CINCINNATI – Now that the season is over and we are over 48 hours removed from a gut-punching end to a Bengals season filled with Super Bowl dreams, it’s time to digest where the team goes from here.
The Bengals have 43 players under contract, 12 players on future contracts and 19 free agents heading into the offseason. That’s 74 player decisions and evaluations to be made. Draft picks, free agents and undrafted rookie free agents will bring that number close to 90 come training camp. Some have called this the most important offseason in Bengals history. That most certainly is not hyperbole.
Between now and the first OTA in May there will be a seismic shift in the roster, with players signed in free agency, players leaving in free agency, players extended, players drafted, rookie undrafted free agents and likely, players released as part of cap considerations.
But before all of that roster building, the Bengals will need to know who is coaching all of them. Zac Taylor, of course, will return for his fifth season after guiding the Bengals to back-to-back division titles for the first time in the 55-year history of the franchise.
Taylor’s group came within some questionable officiating and some untimely mistakes from appearing in back-to-back Super Bowls.
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan has drawn a second interview from the Indianapolis Colts for their head coaching vacancy. While the Arizona Cardinals have requested permission to interview both Callahan and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. Darrin Simmons is projected to return for his 21st season with the Bengals, his 11th season as special teams coordinator and his fourth as assistant head coach.
“Lou and Brian and Darrin, we’ve had the same three coordinators since I’ve been here, which is really rare,” Taylor said. “That’s what’s special, to be able to have that because we’re a very tight-knit bunch. I think that communication process has been great between all of us, all the way down through the coaches. Excited that Brian and Lou are getting these opportunities again.
“And Brian’s got two of them right now and Lou’s got one of them. Certainly, hope that they get a chance to take advantage of those opportunities and become head coaches. And if they’re back, that’s great for me and all of us. That’s part of being a successful team. People are going to come and want to talk to your coaches. And we’ve got a lot of great coaches here that are more than capable. “
Taylor is already on record as saying those who don’t leave for other opportunities will be welcomed back with his staff for 2023.
The coaching staff is one of the genuine strengths of the program Taylor has built in Cincinnati. The Bengals are becoming a source of future NFL head coaching candidates, something that speaks to the remarkable turnaround of the last two seasons.
“I think those guys, they’re really smart and they have no ego,” Taylor continued. “That’s a great starting point. I think they all have such tremendous experience behind them. You look at the places they’ve been, the guys they’ve coached, people they’ve worked under, the games they’ve been a part of. And we’ve all grown together.
“You’re allowed to improve. You’re not the person you were 10 years ago, five years ago. You’re allowed to improve. And I think everyone on our staff, the more we’ve been together, we’ve improved as a whole. And we’re going to continue to improve as we move forward. We’re not just going to be stagnant. I think that those guys all have a lot of potential, even going forward, if they were to leave and go somewhere else or stay here.”
Here’s a breakdown of just some of the biggest decisions facing the Bengals this offseason:
The single-biggest offseason assignment is getting the Joe Burrow contract extension worked out. He is going to certainly be worth more than the $230 million guaranteed that Deshaun Watson received in Cleveland. He is likely going to demand a deal in the vicinity of the 10-year, $450 million deal Patrick Mahomes received after the 2020 season, which included $141 million guaranteed. What will be interesting to find out is where the Bengals and Burrow’s agent Brian Ayrault feel he falls in between those two deals, and what Lamar Jackson might receive in the interim. The Bengals would no doubt like to get Burrow’s extension completed before Jackson signs and to have a cost certainty already established before the team heads into free agency to deal with their own and other team needs.
Zac Taylor on the future ahead with Joe Burrow #Bengals pic.twitter.com/NZuxWLRVcN
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 30, 2023
This deal, while not as lucrative, could be just as critical to maintaining an anchor in the middle of the Bengals defense for years to come. Wilson enters his fourth year in 2023 and the Bengals surely would like to extend the linebacker on terms similar to the 4-year, $40 million they gave defensive end Sam Hubbard. That would appear to be a blueprint. Wilson’s production in the middle of the defense is unquestioned. He led the Bengals this past season with 123 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one interception. He continued that play in the three-game playoff season. While Wilson won’t be getting the AAV of $20 million in the 5-year, $100 million deal Roquan Smith signed with the Ravens, he certainly is in the $10-12 million AAV range over a similar period that would put him in the top 25 of NFL linebackers.
