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Bengals Stake Their Claim With Another Opening Run In Free Agency

Trey Hendrickson pointed to the Bengals.
Trey Hendrickson pointed to the Bengals.

As reports surged through the first 30 hours or so of NFL free agency, the Bengals not only turned out to be as active as they were last year but also as defensive-minded when reports had them agreeing to terms with three new starters on that side of the ball by committing more than $100 million.

While former New Orleans Saints edge rusher Trey Hendrickson brings the heat of last season's breakout 13.5 sacks, former Steelers slot cornerback Mike Hilton arrives with a feisty 41 career pressures for a defense looking to get to the quarterback after last season's league-low 17 sacks and second fewest pressures with 111.

And with former first-rounder William Jackson III still unsigned on one of their corners, the Bengals reportedly also reached a deal with former Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, a guy that started 42 games by age 25. After a season the Bengals gave up an average of 31 points and 385 yards in AFC North games, they upgraded their defense and left Tuesday with a new set of Opening Day cornerbacks with Awuzie and Hilton joining Trae Waynes.

As a sign of the encouraging times, free agents are allowed to take physicals and visits and it's believed the trio is set to be at Paul Brown Stadium at the end of the week.

But the Bengals were also still looking to upgrade the offensive line as the NFL new year closed in at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Bracing for even more cuts in the wake of some serious league-wide spending despite a $15 million reduction in the salary cap, the Bengals were still at it Tuesday afternoon with the memory that last year's most impactful signing came in the second week of free agency.

That three-year, $18 million deal that put the Bengals over $120 million in committed money last year in free agency was for Saints strong safety Vonn Bell and his fiery approach to the game helped defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo re-set the defense. On Tuesday, Anarumo got a partner in passion for Bell with the tenacious Hilton.

At 5-9, 184 pounds, Hilton plays with a fire tempered in Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin's kiln in Pittsburgh. He made his bones in the league as a fierce player at the line of scrimmage when he got a second chance in Pittsburgh, but Anarumo took note of the damage he did in the Steelers' fire zones with 9.5 sacks and seven interceptions in his four seasons.

The Bengals seem to believe they are doing more than plugging in similar players to replace the starters they expect to lose in edge rusher Carl Lawson, starting cornerback William Jackson III and slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander.

They have high regard for the 6-2, 265-pound Lawson, but there's the sense that the 6-4, 270-pound Hendrickson is a slightly better all-around player given his production against the run and he's big enough to occasionally line up for an inside rush.

And while some point to Hendrickson's elite fellow linemen on the Saints (four-time Pro Bowler Cam Jordan, first-rounder Marcus Davenport, David Onyemata's 6.5 sacks at tackle) as well as the Saints always-have-the-lead offense and wonder if Hendrickson can do it in Cincinnati, the Bengals see 13.5 sacks as 13.5 sacks.

Only one player has hit that number in Cincinnati (Carlos Dunlap) and while Lawson did his damage of 5.5 sacks and 32 quarterback hits on 728 snaps last season, Hendrickson had 13.5 sacks and 25 hits on 558 plays. With 18 sacks in his last 28 games, they believe they have one of the league's best young pass rushers just as he's beginning to ascend.

Youth also appeared to be a factor in the signing of the 6-0, 202-pound Awuzie. He's a steady player whose first three years in the league were solid before he missed half the games last year with a hamstring problem and COVID-19. He's built a rep for reliability and being where he's supposed to be. Awuzie, who'll be 26 on Opening Day, was rated higher on ESPN's board than Jackson, a guy that turns 29 in the middle of this season.

Hilton, 27, completed a long climb Tuesday. It began as an undrafted rookie out of Mississippi in 2016 who was waived by the Jaguars late in his rookie season before he ended up on the Steelers practice squad the next year.

By the time that season was over, he led all NFL cornerbacks in Pro Football Focus charts with 15 pressures as an ace blitzer. He played on a second-round tender last year before he reportedly agreed to a four-year, $24 million deal with the Bengals.

But he also has an eye for the ball. In the last four seasons he's got seven interceptions, nearly half the total of the Bengals cornerbacks in that same stretch (15).

The Bengals paid the price for being active early in free agency. The three deals are worth about $106 million and took up nearly all of the $20 million under this year's salary cap they had allotted for new players. But they can still make room by adjusting the contract of eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, set to count more than $14 million, as well as some other veterans. They've also allotted about $11 million for the rookie pool they don't have to use until May.

The Bengals countered the loss of one of their top special teams players, tight end Cethan Carter to the Miami Dolphins, by extending their best teams player, Brandon Wilson, for two more years.