The Bengals Look to the Draft to Reload, Not Rebuild

After signing Orlando Brown Jr. from the rival Chiefs, Cincinnati doesn’t have glaring weaknesses to address in tonight’s draft. That’s a rare luxury in the NFL.

Since last we met on the digital sports pages of Cincinnati Magazine, I’ve been consumed with a single thought: Cincinnati should be the reigning Super Bowl champs. They should have won the AFC title game in Kansas City, and though Philadelphia would have presented challenges in the Super Bowl, if the Chiefs could beat them then the Bengals certainly could have as well.

We should be picking last in the first round of tonight’s NFL draft that’s being held, in a disgusting irony, in K.C. As far as I’m concerned, Cincinnati has hoisted back-to-back Lombardi Trophies, because they should have finished the drill in Supe LVI.

The relentless nature of the NFL means we’ve all moved on to the 2023 Bengals. In this case, that’s a good thing, as there wasn’t much time to wallow between Joseph Ossai’s roughing the passer penalty against K.C. and the stunning free agent signing of Orlando Brown Jr. in March. The Chiefs game, as with the Super Bowl the year before, essentially came down to a couple of blown blocks by backup Bengals linemen—so bringing in the top left tackle on the market was a nice salve for our perennial moaning about protecting Joe Burrow. And we took him from K.C. And he came at a very affordable price.

It’s hard not to like everything about signing OBJ, which came as a bolt from the blue near the end of the first wave of free agency. Give Cincinnati’s front office credit for being fast and flexible when Brown suddenly became available and for getting him in the Paycor Stadium locker room without breaking the bank.

Whither Jonah Williams? The incumbent left tackle had a difficult season last year, struggling with a balky knee and speed rushers before getting injured in the wild-card game and missing the rest of the postseason. The simple answer would be to move JW over to the right side, but life is never that simple. Williams immediately asked to be traded, although the fact that he is under contract for 2023 puts that request in the Dusty Springfield file (“Wishin’ and Hopin’”).

Cincinnati could move Williams during the draft, but given the extreme iffiness of La’el Collins’ mangled knee, plus the continued meh-ness of Jackson Carman and Hakeem Adeniji, moving him is a risk. Unlike the biblical Jonah, who was cast overboard only to be saved by the whale, the orange-and-black-striped Jonah will most likely be in Cincinnati to play out his option year come fall.

Otherwise, the free agency period was one of exodus from Ohio (OK, enough Old Testament references). As expected, safety Jessie Bates left for greater riches elsewhere (Atlanta, as it turned out). As feared, fellow safety Vonn Bell took more money, too, from Carolina.

With their starting deep backfield now in the NFC South, the Bengals will have a new pair of safeties in 2023. Last year’s first rounder, Dax Hill, didn’t make a big impression in his rookie season, but that was mainly because Bates didn’t miss any snaps. To replace Bell, the Bengals signed Nick Scott away from the Rams. Cincinnati will miss the experience and high-end leadership Bell and Bates brought to the team, but Hill and Scott give them more elite speed and range. It could look like a loss early, but by season’s end we will have forgotten the B&B duo. It would also appear the Eli Apple era ended with the signing of reclamation cornerback Sidney Jones, though I for one would be happy to keep Apple around if possible.

On offense, tight end Hayden Hurst cashed in his Burrow Career Redemption card and signed a rich deal with the Panthers (a team seemingly dedicated to creating the Bengals South brick by brick). Cincinnati subsequently signed a player with a profile similar to Hurst in Irv Smith Jr., a former high draft pick with elite ball skills who’s struggled with injury and a glut at the position in his former home (Minnesota, in this case). The team also re-signed blocking tight end Drew Sample, who missed the bulk of last year to a knee injury.

Backup running back Samaje Perine unexpectedly bolted for a promised larger role in Denver (trusting Sean Payton is a fool’s errand, but good luck, Samaje!). With Joe Mixon already a strong cut candidate and now charged with a misdemeanor stemming from a road rage incident in January, that leaves both the tight end and running back positions as spots certain to be addressed in the draft, perhaps twice. The Bengals, as we know, love to double-dip at positions of need, with the second player selected often surpassing the first choice.

Another offseason surprise was the return of Germaine Pratt. Widely expected to leave, especially given his social media grousing and strong contract year, he instead came back on a team-friendly deal, prioritizing winning over a few extra dollars. His instincts and sledgehammer style weren’t going to be easily replaced; in some ways, Pratt was a more indispensable player than either of the departed safeties or Hurst or Perine. Retaining Pratt, along with the signing of Brown, gave the Bengals a pair of nice wins to leaven losing the other fan favorites.

But the best twist of all, and one that will probably have more impact than any of the roster churn, was the fact that both coordinators, Brian Callahan and Lou Anarumo, stayed in Cincinnati despite strong interest from other clubs for head coaching jobs. Other than the galaxy-altering presence of Joey B., the biggest reason for Cincinnati’s surge to the forefront of the NFL has been coaching. Losing one or both coordinators would certainly have, at best, stalled that progress. Instead, the Bengals have not only outstanding coaches but also continuity, that rarest of gifts. The team’s new faces can be easily assimilated into the collective, since the veterans won’t be busying themselves to learn new tricks from a replacement coordinator. It won’t be listed in the fantasy football rankings, but in the real world keeping Callahan and Anarumo for at least one more year was a coup.

Burrow will become the highest-paid player in the NFL one of these days, at least for the moment. Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins and perhaps Logan Wilson will also be signing rich deals in the near future, meaning current high-priced Bengals like Trey Hendrickson and D.J. Reader will be phased out, perhaps as early as this coming season. So tonight’s draft is both critical and tricky, for it has to serve not only this year’s Super Bowl contention window but also future seasons, when the need for cheap talent will be paramount. That’s a tough needle to thread, especially while picking at the bottom of each round and having just the regular complement of seven picks. A trade to acquire more selections feels mandatory, if only to get enough players in house to fill the needs of 2023 and 2024 and beyond.

Of course, all of this offseason maneuvering—both the draft and the free agency movement—is just the dry rub spice on the steak sandwich. The beef came when the Bengals drafted Burrow, Chase, Higgins, etc. Cincinnati is in the rarefied air now, a genuine championship contender—far more so than we assumed even last offseason, coming off a near Super Bowl win. Here’s hoping this weekend’s draft provides the final touches for a team that, by all rights, should be working on a three-peat.

Next week we’ll take a look at the newly drafted Bengals and see how they might fit into Cincinnati’s roster-building process.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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