When the Cincinnati Bengals take the field Sunday at Pittsburgh for their season finale, it most likely will be the last time some of them wear the orange and black stripes.
About 20 players will become free agents in 2019, including a dozen who are unrestricted, and it’s not unusual at this time of year for guys to think about who will be back and who will be leaving in the offseason.
“There can be some chatter among players, wondering if they are going to be there or if other players are going to be around, but they need to just focus on themselves,” said linebacker Vincent Rey, who is among those with contracts expiring at the end of this season.
“At the end of the season, I really think about myself and what I did well and what I could have done better on defense and special teams. That’s really what I think about because there’s no team that’s the same ever. It’s always a new team, so you’re just coming in, play hard and be grateful because to be in this locker room, to be in this league is a privilege.”
Rey, 31, is wrapping up his ninth year in the league and admittedly surprised himself a bit in making it this far.
When he was finishing up his college career at Duke University, he began making other plans outside of football – unsure he would get an opportunity in the NFL. He planned to go on to another school as an academic advisor and graduate assistant while working toward a Master’s in educational administration.
The Bengals signed him as an undrafted college free agent in 2010, waived him after the preseason and put him on the practice squad until he was added to the roster that December. He appeared in every game the next six seasons and at least 14 the past two.
Rey said he doesn’t think about when his Bengals career or his time in the NFL will end.
“I didn’t know if the NFL would work out, but I got a chance, I got to come here, started on the practice squad and kept working and I always had a dream of playing in the NFL but I never knew how long,” Rey said. “The days turned into months and the months turned into years, and now I’m sitting here in my ninth year being in. I don’t know. I don’t have a set time I want to play. I just know I’m grateful every day I’m here and I hope everyone else carries that attitude because it really is a privilege to be here.”
Offensive lineman Trey Hopkins, who becomes an exclusive rights free agent, also tries not to think about the future too much.
Hopkins signed with Cincinnati as a college free agent in 2014 but was on injured reserve all year with a leg injury suffered in the preseason and spent most of the next two years on the practice squad. He made his NFL debut in the 2016 finale and ended up starting 12 games last year before shifting between guard and center this year because of injuries to other players.
“As a professional you kind of limit yourself on that because you’ve still got games to play,” Hopkins said last week. “We’re still preparing like any other week, just like Week 1 if not more. We still have games to win, and if you have to prepare to win. If you’re looking toward the future you are going to miss out on the opportunities of today. “
“Sure, I would like to be here. I’ve been here a long time, five years now, so it’s the only place I know but I know things happen in the offseason, so wherever I am, I will be grateful and feel blessed just to be in the NFL and have a job.”
Running back Joe Mixon, who has two more years left on his original contract, said the Bengals need to embrace the last days practicing and playing together.
“This might be the last time around for a couple of people in the locker room,” Mixon said. “We know how it goes, it’s business, but at the end of the day we have to have as much fun as possible and go out and try to find a way to get a win.”
Other players who are set to become free agents include tight ends Tyler Eifert and C.J. Uzomah, defensive end Michael Johnson, linebacker Preston Brown, offensive tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher and cornerback Darqueze Dennard.
This also could be Marvin Lewis’ last year after three straight years missing the playoffs. He saved his job last year by finishing strong and knocking out two teams from the postseason picture but Sunday’s loss to Cleveland gave the Browns their first sweep of Cincinnati in Lewis’ 16 years.
“When I say we’re fighting for our jobs, I mean everybody — everybody in the locker room, coaches and staff,” Hopkins said. “You have professional pride you want to win games, but you also have to think it comes down you’re making a livelihood to support the people around you and your loved ones. You are still filling your résumé.”