Cincinnati Bengals fans wondering what direction the organization plans to take under new coach Zac Taylor will get a good indication soon enough.
Free agency officially opens 4 p.m. Wednesday when 2018 player contracts expire, and the Bengals have several areas of need that could be addressed over the next seven weeks before the draft.
There are 13 unrestricted free agents on the Bengals roster – cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Preston Brown and Vinny Rey, offensive tackles Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher, Andre Smith and Bobby Hart, tight ends Tyler Eifert, Tyler Kroft, C.J. Uzomah, defensive ends Michael Johnson and Kasim Edebali and quarterback Tom Savage.
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The Bengals on Friday extended tender offers to five players whose contracts from last season are set to expire on Wednesday. Guard Trey Hopkins was issued a second-round tender that will make him a restricted free agent (RFA), and cornerback Tony McRae, guard Alex Redmond, defensive tackles Josh Tupou and safety Brandon Wilson have been issued tenders which assure the Bengals will retain their exclusive NFL rights for the upcoming season. Tight end Matt Lengel remains a restricted free agent.
Cincinnati has roughly $50 million in available cap space, according to OverTheCap.com, and top priorities will be at the tackle, tight end and linebacker spots. Here are some of the free agents that the team could pursue:
A familiar name for Taylor just became available this week as the Los Angeles Rams made the surprising decision to cut inside linebacker Mark Barron. Barron, the Tampa Bay Bucs’ first-round pick in 2012, missed the first four games of the 2018 season with an ankle injury but returned in Week 5 and finished out the season. He recorded 60 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a safety in 12 starts. The 29-year-old was entering the fourth season of a five-year deal signed in 2016.
Another inside linebacker option could include Lakota West High School graduate Jordan Hicks, who has been with the Philadelphia Eagles since they drafted him in the third round in 2015. Despite being just 26 years old, he’s been plagued by injuries throughout his career and has missed almost 20 games in four seasons.
Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley, Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander, Arizona’s Deone Bucannon and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Denzel Perryman also could be considered. Outside options include Minnesota’s Anthony Barr, Seattle’s K.J. Wright and Carolina’s Thomas Davis, though Davis is 35, as well as Jamie Collins, who was waived by the Browns on Wednesday. The 29-year-old Collins compiled 104 tackles, four sacks and four passes defensed in 2018.
A lot depends on what the Bengals decide to do with their three free agents, but another thing to consider is that this year’s tight end class entering the draft is considered pretty heavy.
After Baltimore re-signed Nick Boyle on Thursday, the top two tight ends expected to be available in free agency are the Raiders’ Jared Cook and Pittsburgh’s Jesse James. Cook went to the Pro Bowl last year and finished with 896 yards and six touchdowns. James has made at least 30 catches, 330 yards and two touchdowns in each of his last three seasons with the Steelers.
Others getting mentioned as options include Denver’s Jeff Heuerman, Jacksonville’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins and James O’Shaughnessy, New England’s Dwayne Allen and Kansas City’s Demetrius Harris.
Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin seemed to indicate at the NFL Combine that the team would be looking to draft a tackle in the first round unless one of the top guys they want isn’t available. Still, Cincinnati will have just two tackles on the roster come Wednesday, so it likely will be important to test the free agent market.
Tampa Bay re-signed Donovan Smith to remove one solid option, and after that, the pool is thin. New England’s Trent Brown, Miami’s Ja’Wuan James (a 2014 first-rounder) and Carolina’s Daryl Williams are the top free agents left. James and Williams are right tackles, which is the biggest need even if Hart returns.
There aren’t any truly elite cornerbacks expected to be available in free agency, but there is still a solid crop of guys coming off strong 2018 seasons.
Philadelphia’s Ronald Darby, though coming off a torn ACL, is considered one of the best options as a consistent player who has graded well through four seasons with the Eagles, and Chicago’s Bryce Callahan is a solid option as one of the league’s best slot corners last year. He allowed just 0.69 receiving yards per coverage snap in the slot, which was the fewest among the 30 corners who played at least 200 snaps in coverage.
Houston veteran Kareem Jackson and New England’s Jason McCourty could be high impact players as well. Other options include: Kansas City’s Steven Nelson, Denver’s Bradley Roby, Indy’s Pierre Desir and L.A. Chargers’ Jason Verrett.