The Cincinnati Bengals didn’t need long to emerge as one of the 2021 NFL season’s top stories. Second-year quarterback Joe Burrow lived up to his No. 1 billing and rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow’s college teammate, routinely torched defenses for long touchdowns.
Then came the postseason.
After going over 30 years without winning a playoff game, Burrow and teammates made it all the way to Super Bowl 56 before losing to Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams. Despite the crushing Super Bowl loss, the Bengals should nonetheless enter next seaon as a legitimate threat to repeat as division champions and maybe, just maybe, finally earn the right to party with the Lombardi Trophy.
Here’s the plan of attack the Bengals should follow during the 2022 NFL offseason.
Biggest offseason questions
To be frank, the Bengals don’t enter the 2022 NFL offseason with too many significant questions. Burrow appears to have put his knee injury behind him, Chase proved he can catch the ball in the NFL, and Cincinnati re-established itself as a potential perennial AFC playoff threat.
Perhaps the biggest question, even if it’s a copout, is if everyone on the Bengals’ offense can stay healthy by the time Week 1 arrives. This season provided a perfect glimpse at what an offense featuring Burrow at quarterback, Joe Mixon at running back, and the three-headed receiver duo of Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd can do across a full campaign.
Elsewhere, the Bengals must continue addressing the offensive line. Cincinnati allowed 55 sacks in the regular season, only trailing the Chicago Bears (58) and the Baltimore Ravens (57), two teams that lost their starting quarterbacks to injuries. The Bengals’ pass protection issues continued throughout the postseason, not that it stopped them from reaching the Super Bowl.
With respect to the other 52 players on Cincinnati’s active roster, the Bengals won’t go far in 2022 if Burrow isn’t healthy. The franchise must upgrade the offensive line through free agency and the draft if they intend on competing next season.
Top free-agency decisions
Key free agents: Riley Reiff (OT), Larry Ogunjobi (DT), C.J. Uzomah (TE), B.J. Hill (DT), Jessie Bates III (S), Eli Apple (CB)
Every young quarterback could benefit from a reliable tight end, and Uzomah filled that role perfectly in 2021. The Auburn product set career-highs in catches (49), receiving yards (493), and touchdowns (five) ahead of hitting free agency.
Although the Bengals originally signed Apple as a depth player, the veteran cornerback finally demonstrated why the New York Giants once used a first-round pick on him. The product hauled in two interceptions, broke up 10 passes, and started 15 games on a solid Bengals defense.
Apple isn’t the only defender the Bengals must prioritize re-signing. Ogunjobi, who spent his first few seasons with the Cleveland Browns, tallied seven sacks after inking a one-year deal last offseason. He and Hill (5.5 sacks) repeatedly forced pressure in the trenches and should attract considerable interest in free agency.
Reiff, who turned 33 in December, started 12 of the Bengals’ first 13 games at right tackle before an ankle injury ended his season. If he wants to play next year, he might be worth bringing back on a one-year deal.
Although safety Jessie Bates III’s contract expires after the season, don’t be surprised if Cincinnati applies the franchise tag before working out an extension.
2022 NFL Draft needs and potential targets
Top picks: First round (own), second round (own), third round (own)
Draft needs: CB, C, OG, OT, LB
The Bengals are currently estimated to have over $58 million in cap space when the offseason begins, news which bodes well for free agency. Jacksonville Jaguars left tackle Cam Robinson and New York Jets right tackle Morgan Moses are each intriguing options if both hit the open market.
Regardless of what happens in free agency, the Bengals must also address the offensive line in the draft. Barring a trade, the Bengals’ first pick is at No. 31 overall, a range where Ohio State offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere and Boston College guard Zion Johnson should still be available. Northern Iowa offensive tackle Trevor Penning brings size (6-foot-7, 321 pounds) and a reputation as one of the FCS’ top overall prospects.
If the Bengals choose to wait until the draft’s second day, Louisiana’s Max Mitchell and Minnesota’s Daniel Faalele are each fascinating options. Mitchell earned All-Sun Belt honors in 2020 and 2021 and has experience at both tackle positions. Faalele, who was born in Australia, is 6-foot-9 and 380 pounds.
Cincinnati Bearcats cornerback Coby Bryant would be a welcome local addition to the Bengals’ secondary. Considering how many SEC players the Bengals have drafted in recent years, Florida cornerback Kaair Elam makes sense, especially if he drops deep to the second round.
Although the Bengals have the draft capital to add another tight end if Uzomah signs elsewhere, it makes more sense to replace him through the free-agent market. New York Giants veteran Evan Engram instantly comes to mind as a potential replacement.
1 player on each side of the ball who must step up in 2022
After selecting Chase fifth overall in last year’s draft, the Bengals addressed the offensive line by using a second-round pick on Clemson’s Jackson Carman. Born in Fairfield, Ohio, the rookie started six games at right guard and performed inconsistently before being benched.
Although it is too early to know what the Bengals’ 2022 plans are for Carman, the reality is that the team used a second-round pick on him for a reason. If Cincinnati sees a future for him at guard next season, the Clemson product must jump on the opportunity and rebound from a mixed rookie year.
Veteran cornerback Chidobe Awuzie snagged two interceptions and broke up 14 passes in his first season with the Bengals. Cincinnati will need the Colorado product to build off a solid first season and take a monumental jump forward in 2022, especially if Apple departs in free agency.
The Bengals have all of the pieces in place to repeat as AFC North champions in 2022. The moves we suggested are the next step in ensuring Cincinnati can jubilantly hold the Lombardi Trophy in February 2023.