On Higgins, the thought of the Bengals trading one of Joe Burrow’s prime targets away in his prime seems pretty unlikely. Higgins was the second-round pick after the Bengals took Burrow No. 1 overall in 2020. That means his contract expires after the 2023 season. The Bengals could choose to franchise him after this season (guaranteeing at least two more seasons of Burrow, Chase and Higgins) or put out feelers for an extension. Again, Higgins’ agent is David Mulugheta so don’t expect anything easy. As for Tyler Boyd, he is also a free agent after 2023. They will no doubt approach Boyd and agent Andy Simms, who can read projections as well as anyone. Boyd is worth $15 million AAV. Worst case here is the Bengals hold the course and run it back with Chase, Higgins and Boyd for next year.
Deciding which free agents to bring back:
Duke Tobin, Zac Taylor and the front office probably already had a good feel for this long before Harrison Butker’s 45-yard field goal split the uprights Sunday night.
Vonn Bell: The 28-year-old strong safety is a heart-and-soul type of leader in the secondary. He speaks, everyone listens. His run-support and tackling ability are strengths. He is not the best in pass coverage but there are so many intangibles that Bell brings. While there certainly are safeties waiting in the wings like Dax Hill and Tycen Anderson, the Bengals would love the luxury of having a veteran with so much leadership and experience. His number is right around $10 million AAV. Three years, $30 million could bring him back to The Jungle.
Michael J. Thomas: Locker room glue guy. Thomas is the Bengals’ answer to Matthew Slater in New England. A devout family man who captains the sound and fury that is NFL special teams. He is reliable, intelligent and a dependable performer. He’s invaluable to Darrin Simmons and if the Bengals can find a way to make it work and the soon-to-be 33-year-old Thomas is willing, then there’s no reason he won’t return on a team-friendly deal in 2023.
Hayden Hurst: This could simply come down to how much is left in the bank after likely Burrow and Wilson deals. Perhaps, the Bengals view Hurst as a bigger priority than we think. He caught 52 passes for 414 yards and two TDs. They may view him in the light of the jolt he gave the offense late in the season and his effort against the Bills in the AFC Divisional round. He’s worth about $7 million AAV and three years, $21 million seems doable for the 29-year-old tight end. He’s said he loves Cincinnati and would like to return. Do the Bengals move on with a college tight end through the draft or stay with a proven receiver that Burrow trusts?
Samaje Perine: A bull of a running back who is hard to take down. He’s not going to give you the explosive plays. But as he proved in the AFC Championship, he can move a pile two yards when you need it for a touchdown. He’s been a very reliable second back to Joe Mixon and stepped up big when Mixon went down with a concussion against the Steelers in November. He doesn’t figure to be too expensive and certainly he has familiarity with Burrow and the Bengals schemes. His AAV comes in right at $3 million, certainly a doable figure for the Bengals.
Tre Flowers: The 30-year-old is a specialist in the Bengals secondary, assigned with clamping down on the opposing tight ends and bigger receivers because of his height and long arms. Again, Flowers shouldn’t command too much and could be signed quickly if the Bengals want him back for 2023.
Max Scharping: He proved a valuable depth asset when Alex Cappa went down with the ankle injury in Week 18 against the Ravens. This should not be an overly burdensome task to resign the 26-year-old who was left exposed by the Texans at the cutdown deadline last Aug. 31.
Jessie Bates: The free safety’s story has been well documented over the last two seasons. He held out of OTAs last spring, turned down an offer reported to be in the neighborhood of four years and between $55-60 million. He didn’t participate in training camp and only reported after the first preseason game against the Cardinals. He’s been a very valuable piece of the Bengals secondary but – after Sunday’s loss in KC – he sounded resigned to leaving Cincinnati this offseason after facing the financial realities.
