5 things to know going into free agency for the Cincinnati Bengals

Credit: Aaron Doster

Credit: Aaron Doster

The Cincinnati Bengals already have re-signed two of their pending free agents, but they have plenty more work to do to fill some key positions that are set to open next week when the new league season officially begins.

Linebacker Joe Bachie signed a one-year extension to remain with the team through the 2023 season, and cornerback Jalen Davis agreed to a two-year extension through the 2024 campaign. That leaves 17 players who are set to become free agents, but according to NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero, the Bengals will not be tendering restricted free agent tight end Mitchell Wilcox.

Teams can begin contacting and negotiating with pending free agent players beginning Monday at noon and that “negotiation period,” formerly known as legal tampering, ends at 3:59 p.m. Wednesday. After that point, players can freely execute contracts with new clubs.

Here are five things to know as the Bengals head into what could be a busy first couple of weeks in free agency:

1. How’s the salary cap situation?

The Bengals have some money to play with, but overthecap.com’s suggestion they have $34.7 million in cap space open leaves out a few expenses the team will be budgeting for so the number they are looking at could be much lower.

Of course, there could be “cap casualties,” and that would help, or perhaps a contract or two gets re-structured, as director of player personnel Duke Tobin suggested is always a possibility. But Joe Mixon has been discussed as a likely cut for a savings up $10.1 million in cap space, and it’s possible right tackle La’El Collins is released amid his injury concerns.

Regardless of methods of freeing up cap space, this free agency period likely won’t be like the last three seasons where they were bringing in key new additions and setting franchise records for dollars spent in free agency pickups. Tobin already said this will be more like past years where the team invested in keeping their draft picks and own guys. The best value on the free agent market might come from waiting until the initial rush on players and picking off what’s left.

It’s no secret the Bengals have to manage their budget with players like Burrow and next year Ja’Marr Chase due for extensions.

2. Can Bengals afford to lose both safeties?

It’s almost certain Jessie Bates will be departing after two years of trying to work out a long-term contract and being unable to come to an agreement with the Bengals front office. That means the Bengals need to focus on what they can do to keep Vonn Bell.

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo already said he doesn’t want to have to think about the “dark day” when those two safeties aren’t on the team.

The Bengals seem prepared to move forward with Dax Hill as Bates’ replacement, but losing Bell too would be a big hit. He’s been a key to the defensive rebuild and there’s not really anyone else in the wings on this roster, aside from Tycen Anderson, a 2022 fifth-round draft pick who didn’t play a snap last season.

3. Tight end is a position of need

Wilcox seemed to be the easiest tight end to bring back, so if he’s out, that leaves no tight end on the roster. Many would like to see Hayden Hurst back after a productive prove-it season in Cincinnati, but there should be a number of tight ends on the market so if Hurst’s contract figure is higher than the Bengals are comfortable going, they shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding a similar type of player that wants to catch passes from Joe Burrow.

The draft also has a deep class of tight ends to pluck from, and since it doesn’t appear Drew Sample is likely to return, the Bengals might need to tap into the draft regardless of what free agents are available.

4. One area to spend

If the Bengals are going to spend on one position, the offensive line could still be a consideration. It’s how they improved protection for Burrow last season, and there is still a need there.

Even if Collins stays, it seems unlikely the start to his 2023 season wouldn’t be impacted because of how late in the season he tore his ACL and MCL (on Dec. 24 at New England). There already are concerns about his production last year, and there’s uncertainty on the future at left tackle with Jonah Williams playing on a fifth-year option.

The Bengals could use the draft to add depth, but the offensive line is a position that might be best to address with a veteran free agent if possible.

5. Two other starters expected gone

Cincinnati also could be losing cornerback Eli Apple and linebacker Germaine Pratt in free agency, but both seem like spots that could be filled in the draft if even needed.

The Bengals feel good about their depth at linebacker with Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey ready to step up and with the return of Bachie. Logan Wilson still has another year on his rookie deal even if an extension can’t be arranged.

Cornerback is more of a question with Chidobe Awuzie also coming off an Oct. 31 ACL tear, so it could be risky to rely on a draft pick to replace Apple when it’s unknown how Awuzie will respond to rehab. Cam-Taylor Britt, a 2022 second-round pick, grew as the season went along and he gained more experience in the second half, but perhaps the group could use another veteran.

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