Cincinnati Bengals fans are looking forward to seeing what the team does with the first pick of the NFL draft, but there are plenty of things for coach Zac Taylor and the front office to take care of before then.
Taylor said the first order of business would be evaluating the current roster and staff, and then they can begin preparing for free agency and the draft. Both will be important mechanisms for the organization’s roster rebuild this offseason, as the Bengals try to bounce back from a 2-14 finish in 2020.
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Here are some storylines to watch this offseason:
1. Coaching staff changes
Taylor will be back for a second season, but it’s unclear whether he plans to make any changes to his staff or whether others will be looking for new opportunities.
There are seven holdovers from Marvin Lewis’ 2018 staff whose contracts are expiring — Darrin Simmons (special teams), Brayden Coombs (assistant special teams), Alex Van Pelt (quarterbacks), Bob Bicknell (wide receivers), Dan Pitcher (game management/assistant quarterbacks coach), Daronte Jones (cornerbacks) and Rob Livingston (safeties).
Simmons has long been considered one of the best special teams coordinators in the league and could have some other offers if he isn’t extended or decides he wants a change of scenery. The defensive coaching staff was late coming together last year, so Taylor could seek changes there but the spot many fans are wondering about is the offensive line position. Bill Callahan, the father of offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and Taylor’s former coach at Nebraska, will not return to Washington under Ron Rivera and could make a nice addition. However, the Bengals have Jim Turner and assistant Ben Martin coaching the position group and Taylor seems loyal to his guy
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2. Player contract decisions
The Bengals have 23 players who could become free agents in 2020, including nine unrestricted free agents – wide receiver A.J. Green, cornerback Darqueze Dennard, tight end Tyler Eifert, defensive end Kerry Wynn, guard/tackle John Jerry, safety Clayton Fejedelem, linebackers Nick Vigil and LaRoy Reynolds and defensive tackle Andrew Billings.
Green expects to get franchise tagged, which would need to happen before March 10 to tie him to the team for one year while contract negotiations potentially continue, but his age (32) and recent injury history – he missed the entire year with an ankle injury and was limited to nine games in 2018 because of a toe injury – could be working against him.
Eifert and Dennard both came back on one-year deals in 2019 and made a case for returns. Eifert played a full season for the first time in his career and most appearances since playing 13 games in 2015, and Dennard’s time on the field seemed to directly correlate with improvement in the run defense.
Free agency begins March 18. Others who will be restricted free agents include safety Brandon Wilson, defensive tackle Josh Tupou, cornerbacks Tony McRae, Torry McTyer and Greg Mabin, guard Alex Redmond, linebacker Hardy Nickerson and tight end Cethan Carter. Exclusive restricted free agents include safety Trayvon Henderson, defensive tackle Niles Scott, tight end Jordan Franks, tackle Javarius Leamon and defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun.
3. What to do with Dalton
The Bengals have a decision to make with quarterback Andy Dalton at some point. His $17.7 million salary is a big number to carry for a guy they seem to believe isn’t part of the future, based on his mid-season benching and expectation the team will take a quarterback with the top pick in the draft.
He remains under contract for 2020 and could serve as a mentor to a rookie quarterback, like Jon Kitna did for the last No. 1 pick the Bengals had (Carson Palmer in 2003). However, the Bengals have a lot of other needs, too, and trading Dalton would free up some cash to bring in some quality free agents at other spots.
What is almost certain is that Dalton won’t be sitting on the bench in Cincinnati next year, not for that price.
Others that could get moved or cut include: left tackle Cordy Glenn, whose 2019 brought controversy following an extended absence with a concussion and a one-game suspension for a disciplinary issue, and B.W. Webb, who was disappointing in the first season of a three-year deal. Glenn is getting pushed out by 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams, and the Bengals need a rebuild at cornerback.
4. Grabbing free agents
The Bengals haven’t brought in a big-name free agent that got fans talking since maybe Terrell Owens in 2010, but for them to be better in 2020, they have to hit the mark on their free agent signings.
Taylor inherited most of Lewis’ final roster and the front office still somehow expected improvements on the field, but that was putting too much on the coaches. The depth of talent just wasn’t there, and the team couldn’t overcome the absence of players like Green and John Ross (for eight weeks after a strong start). Dalton was playing behind a third- and fourth-string left tackle for much of the season.
Cincinnati isn’t going to be able to rebuild just through the draft. The team needs new blood with experience.
5. Eyes on the draft
Heisman trophy winner Joe Burrow is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the draft, and fans will be cringing with every hit he takes in the national championship game Jan. 13 when he leads LSU against Clemson.
However, the Bengals could surprise and trade down to get more out of their pick. Miami has three first-round picks, drafting at No. 5, No. 18 (via Pittsburgh) and No. 26 (via Houston), and could be looking to trade up. Cincinnati could hit more of its needs that way, but a chance to rebuild around a new, young quarterback might be too difficult to pass up.
The NFL Combine takes place Feb. 24-March 2 with workouts set for Feb. 27-March 1. Offseason workouts for the Bengals begin mid-April and the draft is set for April 23-25 in Las Vegas.
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