CINCINNATI – It’s been the kind of week Bengals fans were expecting during the opening of 2022 free agency.
It’s been filled with two key additions to the offensive line, two returns along the defensive front, the replacement of a popular tight end, the return of a projected starting cornerback to another one-year deal, the re-signing of several key special teams contributors and another Joe Burrow welcome party at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse.
Heading into Saturday, the only thing Bengals fans were really longing for is news that one of the game’s best offensive tackles – La’el Collins – would join in the fun and bring his talents to Cincinnati to make the reboot of the offensive line essentially complete.
Here are my key takeaways and grades from Week 1 of Roster Rebuild 2022:
Clearly, this was the priority heading into the offseason. The Bengals looked themselves in the mirror after Joe Burrow hit the turf 70 times this past season and was hurried on many more drop backs. This had to change. But the impressive thing about what the Bengals have done here is they were smart shoppers (at least on the surface). They didn’t just throw money at the issue.
They did their homework on both Alex Cappa and Ted Karras. They invested four years, $40 million in a right guard that won a Super Bowl helping Tom Brady stand up over the past two seasons He’s incredibly tough, attempting to play through a broken leg (unbeknownst to him). He’s a big people-mover inside who has – per Pro Football Focus – improved his pass protection sets significantly each season since coming into the league as a third-round pick out of Humboldt State in 2018.
Ted Karras also has Super Bowl champion pedigree. He won two rings, also protecting Tom Brady when the two were with the Patriots (Super Bowl LI and SB LIII). Karras has experience playing all three interior positions and will slot in as starting center in 2022, per Zac Taylor on Friday. His pricetag was a very reasonable three years, $18 million.
Zac Taylor talks about the Tom Brady factor with Ted Karras and Alex Cappa #Bengals pic.twitter.com/CKts7jg6VL
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) March 18, 2022
Like last year, Joe Burrow helped seal the deal with a meeting of both Thursday night at Jeff Ruby’s. Both Karras and Cappa said they had the Steak Burrow medium rare.
The reason Zac Taylor announced Karras as the new starting center Friday is the team released Trey Hopkins, freeing up $5.9 million in cap space. Hopkins, a seventh-year pro out of the University of Texas, Hopkins originally was a college free agent signee of the Bengals in 2014. He played in 76 career career games (67 starts) for Cincinnati, and for the last three seasons served as the Bengals’ No. 1 center.
Heading into Saturday, the Bengals were still waiting to close the deal on freshly released La’el Collins after Dallas cut ties this week, saving themselves $10 million on the cap with the post-June 1 roster drop. A signing here and the grade gets moved up to a solid A.
Ted Karras and Alex Cappa introduce themselves as new #Bengals. pic.twitter.com/Ea5LvhXwfI
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) March 18, 2022
HE SAID IT:
“They’re the type of guys we’re looking for… We knew we had to do something and both those guys were high on the (list).” — offensive line coach Frank Pollack.
The Bengals lost a great locker room guy with C.J. Uzomah signing with the Jets at three years and $24 million. But the Bengals, who were willing to come close to that number for such a team leader, rightly did not feel the need to overpay to replace him for the fourth or fifth option in the pass game.
Forever a part of our history. Best of luck in New York, @cj_uzomah. pic.twitter.com/pslHuufpw8
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) March 17, 2022
No one comes into Cincinnati with a bigger chip on his shoulder than Hayden Hurst. The fifth-year tight end, who is on his third NFL team, made that explicitly clear Friday, several times reminding everyone that he was drafted 25th overall in 2018 for a reason. Again, the price was right for the Bengals, who have mastered the art of the one-year “prove-it” deal, signing Hurst to a one-year, $3.5 million contract.
Hayden Hurst “excited as hell” to be joining the #Bengals pic.twitter.com/ceaWLkji3X
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) March 18, 2022
The Bengals are looking for Hurst to repeat his 2020 season, when he caught a career-high 56 passes on 88 targets for six touchdowns. Understand that this is an offense predicated on the vertical. The Bengals have Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and they are the priority in the offense. They also have Joe Mixon and Chris Evans as very solid pass-catching backs. Hurst will have plenty of chances to show off that speed and quickness he was bragging about on Friday and get open for Burrow.
HE SAID IT:
“People forget how quick I am. I was the 25th overall pick for a reason… I’m ready to explode.” — Hayden Hurst.
There was some hope that the Bengals might be able to make a big splash here and find their CB1a across from Chido Awuzie. The biggest name out there was J.C. Jackson, who spent his first four seasons in New England. But even with the courting of Mike Hilton, it quickly became apparent inside the organization that the $19 million price tag would preclude them from finishing the job on the offensive line. Then Carlton Davis signed back in Tampa for three years and $44.5 million. So, the option of bringing Eli Apple back on another cost-saving one-year deal ($4 million per Adam Schefter) became more appealing and that’s what the Bengals did, trying to match the value of their 2021 one-year, $1.2 million deal with the corner entering his second season in Cincinnati. The Bengals could certainly add a veteran corner in a second or third wave of free agency. But the thought of an addition like Stephon Gilmore seems a reach unless it’s on another “prove-it” one-year deal. This is a critical group to watch as the offseason approaches the draft phase. The Bengals could certainly address the need by choosing a corner with their first-round pick, as several options could be on the table at No. 31 overall, led by Florida’s Kaiir Elam, a former Gators teammate of Evan McPherson.
