INDIANAPOLIS — While the Bengals are just like the other 31 teams evaluating the talent on display in Indianapolis at the 2022 NFL Combine, team officials are looking well beyond the young infusion of potential talent that is available and plotting ways to improve their roster to the point where they can finish off the final 85 seconds that went unfinished on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles.
This Bengals team has a young, strong core. It’s in a good position with regard to the cap, with roughly $49.5 million of cap space available as of this writing, and possibly more with the likely release of cornerback Trae Waynes and his $11 million cap relief.
This week provided some valuable insight to just how this roster tweaking might look from a number of different perspectives, namely director of player personnel Duke Tobin, head coach Zac Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.
Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the week in Indy:
It was the most beaten to death theme of Bengals coverage in the week here. But also the most deserving. If Burrow only had more time, he finds Ja’Marr Chase for the game-winning touchdown after Chase left Jalen Ramsey in his dust.
It started this week on the second question of Zac Taylor’s 15-minute availability with reporters when he was asked how the team is going to fulfill owner Mike Brown’s promise to do more to support Joe Burrow, presumably through building up the offensive line.
“We just need to make sure our team is getting better each and every year,” Taylor said in his best imitation of a Burrow dodge from an oncoming rusher.
Too often Burrow was called upon to make like Houdini and escape a certain sack.
More to come! https://t.co/xMjJQzMSbb
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) February 24, 2022
And to be fair, many times Burrow held the ball too long because he wanted to fire deep to Ja’Marr Chase. Moreover, Taylor and director of player personnel Duke Tobin were not about to throw the current group under the bus and were coordinated in their response.
“Like every position on our team, we always will look at it and see how we can improve,” Tobin said. “I know it’s a big story, I know they’ve taken some heat but I’ll just give you some data points that I think are worth considering. We had two receivers go for over a 1,000 and a third get close. We had a running back go for over 1,000 yards, our quarterback was first or second in the league in passer rating, we’re a top-10 scoring team and I think we’re a top-10 yards per play team.
“The five guys up front, that’s all on them too. There’s a lot more to it than just the sack numbers. We weren’t the only ones to get sacked by Tennessee, (the Raiders), Kansas City and especially the Rams. Those guys did a lot of good work this year but in terms of analysis and whether we can improve, we’re obviously going to look to improve but it’s not just that position. We’ll look to improve everywhere. We’re not going to be satisfied with where we were, we feel good about where we are, we feel like we got the building blocks to be a perennial contender, but you know with that position, it will be like every other position, we’ll see what’s available to us.”
Taylor echoed Tobin’s comments moments later.
“Our offensive line, like Duke mentioned, did some great things for us this year,” Taylor said. “You know, we had two 1,000-yard receivers, Joe had all the success he had, Mixon had over 1000 yards. That’s not done with a bunch of guys that can’t get it done. So again, we’ll look at every area as we move forward to make sure we’re putting our best foot forward as the 2022 Cincinnati Bengals and we look forward to starting that process.”
Outsiders have thrown around the names of center Ryan Jensen (Tampa Bay) and Brandon Scherff (Washinton) and Laken Tomlinson (San Francisco). Any of the top 10 linemen are likely to garner north of $10 million a season and could reach $15 million annually. By comparison, the Bengals’ highest paid linemen is center Trey Hopkins, whose average annual salary is $6.8 million. The Bengals obviously could upgrade through the draft with names like Boston College guard Zion Johnson or Central Michigan tackle Bernhard Raimann. To the Bengals, it comes down to how well the free agent or draft pick works with others in the group.
“Well, it’s just how it fits with what we have, with what we’re bringing in,” Taylor said. “Our schemes. And so, there’s a lot of things that I’m not going to give you a particular answer there, but they’ve got to fit in the culture of our room as well. They gotta love ball. That fits with our team. We’ve got a great group of guys in the locker room right now that enjoy the process.
“They don’t just enjoy playing on Sunday. They like spending time with their teammates. They like practicing. They love the meetings. They love all the things that help you grind because we just got done with a seven-month season. And if you don’t love it, then we’re not gonna be able to depend on you in some of those critical moments. So, fitting within the culture of that room is big for us as well.”
Will the leader of the Bengals secondary convince his agent that re-signing with the Bengals is the right thing to do? That’s the biggest question. The Bengals almost shudder at the thought of a secondary without their captain. Just listen to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.
“Hopefully we don’t have to go down the road of worrying about what it’s like without him.” Lou Anarumo says he “leans on” Jessie Bates a lot in calling #Bengals defense. pic.twitter.com/LKkx2jHnWa
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) March 2, 2022
“I lean on Jessie a lot, easy guy to communicate with,” Anarumo told me. “During the games, ‘How’s this going? How’s that going? How you seeing this? He’s really turned himself into a true professional. Certainly a guy we’d love to have back. He’s done so many great things for us back in the secondary and our whole defense, being a captain. I think the world of him. He knows that. Hopefully, we get him back. Hopefully we don’t have to go down the road of worrying about what it’s like without him.”
