2021 Free Agency: Bengals are making moves, but they aren’t improving
The NFL’s free agency tampering period began on Monday and the Cincinnati Bengals have been making moves. In-house free agents like Carl Lawson, William Jackson III, and A.J. Green have reportedly signed deals elsewhere, but Duke Tobin and co. have gotten to work on replacing these players with outsiders like defensive end Trey Hendrickson and cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton.
While the Bengals surely haven’t sat on their hands, these moves are not improving the team in any significant way. In fact, they could already be worse off than they were at the start of the offseason.
Let’s start with the defensive line. Despite 2020 sack totals suggesting that Trey Hendrickson (13.5) is actually an improvement from Carl Lawson (5.5), these numbers do not tell the full story.
Hendrickson may have accumulated more sacks, but Lawson actually had more quarterback hits than the newly-signed Bengal. Though the numbers show that he had eight fewer sacks, he actually hit the quarterback 32 times, which is seven more than Hendrickson’s 25. In his 2019 campaign, where he played in only 12 games, Lawson amassed 22 QB hits. Hendrickson only totaled 17 combined for the first three years of his career.
In terms of pressures, Lawson was top five in the entire league with 44. Hendrickson, on the other hand, was 17th in the league with 33. While these numbers are in no way an indictment on the former-Saints edge rusher, they paint a clearer picture of the difference between the two players.
Lawson, despite getting fewer sacks, is a much more valuable pass rusher than Trey Hendrickson. The difference in sacks is most likely because of differences in supporting talent, and not a good metric to tell the two apart.
Bengals’ secondary has remained stagnant too
The drop-off in pass-rushing talent is one thing, but the Bengals also haven’t moved the needle much at cornerback either. Jackson, an emerging top cornerback in the NFL, signed with the Washington Football Team and will be replaced on the boundary with Awuzie, whose play began trending down in 2019.
Awuzie’s declining play is in large part due to the abysmal defense around him, but it’s still concerning compared to the much more consistent Jackson. While Jackson earned a 71.4 overall grade from Pro Football Focus in 2020, Awuzie was given a grade of 51.9. This was an outlier compared to the rest of his career, as he earned high grades every other year that he has played, but given Lou Anarumo’s coaching reputation, it’s not a given that he will get Awuzie back on the right track.
As for Hilton, the former-Steelers slot/nickel cornerback is likely an upgrade over Mackensie Alexander. However, he’s probably not enough of an improvement to move the needle in the Bengals’ favor this offseason.
Hilton will be a force in the slot, but Alexander was more than competent in the spot at a cheaper price. Given the two major downgrades at the other positions, the improvement at the slot/nickel position will not be enough for the defense to be better off than they were in 2020.
Unfortunately for the Bengals, these are moves they had to make. They let some of their top talent slip through their fingers and had to fill those holes. They would have been much better off, though, retaining their top in-house guys and bringing in outside free agents to fill other positions, like addressing the offensive line or bringing in a solid WR3.
The Bengals didn’t do that though, and they are worse off because of it. While they may have more moves on the way, some of the damage has already been done. Tobin and the Bengals’ front office could still salvage their offseason, but they are going in the wrong direction.