News & Analysis

Cincinnati Bengals 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) runs off the field after the NFL game on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Cincinnati. Cincinnati Bengals defeated Tennessee Titans 31-20. Cincinnati Bengals At Tennessee Titans

Leading up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the 2021 NFL Draft in April, I’ll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

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The Cincinnati Bengals are a clear underdog in a competitive AFC North, but they do provide several sources of optimism heading into next season — none bigger than Joe Burrow. Cincinnati will look to beef up one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL and continue to add to a defense that was a priority last offseason.

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $37,838,130 (6th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 5, 38, 69, 102, 133, 166, 197, 199

Cincinnati Bengals Projected 2021 Offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Joe Burrow 18 / 32 $8.2 million
RB Joe Mixon 49 / 70 $8.1 million
WR Tyler Boyd 35 / 127 $9.8 million
WR Tee Higgins 32 / 127 $2.0 million
WR ?
TE Drew Sample 44 / 71 $1.5 million
LT Jonah Williams 25 / 38 $4.8 million
LG ?
C Trey Hopkins 20 / 37 $6.6 million
RG ?
RT ?

Any analysis about Cincinnati’s offseason will start and end with what they do along the offensive line. They ended the year ranked ahead of only the New York Giants and Los Angeles Chargers in PFF’s end-of-season offensive line rankings. Ultimately, Burrow wasn’t able to escape from the collapsing pockets in his rookie season unscathed. 

Jonah Williams was potentially the Bengals’ best offensive lineman in his first season of action after sitting out his entire 2019 rookie season due to injury. Once again, his season ended prematurely this past year after a Week 13 knee injury. Williams and center Trey Hopkins — who is working his way back from a Week 17 torn ACL — are the only two offensive linemen who should have secure spots heading into next year. 

Cincinnati will also likely be looking to add some receiving talent. Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and Auden Tate are the only wide receivers under contract in 2021 with longtime Bengal A.J. Green hitting free agency. Tight end is another area that could stand to be upgraded. Drew Sample has the inside track to the starting job, but he earned just a 52.8 receiving grade in 2020 as the team’s starting tight end after C.J. Uzomah went down with injury.     

Is it Penei Sewell or bust for Cincinnati in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft?

The short answer is no. It is my personal opinion that Sewell should be the pick if he's on the board at No. 5, and I know many Cincinnati residents echo that sentiment. However, there are plenty of options for the Bengals to improve their offensive line without drafting Sewell this offseason, whether that be later in the 2021 NFL Draft or through free agency. I outlined a potential offseason for the Bengals offensive line in more depth here

The truth is that Sewell is as good of an offensive tackle prospect coming out as we've seen in seven years of analyzing college prospects at PFF. But the Bengals aren’t just one tackle away from being a contender. Trading back with a team looking to climb up to select a quarterback or targeting elite receiving talent with the fifth overall pick is still a win for Cincinnati. It just might not be the reward that many Bengals fans were hoping for during the last few months. 

What kind of receiver should Cincinnati be looking to target to complement Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins?

Outside of the offensive line performance, one of the biggest glaring weaknesses for the Bengals offense in 2020 was the lack of any kind of deep passing attack. Bengals quarterbacks combined to complete a league-low 15 passes targeted 20 or more yards downfield during the regular season on 73 attempts. That 20.5% completion rate was nearly eight percentage points lower than any other offense in the league. 

Arm strength isn't Joe Burrow’s greatest weapon, but he did have considerable success going downfield in his final season at LSU. In fact, Burrow won the “best deep ball” superlative in the 2020 PFF Draft Guide following a year in which he completed 57% of his passes 20 or more yards downfield — 26 of which went for touchdowns.

One obvious way to try to improve Burrow’s downfield success in 2021 is to add wide receivers who can consistently create separation deep. Ideally, the wide receiver Cincinnati brings in this offseason would be either a Ja’Marr Chase-type who can win at all levels, or the sort of deep threat the Bengals hoped John Ross would become with his speed. 

What can we take away from Joe Burrow’s performance as a rookie?

It’s undeniable that Justin Herbert had a more productive rookie season than Burrow, but the gap between the two is largely based on Herbert playing significantly better than Burrow in unpredictable, high-leverage situations like pressured dropbacks and deep passes. 

Burrow’s 86.2 passing grade from a clean pocket was actually 10 points higher than Herbert’s mark of 76.2, and his 90.1 passing grade on throws within 19 yards of the line of scrimmage was over 10 points better. That 90.1 grade actually ranked seventh among all quarterbacks last season.

In other words, Burrow was already very good in stable areas of quarterback play, and he showed a good deal of poise with defenders consistently in his face. There are certainly areas for him to improve, but there were also more positives than negatives to take away from his rookie season. 