With so much focus on the offensive line, the need to sustain the momentum of the defensive line into 2022 was clearly a priority for Duke Tobin and Zac Taylor. They had a choice to make on the interior line between 26-year-old B.J. Hill and 28-year-old Larry Ogunjobi. They chose wisely. Moments after Ogunjobi agreed to a $40.5 million deal ($26.5 million guaranteed) with the Bears, the Bengals brought back Hill at three years, $30 million).
Hill couldn’t have been happier, saying that “it’s special here” and “this is where I wanted to be.” The fifth-year player out of North Carolina State University, originally was a third-round pick of the N.Y. Giants in 2018. He came to the Bengals in the Billy Price trade in the last week of preseason last summer, and then went on to play in 16 regular-season games (two starts) and all four playoff games (three starts) for the Bengals. He totaled 50 tackles and 5.5 sacks (fourth on team) during the regular season, and 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an INT in the playoffs. Poor Ogunjobi, who injured his foot in the playoff win over the Raiders. The Bears failed him on his physical and his contract was pulled off the table. Don’t rule out the possibility of the Bengals bringing the popular Ogunjobi back at the right price, assuming he can pass a physical.
Then there’s DT Josh Tupou. After opting out in 2020 due to the pandemic, the 27-year-old nose played in all 17 regular season games this past season. The fifth-year player out of the University of Colorado agreed to come back for two more years. He was a college free agent signee of the Bengals in 2017 and has played in 40 career games (16 starts, including nine last season) for Cincinnati, and has 48 tackles and a FF.
"Deep down I knew I wanted to be back because it's special here." BJ Hill on coming back to #Bengals pic.twitter.com/EDaiSWf45W
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) March 15, 2022
The Bengals have one of the strongest cover units in the game, coached by one of the best in the NFL in Darrin Simmons. No reason not to run it back with the likes of long snapper Clark Harris, safety Michael Thomas and wide receiver Mike Thomas. Michael Thomas, a ninth-year pro out of Stanford University, signed initially as a college free agent with the 49ers in 2012. He spent time with 49ers, Dolphins, Giants and Texans, before joining the Bengals last October. He went on to play in eight regular-season games (one start) and all four postseason games for Cincinnati in 2021. He posted 12 tackles on defense and six on special teams (tied for second on team) during the regular season.
Mike Thomas, the receiver, comes back on a one-year deal for 2022. Thomas, a seventh-year player out of the University of Southern Mississippi, originally was a sixth-round pick of the L.A. Rams in 2016. He spent his first four seasons with the Rams before joining the Bengals in 2020. He has played in 26 games (one start) for Cincinnati and has 18 catches for 184 yards and a TD, along with four tackles and a forced fumble on special teams.
Long snapper Clark Harris signed a one-year, $1.1 million deal for 2022. Harris, a 14th-year veteran out of Rutgers University, has served as Cincinnati’s long snapper since mid-2009 and has made a remarkable 1876 career deep snaps for the Bengals without a bad snap. He enters the 2022 season having played in 201 career games for Cincinnati, five shy of LB Reggie Williams (206) for third place in team history, and six shy of CB Ken Riley and P Kevin Huber for the team record (207).
This again was a no-brainer for both sides. The Bengals get back a quarterback in Brandon Allen (1 year, $1.5 million) that knows the system and has proven valuable to Joe Burrow in supporting Burrow through his first two seasons. Allen, a sixth-year player out of the University of Arkansas, originally was a sixth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016. He spent time with the Jaguars, Rams and Broncos before joining the Bengals in August of 2020. He has played in 11 career games (six starts) for Cincinnati and has completed 107 of 176 passes for 1074 yards, 10 TDs and four INTs (87.6 rating). Allen’s biggest moment came at the end of the Kansas City game on Jan. 2 where he filled in for a banged-up Burrow and ran off the final 45 seconds to allow Evan McPherson to kick the division-clinching field goal in a 34-31 win at PBS.
In Joe Burrow, the Bengals have a quarterback who ascended to the rarified air of Super Bowl status in his first full NFL season as a signal caller. Of the four quarterbacks in the division, Burrow’s stature is clearly the most stable, amazing to think since Burrow was just drafted in 2020. After his workout this week at Black Sheep Performance in Blue Ash, it appears both knees are at or near 100 percent.
The Bengals might have raised an eyebrow or two Friday when the Browns traded away three first-round picks, a third and a fourth to the Texans for Deshaun Watson. The Browns have long been desperate to find their answer at quarterback and they made their boldest move yet by not only trading away an enormous cache of future draft assets but then turning around and guaranteeing Watson’s entire $230 million deal over five years as part of a commitment to a quarterback who has flashed moments of pure brilliance coupled with ineffective quarterback play over his first four years.
He’s thrown 104 touchdowns coupled with 34 interceptions and has a career passer rating of 104.5. He is 28-25-0 as a starter and sat out last season as his sexual assault cases were heard by a grand jury, and eventually dropped in Harris County, Texas. The 22 civil cases are still pending, and Watson could still be suspended by the NFL for an unspecified number of games before he ever takes a snap for the Browns.
The Ravens are hoping for a bounce back season from Lamar Jackson. The 2019 NFL MVP missed the playoffs altogether last season as he was hobbled by an ankle injury that forced him to miss the last four games of 2021. He is certainly on the way too early list of candidates for Comeback Player of the Year if he can even approach the level he displayed in ’19 and ’20. That award, of course, went to Joe Burrow in 2021.
The post-Ben Roethlisberger Steelers signed Mitchell Trubisky to come in and compete with Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins. The Steelers are expected to select a quarterback in the first two days of the draft to compete as well.