The Cincinnati Bengals have served as the NFL's pinata this offseason on account of their miserable 2019 season.
It’s at least somewhat understandable after they managed to out-stink the Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, a team so bad they were accused of tanking in the Miami Dolphins and a slew of others for the "honor" of picking first overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.
But then free agency opened, and the Bengals, despite starting slowly with their spending, have quietly pieced together a strong offseason that will buy them the most valuable approach possible to the upcoming draft: flexibility.
Let's be clear.
The Bengals are going to have to be wowed by a Godfather offer in order to coax them out of the No. 1 pick. It likely won’t happen, so we should all expect to see Joe Burrow selected to Cincinnati with the first-overall pick. But from there? The Bengals are no longer shackled by the limitations of their roster — thanks in large part to their approach in free agency to attack the defensive side of the football.
Cinncinati’s latest reported signing is safety Vonn Bell, a 25-year-old from New Orleans who will pair with youngsters Jessie Bates and William Jackson to help provide a sturdy backend on defense. Bell joins cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes as free-agent additions in the secondary this offseason plus the team's prized signing of nose tackle D.J. Reader to replace the departing Andrew Billings.
All of these signings add up to a potential nickel package that features Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Sam Hubbard, Germaine Pratt, Dre Kirkpatrick, Jackson, Waynes, Alexander, Reader, Bates and Bell; a notable collection of talent that should hold their own if the football gods allow everyone involved to stay healthy in 2020.
From there, the Bengals can select whoever is determined to be the best difference-maker at No. 33, a key pick that is typically highly coveted after the intermission between the draft's first and second night. Perhaps Cincinnati wants to reunite its presumptive new quarterback with his favorite target at LSU, Justin Jefferson, or maybe an interior offensive lineman or right tackle will prove to be too tempting to pass up.
But the really fascinating subplot here is veteran quarterback Andy Dalton. What will he command in a potential trade? If the Bengals can get any notable return for him, the team sudden gains even more flexibility to build out their roster and compliment Burrow's strengths as a passer. As is, the Bengals skill players appear to be in solid form but veteran receiver A.J. Green is back on the franchise tag only and has struggled to stay healthy in recent seasons.
Whether Cincinnati deems it necessary to go big or go home for one piece or if they want to try to stockpile Day 2 picks in a deep draft, its free-agent spending allows it to strategize and make the most of this rare treat of picking first in each round.
If I were the Bengals, I'd be earmarking Burrow, a possible athletic linebacker at No. 33 and then transitioning my eyes to a deep wide receiver class and hoping to pluck a potential starting guard somewhere along the way. If they walk out of the draft with an athletic linebacker and two starters on offense, it will be hard to imagine this team picking back inside the top three again in 2021.