Potential targets at open spots

Tackle: Penei Sewell, Matt Feiler

I’ll repeat it again: Penei Sewell is the pick if he’s available at five. In 2019, Sewell recorded the highest PFF grade we had ever given out to a tackle. He did it as a 19-year old. His combination of raw power and athleticism when he gets out in space is rare. That profile also means there is a strong possibility that he doesn’t make it to the Bengals. 

If they're looking to add a starting tackle from the free agent ranks, Matt Feiler is an option with tackle-guard flexibility who may come in at a lower price point than the top tackle options on the market. Feiler started the 2020 season at left guard for Pittsburgh, but the best season of his career to this point actually came in 2019 at right tackle when he recorded a 75.9 overall grade and 80.7 pass-blocking grade on nearly 1,000 snaps. He is fully capable of starting at right tackle opposite Williams at left tackle, even if it isn’t the flashiest of additions.  

Guard: Joe Thuney, Wyatt Davis

It isn’t crazy to think that the Bengals will look to be big-time players along the offensive line in free agency, even if it’s just to give off the appearance that they are actively trying to improve the protection for the face of their franchise. Right now, guard is the weakest position on Cincinnati's offensive line, and Joe Thuney is arguably the best guard available this offseason (depending on preference between Thuney and Brandon Scherff).

The New England Patriots‘ history with contract negotiations for offensive linemen suggests that there is a decent chance Thuney becomes available. The Ohio native would be an instant upgrade, having graded as a top-10 guard in the league in each of the past three seasons.   

There isn’t a guard like Quenton Nelson worthy of the No. 5 overall pick, which means the beginning of Round 2 is where they will first look to add to the interior of their offensive line. Wyatt Davis is a guy who could be under consideration in that range. 

As the PFF Draft Guide points out, many of Davis’ problems in 2020 stemmed from miscommunication and lack of awareness in picking up blitzes and stunts. Physically, he has the ideal profile for guard with strong one-on-one pass protection chops when he isn’t making mental mistakes.  

Wide receiver: Ja’Marr Chase, Jaelon Darden 

What better fit is there for Ja’Marr Chase than pairing him with the quarterback who helped lead him to a monstrous 2019 season at LSU at only 19 years old. It’s easy to forget how dominant he was that year given DeVonta Smith’s 2020 Heisman campaign, but Chase absolutely torched NFL-caliber talents like A.J. Terrell and Trevon Diggs. His physicality throughout his routes, at the catch point and after the catch are all in elite territory. Adding that kind of talent should only elevate the play of Boyd and Higgins at the other wide receiver spots. 

Darden isn’t nearly in the same tier as Chase as a prospect, but he would be a strong target later on for the Bengals if they prioritize other positions early in the draft. The receiver out of North Texas is coming off a season in which he posted nearly 1,200 receiving yards and found the end zone 19 times. He may be undersized, but Darden’s speed — and, just as importantly, his quickness — is real. Cincinnati could use that skill set on their offense.    

Cincinnati Bengals Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
EDGE Sam Hubbard 44 / 109 $2.4 million
DI D.J. Reader 43 / 126 $13.5 million
DI ?
EDGE ?
LB Logan Wilson 40 / 83 $1.1 million
LB Germaine Pratt 73 / 83 $1.1 million
LB Akeem Davis-Gaither N/A $1.0 million
CB Trae Waynes N/A $15.8 million
CB Darius Phillips 18 / 121 $1.0 million
CB ?
S Vonn Bell 20 / 94 $5.5 million
S Jessie Bates III 1 / 94 $2.8 million

The Bengals were fairly aggressive in trying to improve their defense last offseason through free agency. Unfortunately, their biggest acquisition — Trae Waynes — didn’t play a single defensive snap due to injury, and D.J. Reader played in just five games before going down for the season with a quad injury. 

The return of those two players should help matters, but now Cincinnati is tasked with keeping two of their top starters from the 2020 season in William Jackson III and Carl Lawson, both of whom will have interest in free agency. 

Cincinnati could save nearly $10 million by parting ways with Geno Atkins, as well. Per ESPN’s Ben Baby, Carlos Dunlap had this to say about the situation in Cincinnati that led to his trade: “I just know they’re committed to whatever their vision is. It’s clear that I was not one of those pieces. It seems like A.J. and Geno’s time is coming, too.” Atkins played a career-low 119 snaps last year while battling through a shoulder injury suffered before the season. 

Atkins' potential release paired with the uncertainty about Lawson’s future with the Bengals could open two starting jobs along the defensive line.   

The linebacker position remains relatively inexperienced with Logan Wilson, Germaine Pratt and Akeem Davis-Gaither all under 25 years old. Cincinnati could look to add some competition to that group from outside or bring back 2020 snap leader Josh Bynes (52.6 PFF grade last season).

At cornerback, Trae Waynes and Darius Phillips are capable starters, but free agents William Jackson III and Mackensie Alexander leave at least one more starting job up in the air. Bringing Jackson back should be a priority for a Bengals defense that needs to improve heading into 2021.  

