With the expected addition of tight end Irv Smith Jr., the Cincinnati Bengals have addressed almost all of their biggest holes in free agency, but there is still plenty of work to be done in building the 2023 roster.
The Bengals have upgraded at left tackle and added depth to the line, they replaced one of the two departed safeties, and on Monday, they signed a cornerback to replace Eli Apple or at least add a third starting option at that position.
On Tuesday, it was reported the team would be signing Smith Jr. to a one-year deal, meaning the Bengals have someone in the mix to replace tight end Hayden Hurst. The last big piece is sorting out the running back position with Samaje Perine gone in free agency and Joe Mixon’s future uncertain.
Here’s a look at how Cincinnati has done in free agency so far:
Hitting big needs
Departures at safety, cornerback, tight end and running back were concerning, but the Bengals addressed those holes while also further upgrading the offensive line.
Cincinnati surprised with a big-name addition at left tackle, signing four-time Pro Bowler Orlando Brown Jr. to a cap-friendly four-year deal in the first week of free agency, and then added offensive line depth with former Cardinals and Bills lineman Cody Ford coming on a one-year contract.
Brown’s arrival was unexpected as right tackle seemed to be the bigger hole with La’el Collins coming off major knee surgery, but the chance to upgrade Joe Burrow’s blindside protection fell into the Bengals’ laps and it was too good of an opportunity to pass.
Now-displaced tackle Jonah Williams requested a trade through reports from his agent amid news of Brown signing, but Cincinnati seems intent on including Williams in the right-tackle competition moving forward. Ford and Jackson Carman also could be in that mix.
Former L.A. Rams safety Nick Scott was next to sign, inking a three-year deal to fill a void left with Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell both departing in free agency, and he seems poised for his new opportunity. The Bengals drafted Dax Hill last year with this situation in mind, and Scott will be the experienced leader next to him if they move forward with Hill as a starter.
Cornerback Sidney Jones, who has played in 52 games with 27 starts over five seasons in the league, was the next newcomer in the building, adding experience to a position that includes incumbent starters Chidobe Awuzie and Cam Taylor-Britt. With Awuzie coming off November ACL surgery, a veteran was needed alongside Taylor-Britt and Jones can be that guy.
Smith Jr., the former Vikings tight end, gives the Bengals a potential replacement for Hurst, who came on a similar one-year deal last year and earned a big three-year contract with the Panthers. Smith was a second-round pick by Minnesota in 2019 and has played three seasons (missing the 2021 campaign because of a torn meniscus), but just like Hurst, he has something to prove and will have that opportunity in a pass-friendly offense.
While it seemed linebacker Germaine Pratt would be moving on for more money elsewhere, the Bengals were able to keep him and continue the quest to invest in their young talent. His extended stay in Cincinnati was a pleasant surprise, locking down the middle of the defense that needed some continuity.
Assuming Apple doesn’t re-sign, Pratt will be the only one of the five free agent starters to return, but Cincinnati did bring back some other key role players. Wide receiver and punt returner Trent Taylor signed a one-year extension Monday, and running back Trayveon Williams, who took over kick returns last season, also re-signed in the first week of free agency.
Others returning include long snapper Cal Adomitis, cornerback Jalen Davis, linebacker Joe Bachie, safety/special teams captain Michael J. Thomas and offensive guard Max Scharping, who finished the season as the starting right guard.
Biggest questions to answer
The Bengals still need depth on the defensive line and at tight end, which could be done through the draft, but one big glaring hole remains at running back — where the top two spots are in question.
Mixon, 26, is still the starter for now but is coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro after rushing for 814 yards and seven touchdowns and adding 441 yards and two touchdowns on 60 catches. Taylor was dismissive of the idea his drop in production was significant, but the Bengals can save $10 million if they cut Mixon after June 1 and it could be a necessary cost-saving measure.
Former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott is reportedly interested in joining the Bengals and could be viewed as Mixon’s replacement if it comes to that, but Bengals coach Taylor, during a 38-minute interview with media at the NFL owners meetings in Arizona on Monday, was non-committal on any returned interest.
Taylor told reporters the organization believes Williams and Chris Evans will take advantage of the opportunity created by Perine’s departure. However, he didn’t rule out the possibility of adding more running backs to the roster during the second wave of free agency.
“I feel like we got three really good players in that room and, you know, if we continue to add in free agency or the draft, then so be it,” Taylor told reporters.
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