Change has been the trendy word in the Bengals organization this offseason, but free agency will be a litmus test.
If you are a Bengals fan, you have no doubt gone through some form of the following exercise at some point. After another disappointing season, you scan a list of soon to be free agents. It becomes clear there are several players that would really help the Bengals. Then, the realization hits that Bengals ownership rarely allows the franchise to do anything in free agency.
Changing that and convincing the Brown family to open up their notoriously tight purse strings is perhaps the biggest challenge facing new head coach Zac Taylor and his staff. Doing well in free agency is important for every team but is especially important for this year’s Bengals.
Cincinnati’s philosophy has always been to draft and develop its own talent while largely ignoring free agency. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but you have to do it well. Pro Bowls are kind of a fluky stat. Still, the Bengals have only drafted one Pro Bowler since 2013. Thus, no one should be surprised that the franchise has gone from five straight playoff appearances to three straight losing seasons.
With several people above Taylor still in power after last season, there is plenty of reason for fans to be nervous about this year’s draft too. Free agency is the only other way to improve the team quickly enough to satisfy a fan base that has not seen a playoff win since the 1990 season. Make no mistake, the upcoming draft is critical for the Bengals, but a few moves in free agency to hedge their bets would be huge.
For the Bengals to go from doing next to nothing in free agency to doing what the Rams did last year is probably a bit foolish to expect and may be unnecessary. However, the defense was nearly historically bad at every position group last year. You could make a case for bringing in almost any defensive free agent. Given new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s Giants ties, Landon Collins makes a lot of sense.
Cincinnati desperately needs new faces at linebacker too but may wait to take advantage of a very deep group of incoming rookies. The offensive side of the ball is where the Bengals are much closer to being a dangerous football team. With this draft slanting towards defense, free agency may be the Bengals best chance to help that unit. Center Billy Price had a tough rookie campaign, but likely is not going anywhere. However, the Bengals could slide him to guard. there are a slew of free agent lineman that would enhance Andy Dalton’s protection along with Price.
Adding a pass catcher of some sort would also be wise. Jared Cook would require big money but would give Cincinnati a third pass catching option it desperately needs. This is something Tyler Eifert no longer appears physically capable of providing. Even a less flashy name like Cordarrelle Patterson would do wonders at giving the offense the versatility that John Ross has not yet.
The bottom line is the Bengals have more needs than just the draft can fill. They also have a fair amount of cap space and countless paths to improvement. As fun as fresh faces and new Twitter hashtags to promote change are, if the Bengals want to get back a fan base that really started to dress up as empty seats late last year, the upcoming free agency period has to be where the rubber must meet the road.
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