Is Carl Lawson or William Jackson III more important for the Bengals to bring back?

Positional value and the importance of eliminating weak links in the secondary both suggest that Jackson is the player Cincinnati should prioritize. Jackson rebounded nicely in 2020 from a down year in 2019 and now has PFF coverage grades of at least 72.0 in three of his four NFL seasons since missing his rookie year in 2016. 

He may never get back to the elite player Bengals fans thought they might have on their hands after he allowed a 36.1 passer rating into his coverage in his 2017 debut, but Jackson is a quality starter outside. As Trae Waynes contract highlighted last offseason, those players have value. 

The argument for Lawson is that it’s difficult to see where the Bengals pass rush will come from if they don’t bring him back. Sam Hubbard has been better against the run than as a pass rusher, and you can say the same for 2020 offseason acquisition D.J. Reader

Lawson may not provide much value against the run, but he’s been one of the more impressive pass rushers in the league since 2017 despite dealing with injuries. No edge defender graded higher on “true” pass rushes than Lawson did in 2020. He has the potential to be an elite pass rusher who likely won’t sniff the $20 million-per-year contracts typically reserved for those players. 

The Bengals should make a real effort to retain both Lawson and Jackson. 

Should Cincinnati feel comfortable with their group of young linebackers?

It’s hard to feel great about the linebacker position as things stand, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time for the Bengals to continue to pour resources into the position. We’re only one year removed from Cincinnati spending three draft picks on linebackers, after all. 

Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither both played at roughly the level of a replacement level player last season — Wilson earned 0.04 PFF WAR with Davis-Gaither sitting at -0.01 — but both are at least deserving of a look with increased playing time in 2021. Even Germaine Pratt showed signs of improvement in coverage (64.2 coverage grade in 2020), though a 29.3 run-defense grade offset that jump.

The Bengals can use the 2021 season to see what they have in those younger players while spending the majority of their resources this offseason improving at more valuable positions. It just doesn’t make a ton of sense to go heavy at linebacker — a position the NFL is moving away from with more nickel and dime defenses — in back-to-back offseasons.

Will 2021 be the year that Jessie Bates III gets his deserved recognition?

PFF grade makes the argument that Bates was the best safety in the NFL this past season. His range took center stage as the last line of defense on Cincinnati’s defense, tallying three interceptions and another 12 pass breakups despite being targeted just 35 times as the primary coverage defender on a pass. At 24 years old, he is a true building block for the Bengals as they move forward. 

Despite all that, Bates was left off both the first-team All-Pro team and the Pro Bowl roster in 2020. It’s difficult to gain national recognition without prior accolades on a team that wins four games, but if Bates comes out and plays at the same level again in 2021, the accolades should begin to come.      

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defensive line: Levi Onwuzurike, Jay Tufele 

Given the current makeup of Cincinnati’s defensive line, they should be targeting a three-technique who can penetrate and get upfield if they part ways with Geno Atkins. It’s a weak interior defender class, but there are still several players in that mold that are worth taking a chance on for the Bengals. 

Levi Onwuzurike fits the “explosive three-technique” description to a T. His biggest strength in the PFF Draft Guide is his quick twitch, and he would pair well with D.J. Reader. In a similar mold, Jay Tufele is the type of athlete that can get upfield against NFL offensive linemen and could give Cincinnati some spark as an interior pass rusher. 

Neither player comes without questions, though. Both opted out of the 2020 college football season despite not dominating the college ranks in 2019, adding some uncertainty to their NFL projections.

Edge defender: Carl Lawson, Jadeveon Clowney

I already made the case for Cincinnati running things back with Carl Lawson. He’s the pure pass rusher they would need to find along the defensive line if they let him walk. 

Another player they could look to target if Lawson’s price rises too high is Jadeveon Clowney. Coming off another injury-shortened season without any sacks, Clowney could be undervalued this offseason after a 2020 offseason in which he was actively looking for a big multi-year contract. 

Clowney was still fairly disruptive as a pass rusher when on the field for Tennessee, and his 15.7% pass-rush win rate over the last four seasons ranks 20th among 54 edge rushers to record at least 1,000 pass-rushing snaps since 2017. Clowney pairs that with a history of dominance against the run. If he can be had for another one-year, prove-it deal, then the Bengals could have interest. 

Cornerback: William Jackson III, Asante Samuel Jr. 

Similar to Cincinnati’s situation at defensive end, the priority for the Bengals at cornerback will be returning William Jackson III in free agency. However, there are options to address the position in the draft, as well. 

Asante Samuel Jr. is one of them. Samuel is coming off back-to-back seasons with 500-plus snaps played and a coverage grade of at least 78.0 for the Seminoles, and his 2020 coverage numbers were particularly impressive. He makes up for being undersized with special instincts, quickness to break on routes and willingness as a tackler. While there are more pressing needs on the team, continuing to add defensive backs as talented as Samuel is never a bad idea.    

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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