Skip to main content

Bengals Head Into Free Agency Ready For Anything

OT Orlando Brown Jr. smiles during practice at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Thursday, August 31, 2023.
OT Orlando Brown Jr. smiles during practice at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Thursday, August 31, 2023.

NFL free agency starts Monday at noon (signings can be officially announced Wednesday) and the Bengals have never quite been here before.

A record $255 million salary cap. A record $275 million contract with quarterback Joe Burrow. A nearly $22 million franchise tag on wide receiver Tee Higgins. Three of their own free agents in ESPN's top 23: Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, right tackle Jonah Williams, and nose tackle DJ Reader.

And a three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver in Ja'Marr Chase eligible for a contract extension.

But you only have to go back to last year's first week of free agency and the sudden surprise signing of Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to get a sense of what may unfold next week and how the Bengals are going to approach it:

_Expect the unexpected, and their nimble front office has been able to turn on a dime and adjust their priorities as the market evolves in the first few hours.

_Burrow is one of the NFL's top draws for free-agents and fans alike. Plus, his head coach, Zac Taylor, has earned the rep around the league for taking care of his players with a team that always seems to have fresh legs. (Check out Burrow's 19-6 record in November, December, and January.) 

_They don't close up shop after the first week of free agency and prefer to take the long view of the cap leading up to Opening Day. Even though the draft isn't until the last week of April and the practice squad isn't formed until the week before the opener, they've already got the rookie pool of $10.5 million and the $4 million of the practice squad budgeted, among other items.

Last year's biggest move didn't come until the day before the opener, when Burrow signed the NFL's richest contract ever and then boarded the charter to Cleveland. No doubt, Chase was taking notes in first class.

_The Bengals like to make big deals (they've routinely spent to or over the salary cap in the 24 seasons of Paycor Stadium), but they also like to craft them so the future is protected by front-loaded money.

Whether they come out as hot as they have in the first four free agencies of the Burrow Epoch, when they've landed an elite starter from another team on each of the first four days, remains to be seen.

(Technically, they made the Texans' Reader the league's highest-paid nose tackle in 2020 a month before they drafted Burrow, but they knew when they signed Reader they were going to be the Burrow Bengals.)  

The Bengals weren't stunned when the cap hit $255 million. They were already sketching it out at about $250 million and last week at the NFL scouting combine, director of player personnel Duke Tobin  acknowledged there is money to be spent.

"I won't get into our strategies for roster building, but I will tell you that if there's more money, there's more opportunity to add people and that's just the reality about it," Tobin said. "There's also more opportunity for the other 31 teams to add people too, so maybe it provides a little flexibility. Hopefully, if you're talking about the same people just being paid more, it doesn't really fit the club. But as long as we can use those dollars to maybe supplement what we would have otherwise done, then I think it is a benefit for us."

Tobin runs the draft room and during free agency works with the head coach, salary capologist Katie Blackburn, the Bengals executive vice president who was doing voidable years in contracts before Burrow was born, and the rest of ownership.

But the free agency point man is Steven Radicevic, the director of pro scouting who returned a call early that Wednesday morning to Orlando Brown Jr.'s advisor and mentor Jammal Brown. They were less than 48 hours into free agency, but things had shifted for both sides.

That Friday, the Chiefs had informed Brown they weren't going to put the franchise tag on him for a second straight year. When they talked long-term numbers over the weekend, Brown, about to turn 27, thought the deal too long, and when Monday came he became immersed in talks with the Jets and Steelers.

"The one thing about the Jets was they were talking about acquiring Aaron Rodgers and that would have been a great opportunity for Orlando to block for a guy like that," says Jammal Brown, the former Saints tackle. "As we were talking about those teams, Orlando talked about what it was like to play the Bengals. How they always seemed fresh. He said he would play them in December and they were like it was in week two. 'They do it the right way.'

"And he respects the hell out of Joe."

(A few days later, Orlando Brown, who arrived at his introductory news conference after blocking for two NFL MVPs in Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, said, "You could say I'm spoiled with coming up in the football world with the teams I've been on, with the guys I've played with. But, being able to play with a guy like Nine, that's a tough opportunity to pass up knowing we're both the same age and at similar points in our careers.")

Jammal Brown reached out to Radicevic late Tuesday just as the Bengals were trying to gauge their safety situation, where both Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell had gone to market.

When Radicevic returned the call Wednesday morning, the Bengals had moved on from them and the next thing everyone knew, Radicevic was in Bengals president Mike Brown's office with club vice president Troy Blackburn and soon Taylor would be on the horn if he hadn't been already since he talks with some form of the group every day.

Like the game itself, NFL free agency is played at warp speed.

There were details to iron out, of course. The Bengals already had a left tackle in Jonah Williams, but they knew Williams was smart enough and able enough to switch sides. And here was a guy in Brown who had been voted to four Pro Bowls, had never not made the playoffs, and was their  estimable AFC title game foe.

And Jammal Brown wanted the Bengals to understand that, contrary to some reports, Orlando hadn't been selfish about wanting to move from right to left tackle in Baltimore. Left had been his position in high school and college. It was home.

So was Cincy.

About ten hours later a deal was in place and before he went to bed Taylor was talking to his new guy.

It was just the kind of deal the Bengals try to craft, one that allows for future flexibility.  They gave Brown the biggest signing bonus ever for an offensive lineman, nearly half of the $64 million total.

The four-year deal allowed the $31 million to be pro-rated over each year into manageable yearly cap hits ranging only slightly from $10 million to $22 million and not snarling any future caps.

"A lot of players go in there looking for the APY," says Jammal Brown of the average per year. "A big signing bonus benefits the team and we had a structure that really kind of helps the team, but it also gets him back to the table when he's still 30."

If there was ever proof the Bengals aren't cash- or cap-strapped, that's it. And if that's not it, then it's the Burrow deal.

The Bengals have made it clear they want to keep as many of their own free agents as possible. It will be recalled that in the previous decade when the Bengals were going to five straight playoffs, their biggest deals were reserved for their own Pro Bowlers, such as A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and Andy Dalton.

Could next week see a combination of both decades? Some old? Some new?

Could Burrow's preseason deal, roughly the same time frame as long-term extensions for franchise icons Green, Atkins, and Willie Anderson, foreshadow one for Higgins and/or Chase before they do more immediate business in March?

"There's a number of them we'd like back," said Tobin last week of the Bengals own.

One thing is for sure about next week. If you don't like it, wait 15 minutes.

Related Content