The Bengals Are Taking a Gamble on CB Trae Waynes

Within days of 2020 free agency beginning, the NFL saw a flurry of big moves. Some of the deals — Tom Brady signing with the Bucs — surprised us all. Others were predictable, like the Cowboys giving QB Dak Prescott the franchise tag. One of the riskier moves we’ve seen in free agency involves Trae Waynes, who signed a lucrative deal with the Bengals.

Let’s look at the cornerback’s career, the ins and outs of his new contract, and the different ways next season could play out for Waynes.

Trae Waynes’ NFL career so far

The Minnesota Vikings drafted Waynes with the 11th pick of the 2015 NFL Draft. The first cornerback drafted that year, he was prized for his elite blend of speed, strength, and athleticism. Although Waynes struggled to get much playing time in his rookie year, he still racked up 30 combined tackles.

The Michigan State Spartan also had an impressive display in the Vikings NFC wild-card loss to the Seattle Seahawks. By the next summer, however, fans were already questioning whether Waynes had the makings of an NFL bust. The young cornerback accumulated pass interference penalties at an alarming rate; he tied for seventh in the NFL in the 2016 season.

For a player expected to be a lockdown defender, opposing quarterbacks also completed a large number of attempts when targeting Waynes. During the 2018 season, opposing QBs connected on 63.8% of such attempts. During the 2019 season, this number grew even higher to 74%.

Numbers like those greatly decreased Waynes’ perceived value in free agency. So the Bengals surprised many people when they locked him up with a lucrative offer. Apparently the team thinks they can help Waynes continue developing into the potent threat many expected.

The ins and outs of Waynes’ contract

Cincinnati is hardly a hot free-agency destination, which partly explains how a risky free agent like Waynes could command so much money. The three-year contract will see the 27-year-old earn $42 million. This averages out to $14 million per year, which makes him the sixth highest-paid cornerback in the NFL.

At first glance, this amount seems somewhat irresponsible on the Bengals’ part. Yet the only guaranteed money in the deal is the $15 million signing bonus Waynes received. The Bengals also have the option to cut Waynes before 2022 with only $5 million in dead cap money. Thanks to this option, the team has more leeway than it seems when it comes to reconsidering the deal.

Waynes’ prospects in Cincinnati

Waynes was essentially signed to replace cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who the Bengals released on March 21. Regardless of how you feel about Waynes as a first round draft bust, few people would argue that he’s a better player than Kirkpatrick. And he still has the potential to become a far better player, which is evidently what the Bengals are betting on.

Waynes’ contract likely got somewhat inflated given all of the activity in the cornerback market. Of course, most of the other cornerbacks commanding large contracts—Byron Jones and James Bradberry, to name just two—rank far ahead of Waynes.

Of course, cornerback is a notoriously boom-or-bust position. And with Waynes having spent a lot of his career busting, maybe the change of scenery will lead to a boom. After a dismal 2-14 season, the Bengals really had no choice but to shake things up on the defensive end.