The Cincinnati Bengals were a strange team throughout the 2023 season as they finished fourth place in their division with no major holes on the roster. In previous years, there have been major holes on the offensive line as well as holes in the secondary but this season, there really aren’t many requirements for the team to fill in the offseason. That is exactly where this team looks to be going into the NFL Draft so that they can snap up any big talents that drop to them at the 18th overall pick but it also gives them a lot of flexibility during the free agency window.
Cincinnati Bengals 2024 Offseason Needs
I am an enormous football fan and love watching the teams go at it but I have to admit: I am a huge nerd and love calculating what teams are doing in free agency to improve their teams and how teams manage the salary cap. When any team thinks things through that way, there should be three categories of offseason pickups: immediate needs, long-term replacements and bargain picks. We’ll look at where the team will need to look for each in the offseason.
These are the positions where the team is losing a starter in free agency and doesn’t have any real heir apparent in place. Essentially, if the team were to start the new season right now, I would feel extremely uncomfortably with the player we are currently starting. Luckily for Cincinnati, the team really doesn’t have many immediate needs but the following:
After back-to-back years playing in horrible form, it appears that Cincinnati will finally move on from their 11th Overall Pick in the 2019 NFL Draft Jonah Williams. While he was the best offensive lineman on the team during the 2021 Super Bowl run, he has dramatically regressed as the team has put a focus on improving in the offensive trenches. Considering that he has adamantly stated he wants to play left tackle next season, there is virtually no chance he comes back to Cincinnati next season.
After Williams leaves, the only reasonable options to fill in at right tackle would be Jackson Carman or Cody Ford. While both of them were second round picks and were once expected to be starting caliber offensive tackles, neither of them have played well when given opportunities to start. Therefore, this is the biggest need of the team to fill this offseason as the 2024 NFL Draft class is loaded with first round talent at the offensive tackle position. It is also possible they decide to pick up a tackle in free agency and keep their draft flexibility but it is essential that the team figure out a solution by next fall.
The only other critical position to fill would be the defensive tackle position if the team lets their star nose tackle D.J. Reader leave this offseason. Reader has been an outstanding offensive tackle over the past few years in Cincinnati but after suffering a season-ending lower body injury (hamstring) just before he turns 30, extending him with a big contract would be risky.
If the team decides to move on from him, the only other nose tackles on the roster are Josh Tupou and Jay Tufele. Tupou and Tufele have been solid rotational road blocks in the middle but using them to replace reader in the long run after the team was 31st in the NFL against the run already would be a major disaster.
The biggest problem for Cincinnati is nose tackle isn’t an easy position to fill. T’Vondre Sweat out of Texas is the only true nose tackle ready to start at the NFL level coming out of the draft this season and he is expected to go late in the first round or early in the second round (right where Cincinnati won’t be picking). There also aren’t any long-term options available in free agency so the team will unfortunately be stuck with a downgrade from Reader next season.
After establishing an elite roster, Cincinnati has mostly used the draft over the past few seasons to strategize about who they are letting walk in free agency in the future. The team drafted safeties Dax Hill in 2022 and Jordan Battle in 2023 after they had decided they would let star players like All-Pro Jessie Bates and Pro Bowl Vonn Bell walk last offseason. In similar fashion, they drafted Myles Murphy this past offseason most likely because they are planning to either release defensive end Sam Hubbard this offseason or let him leave in free agency next offseason.
The big question is who they may be thinking of letting leave Cincinnati down the line.
There is no argument that nickel cornerback Mike Hilton has been one of the best players on the Cincinnati defense over the past few seasons but with that level of production, he will most likely be expecting a big raise. It is hard to rationalize paying arguably the third best cornerback on your team that sort of money when you can draft another cornerback this offseason with the intention of grooming him for that spot.
I have played out the draft previously and drafting a cornerback in the second round would almost certainly indicate that Hilton will be playing his last season with Cincinnati this season. He has been an excellent asset but he is also pushing 30 and the team will need to be planning for the future.
Interior Offensive Lineman
After bringing in interior offensive lineman Cordell Volson, Ted Karras and Alex Cappa have been adequate since they marked the first surge of offensive linemen Cincinnati brought in in 2022 to shore up the protection. That being said, adequate isn’t necessarily the target when you are talking about protecting your superstar quarterback. If there is a player in the draft or free agency who the team likes, they might take them with the intention of either releasing one of their interior lineman in order to save against the cap.
By nature, it is impossible to predict what the bargain picks are going to be in foresight. A good example would be if elite tight end Brock Bowers were somehow to fall in the draft due to a bad combine or some other concern, snagging an elite player with the 18th pick would simply be a good value. Another good example has been the rumored acquisition of elite running back Derrick Henry in free agency. Henry is an aging running back that would likely cost a fortune but if he were willing to take less than $5 million per season to play for a contender, then it would make sense to bring in a talented player.
The biggest goal of Cincinnati next season should be to improve the overall quality of their roster. There aren’t many holes but the team will need to be careful to avoid problems along the offensive and defensive lines next season. With the likely health of their All-Pro quarterback, it is likely Cincinnati gets better this offseason and then makes another deep playoff run next offseason.
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