“He’s an important part of our team,” added Tobin. “We drafted him, he’s a guy that developed and that has played well that has a real role on our team in a lot of different areas, particularly in leadership and play-making skill, he’s a guy we want going forward. We want him to be a part of our group so we’ll see what we can do to get that done.”
The Bengals could place the $13.5 million franchise tag on Bates as early as next Tuesday and would have until mid-July to get a deal done on the safety, who could command between $15-17 million annually over a four or five-year deal.
Anytime you have a generational talent like the Bengals have in their quarterback, he suddenly becomes an incredible asset to the front office. We’ve already seen that in the draft with his push to Zac Taylor and Duke Tobin last spring to draft LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase, despite Chase’s decision to opt out of LSU in 2020. That worked out pretty well for Burrow and the Bengals.
He also helped bring Riley Reiff to town last year in free agency. Now, Burrow, fresh from a Super Bowl appearance in his first fully NFL season, can really turn on the charm with free agents who might otherwise look the other way. The ability to bring a top-notch offensive lineman to town to protect an elite quarterback could play a role in negotiating a more team-desirable price for a free agent.
“I’ve always thought Cincinnati is a destination spot, so I don’t know about you guys but it’s nice that people respect you and believe in what you’re doing,” Tobin said. “And whether the money that works out, that’s the big thing in the NFL when you’re talking to players and their representatives, the money has to work out. All things equal, if they are choosing us because we’re a contending team, which we believe, and they believe in the culture that Zac has set, then that’s even better. That gives you a little better chance.”
Tobin acknowledged that Burrow can make a difference.
“He’s the real deal,” Tobin said of his quarterback. “Our job, like I said when we drafted him, is to support him in the best way we can. This league is about quarterbacks and when you have one, you’ve got to support him the best way you can. We think we’ve done a good job of putting pieces around him and we’re going to continue to try and do that, but we’ve got to stay focused on the defense and the other areas of the team as well. Having Joe, I think players really respect Joe.
Five times in Super Bowl LVI, including twice on 4th-and-one, the Bengals had a chance to extend drives by picking up a yard and couldn’t get it done. This was a common theme all season. Sometimes it burned the Bengals in the regular season and sometimes – like the end of the Kansas City game on Jan. 2 – they were able to win in spite of their one-yard stalls. Quite simply, when you have a back like Joe Mixon, it shouldn’t be a Herculean task to gain a single yard – especially on the ground – when you need it most. Brian Callahan acknowledged as much this week when I asked him about the biggest areas this team must improve in 2022.
“There’s a lot of ways you can improve it,” Callahan said. “I thought our execution wasn’t great in both of those spots at a couple of different places. But ultimately when it came down to being able to get a yard, we had to do it and we didn’t. That’s a tough spot to be in and it’s a tough pill to swallow.
“But those are the situations you’ve got to be good in. And if you want to be able to get a yard to win the Super Bowl, you’ve got to be able to do that. And obviously, we didn’t get that done, and it’s disappointing for a lot of reasons. But it’s going to be a point of emphasis. You’ve got to be able to get a yard when the game requires you to get a yard, and we didn’t.”
What’s the best way to help Joe Burrow improve in 2022? OC Brian Callahan says he’ll try to make him more uncomfortable in practice. #Bengals pic.twitter.com/TXPVAgk1Yx
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) March 2, 2022
Every team knows their depth is going to be tested through the course of a season. Now, with 17 games on tap and only one bye available in each conference, preparing for the loss of starters becomes even more critical. It’s one thing to reach a Super Bowl in one season. Sustaining that success requires depth and versatility up and down the roster.
The Bengals, while mostly healthy in 2021, still had their moments where they were tested, namely along the offensive line. They started the season with Xavier Su’a-Filo and Riley Reiff on the line and ended it in the Super Bowl with Hakeem Adeniji and Isaiah Prince. They lost Joseph Ossai in preseason, an edge who could’ve had a huge impact in pass rush with Trey Hendrickson, Larry Ogunjobi and D.J. Reader. Logan Wilson missed several games at the end of the season with a torn labrum in his shoulder before returning in time for the playoffs.
Jessie Bates injured his neck against the Steelers and missed the Jacksonville game on Thursday night.
“It’s vital because you’re not going to get through the season with the same 22 guys that start for you in Week 1,” Tobin told me. “It’s just a reality of where we are. So, you gotta have guys that can come in and fill in and do well. And that never stops. That’s an ongoing process for what was 24 weeks for us of bringing guys in, even right up until the last couple games of the season.
“But it’s vital to have guys that can come in. You try to build your depth through the draft. And then if you don’t have the depth you need, you try to backfill through second level free agents and so far. But it’s an important part of what we do. We’ve only got 46 guys under contract, so we’ve got a long way to go to get to 90.”
Tobin’s point about only 46 guys is a very pertinent one. Several times he mentioned that free agency also includes a team’s own players. The Bengals would love to be able to bring back Larry Ogunjobi, B.J. Hill, C.J. Uzomah and Riley Reiff. But to do all that, re-sign Jessie Bates, sign an offensive lineman and sign a starting corner, that’s a lot to ask. Somewhere, the Tobin and the Bengals are going to have to make some tough decisions.
But that’s what also makes this a fascinating offseason for the reigning AFC champion.