“I want to be here,” Bates told me. “Unfortunately, this business, there’s different scenarios where I’m not in a situation where I can leave $10 million on the table and be ok with that. It wouldn’t be fair to myself, my family, my legacy. Obviously yes, I want to be here. My family is three hours away from here. I’ve created bonds in this locker room. I want to be here.”
Germaine Pratt: Anchored defense as middle linebacker. Came up big in big moments. The season ended ugly with the audible criticism of Joseph Ossai. Pratt has felt all along he’s a three-down linebacker and should be paid as such. But three-down linebackers with good production (second on Bengals in tackles with 99) might garner more than the $10-11 million a season he is projected at right now. That might be too rich for the Bengals, who still have to consider extensions for Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase.
Germaine Pratt says he felt badly for comments criticizing Joseph Ossai. Says he wants to play for a Super Bowl winner and Bengals give him that shot. pic.twitter.com/1JiSPCCEHr
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 30, 2023
“I want to be a part of a team that wins,” Pratt said. “This teams wins, so I want to be a part of a team that competes for championships. We showcased it the last two years. I want to be around. There is no way I don’t want to be around my guys. That’s all I know. The brotherhood we built around here is unmatched. It’s unstoppable. Nobody can break us no matter how many people try to throw dirt on your name in the media, nobody can stop that. I want to be back here.”
What it will take for Pratt’s return?
“People say money and stuff, and money plays into it because you want to take care of your family and stuff, but winning plays a huge factor,” the linebacker added. “I want to be a Super Bowl champion. You don’t play this game just to go out there get the money and go home. You’ll be miserable. You love this game so much you put so much time in it, you want to be a Super Bowl champion.”
Is Pratt leaving the door open to negotiate with the Bengals to return?
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I would say we’ve got Joe Burrow as a top quarterback. You want to be around a franchise quarterback that can compete for championships. Nobody wants to leave and go to a team that ain’t got a top 5 quarterback that can take us to championships. I don’t want to leave that.”
Eli Apple: From a personnel perspective, you could easily make an argument either for his return or him testing the free agent waters. He’s a 27-year-old veteran who’s been deep into the postseason with the Bengals twice. From a financial perspective, it sure appears he’s gone. I don’t see the Bengals ponying up an AAV of $10 million over a two or three-year deal, which is likely what Apple is going to want after playing for $1.9 million in 2022.
Eli Apple says he built more and better relationships with Bengals in 2022. pic.twitter.com/bq0GekDPg4
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 30, 2023
Joe Mixon: Mixon still remains a reliable if not always explosive threat in the Bengals backfield. While he – by his own admission – hasn’t performed to his $12 million AAV, the Bengals are not just going to cut a 26-year-old running back with no ready-made solution behind him. Samaje Perine is a fine third down/short yardage option, no question there. But you need a bell cow and Mixon is that for the Bengals run game. Go back and watch the Bills playoff game to see what value Mixon still has when the offensive line is doing its job. Some have suggested he could be a cap casualty, with two years left on his four-year, $48 million deal. Cutting him could save $7.2 million.
La’el Collins: This is a fascinating case. He was signed to be the projected starting right tackle and he was getting more and more comfortable in the Bengals scheme until he had his right knee rolled up on by New England’s Davon Godchaux in the first quarter on Christmas Eve. He was signed for three years and $21 million after the Cowboys released him. Do the Bengals think they can find a better solution in free agency or the draft? For those who think he could easily be replaced, a review of Hakeem Adeniji’s film in the AFC Championship might suggest otherwise. The Bengals would save $6 million in cap space if he were cut.
There’s lots of work ahead for Tobin, Taylor and Katie and Troy Blackburn. But these are issues that signal the Bengals as a player year-in and year-out for a Super Bowl. As Taylor reminded us this week, that’s what they’re in it for.
“The foundation that’s been built here. Again, it’s changing. The Cincinnati I always faced as a coach on the other teams was outstanding. Again, it’s a new start for us as new coaches that come in here.
“And so, you build your own foundation that you want to stand upon. I’ve just been really proud of sticking together through tough times, whether that’s the coaching staff, front office, players that have been here throughout the whole deal, adding new players. I think you’re just really proud of the way that everybody’s had each other’s back, stood firm and allowed us to continue to grow as a team.”