also allow Cincinnati to continue taking positive steps forward.
ROB GRONKOWSKI, TE, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERSThe Bengals should really make a strong effort to re-sign free-agent-tight-end-to-be C.J. Uzomah, but they must also formulate a quality backup plan in case Uzomah prices himself out of their comfort zone. Many expected Rob Gronkowski to gracefully follow Tom Brady into retirement, but Gronkowski appears primed to continue his playing career. The aging Gronkowski would almost surely only return to play for a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and the Bengals obviously fit that bill. The future Canton-bound tight end recently showered Burrow with public praise while admitting he would love to play alongside the talented gunslinger. Cincinnati's offense demands their tight ends to make a variety of blocks while being versatile enough to play both in-line and flexed outside as a pass-catcher. Gronkowski still possesses the skill set necessary to effectively partake in both areas. Gronkowski took advantage of the weapons that surrounded him in Tampa in 2020 and 2021, and he'd encounter similar high-level receivers and running backs. If Uzomah accepts an offer elsewhere, we'd love to see Gronkowski join forces with Burrow.
DARIOUS WILLIAMS, CB, LOS ANGELES RAMSEli Apple, Vernon Hargreaves, Tre Flowers, and Darius Phillips are among Cincinnati's free agents at cornerback. Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie performed admirably in 2021 and remain under contract for next season. They should provide a solid base, but there's room for a quality upgrade here. Apple was routinely picked on throughout the postseason as a boundary corner and the Bengals shouldn't be in a hurry to retain his services. Darious Williams would be an excellent signing that would immediately take up a starting spot on the outside opposite Awuzie. Taylor is extremely familiar with Williams. Taylor served on Sean McVay's coaching staff in Los Angeles during Williams' rookie season. Taylor had a front-row seat to Williams' hunger, professionalism, and work ethic while the former undrafted free agent out of UAB continuously turned heads at training camp as a diamond-in-the-rough player despite being labeled as undersized. Signing Williams would also weaken the franchise that defeated the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, but being petty isn't the driving force here. Williams is such a great cover-man.
TAKK MCKINLEY, EDGE, CLEVELAND BROWNSLast offseason's acquisition of Trey Hendrickson may have been the wisest signing of the 2021 free agency period. Hendrickson exploded for a career-high 14 sacks in 16 regular-season appearances. He was truly unblockable while screaming off the edge. Hendrickson was one of the most consistent defenders in all of football and should continue to make opposing quarterbacks extremely uncomfortable going forward. His presence means the Bengals don't need to make a sizable splash at the position, but better depth is needed. Sam Hubbard is an extraordinary do-it-all defender that excels both as a pass rusher and run stopper. Hubbard benefited from the attention Hendrickson commanded on the other side, and those some circumstances should remain in place next season. Cameron Sample has yet to prove particularly effective as a rotational pass rusher, and Takk McKinley would represent an upgrade. A former first-round bust, McKinley represents the ideal complementary piece at this point in his career. The Bengals know him well after McKinley played for their division rival Cleveland Browns in 2021. McKinley is currently recovering from a season-ending injury but should be ready to return by October. McKinley should be available on an extremely cost-friendly contract.
SHELDON RICHARDSON, DT, MINNESOTA VIKINGSDefensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi, Josh Tupou, and B.J. Hill are among Cincinnati's unrestricted free agents. Hill is especially due a sizable pay raise after earning just north of $1 million in 2021, via Spotrac. Hill is an all-around consistent defender that could command a ton of money on the open market while attracting several suitors that require interior help defensively. Ogunjobi is a solid pass rusher that struggles against the run. The Bengals certainly possess the resources to retain several of these players, but there's also a pretty good chance this position group will look different in 2022. It's time for the 31-year-old Sheldon Richardson to go ring chasing. Richardson has mostly played on below-average to average-at-best teams throughout his underrated career and should be intrigued by the possibility of playing for a contender. Richardson is an ideal fit for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's four-man front. Richardson can kick out to defensive end on occasion and would provide the Bengals with excellent versatility and consistency. Surrounding Hendrickson, D.J. Reader, and Hubbard with a player of Richardson's talent would make Cincinnati's underrated defense even scarier than it was a year ago.
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