The Bengals’ Offseason: Two Steps Up, One Calf Strain Back

Cincinnati added speed and experience to an already loaded roster, but all hopes are pinned as usual on Joe Burrow.

Like most of you, I had a cool, rational response when Joe Burrow pulled up lame during a training camp practice on a scalding hot late-July afternoon. I drove to a nearby bridge, scaled its heights, and prepared to hurl myself into the abyss below. Fortunately, news came not long after that Burrow had “only” suffered a calf strain, not an achilles or knee injury that would have ended the Bengals’ season before it ever began.

Once my nerves settled, I climbed down from my perch, and I’m thus able to return to these hallowed digital pages for another season of chronicling the highs and lows of our favorite Cincinnati pigskin collective.

Burrow missing yet another training camp is hardly news; he’s never had a healthy and productive offseason of his four professional summers (in order: COVID, rehab from knee surgery, emergency appendectomy, and now strained calf). Burrow not practicing in August has become an annual rite of summer, like a trip to the shore or cursing the grass for growing so fast. But that was about the only predictable occurrence in an offseason full of twists and turns.

Also like most of you, I suspect, it took me a good long time to recover from the last-second loss in the AFC title game in Kansas City. (OK, I lied, I have yet to recover.) But the Bengals’ brain trust did not have the luxury of taking a breather and immediately turned to constructing a team they hoped would not only get past the Chiefs but win the franchise’s first Super Bowl—an achievement they’ve been oh so close to accomplishing the last two years.

The shocks began during free agency. Safety Jessie Bates leaving for greener pastures (emphasis on the “green”) was expected, but the departure of his running mate in the defensive backfield, Vonn Bell, was not. Bell took big money to head to Carolina, where it’s decidedly not finer (as did tight end Hayden Hurst). Losing both starting safeties from a championship-level defense is certainly tough.

Fortunately, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was jolted out of his cardiac arrest by the surprising return of linebacker Germaine Pratt, which offset the loss of the safety combo by rebooting Cincinnati’s linebacker combo. Remember, Pratt and Logan Wilson (who signed a nice contract extension himself over the summer) combined to jar the ball loose from Tyler Huntley in the wild-card game last year, allowing Sam Hubbard to attain immortality with the “Fumble in the Jungle.”

Bell and Bates will undoubtedly be missed, but the Bengals have last year’s first round pick, Dax Hill, and signed Nick Scott from the Rams, so there’s a plan to get younger and faster at the position. Pratt’s sledgehammer style would have been difficult to replace in-house.

A even more seismic jolt came when Cincinnati signed left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. directly away from the Chiefs. Thought to be far too expensive for the Bengals, it turns out Brown was available and, it seems, keen to play in Cincinnati—and at a price that hardly broke the bank. There’s a reason for that, of course. Brown is still presumed to be a better right tackle than left tackle, and he led the NFL in pressures allowed in 2023, in part because he played an immense number of snaps (his percentage of pressures allowed was much better).

Still, it’s undeniable that his presence on the left side raises the line’s overall talent floor. Incumbent Jonah Williams swallowed his trade request after hearing the news and has shifted over to the right side with aplomb. It may just be that he’s a better right tackle than left tackle. Depth remains a concern, as it is across the NFL, but the starting five is as good as it’s been at any point in the Burrow era.

The overall theme of the draft in April was speed. First round pick Myles Murphy, a defensive end out of Clemson, can really move for a man of his bulk. Second-round corner D.J. Turner ran the fastest 40-yard dash of anyone at the pre-draft scouting combine. Sixth-round wideout Andrei Iosivas was an All-American track star at Princeton. And so forth. For all the flash of Cincinnati’s passing game, it was apparent last year that the team needed a jolt of athleticism and explosiveness. Virtually every pick (even punter Brad Robbins, if you consider his mortar-shell hang time) addressed this agenda. Positions didn’t matter greatly, so long as the player was an on-field blur.

That was clear when the team did not draft a tight end, as was widely speculated, leaving free agent Irv Smith to replace Hurst in the Joe Burrow Tight End Reclamation Spa. Smith has hardly played the last two years due to injury, and behind him are blocking types who aren’t pass-catching threats, so his health is critical.

The failure to address the position is a calculated risk by the team. The Bengals almost never line up in two-tight end sets, love empty backfields, and in general overwhelmingly stick with their one-back, three-wide base scheme. Still, Hurst made some big plays for the team, as did backup running back Samaje Perine, who also left in free agency. Cincinnati did draft a replacement back, Chase Brown from Illinois, who hopefully can provide some breakaway ability.

Going forward, this will be an inescapable facet of the Bengals roster. With the enormous money about to be dumped into the bank accounts of Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tee Higgins taking up a sizable percentage of the salary cap, other positions must be manned on the cheap. This isn’t a death knell. All Cincinnati has to do is look to their rivals to the west for an example of overcoming this problem. The Chiefs used a seventh-round rookie running back and multiple young, cheap defensive players to win the Super Bowl (damn them!). The key is having guys emerge from relative anonymity to play important roles, especially down the stretch and the playoffs.

Having said that, of course it all circles back to Burrow. As the ineptness of his backups (Trevor Siemian and Jake Browning have been engaged in a mediocrity horn o’plenty all summer) became apparent, Joey Franchise’s importance was only highlighted. Much of the overall roster planning and decision-making takes place with an assumption that “JB will make it work.” Which is why the sight of him dropping to the ground and being driven off the practice field in a cart was akin to getting choked out by Darth Vader. You were just going about your business on a normal weekday afternoon in the offseason … and suddenly you couldn’t breathe.

Now that our airways are clear and we can sniff the fresh air once more, the unmistakable scent of football is detectable, if still off in the distance a bit. As the regular season approaches, I’ll be back to look ahead to the schedule’s specific challenges.

Meanwhile, enjoy those last vestiges of your summer rituals. At least more than Burrow does!

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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