Sometimes what looks like a promising season ends in a minute. That was the fate of the Cincinnati Bengals, who lost superstar quarterback Joe Burrow for the season with torn wrist ligaments. Burrow landed on his wrist one play, felt a pop on a touchdown pass the next, and afterwards could not grip a football. At 5-5, the Bengals could still make a playoff push, but any Super Bowl aspirations are over without one of the sport’s most irreplaceable players.
The 2023 season had already disappointed expectations in “Who Dey” land. Cincinnati made the Super Bowl following the 2021 season and finished 12-4 in 2022, but surprised by losing three of their first four this year. Burrow started slow, dealing with a calf injury, and through ten games, the team ranks below average in both scoring offense and scoring defense. If the team is to bounce back in 2024, they have some work to do this offseason.
Owner: Mike Brown
General Manager: none (Mike Brown de facto; Duke Tobin director of player personnel)
Head Coach: Zac Taylor
Brown is one of two owners who serves as head of personnel, along with Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys. He’s abetted by the league’s smallest scouting staff, led by Duke Tobin, who has served as director of player personnel since 1999.
Taylor, despite the success of 2021 and 2022, has only posted a 33-41-1 record ten games into his fifth season in Cincinnati. While it seems unlikely that a losing 2023 would prompt Brown to make a change, given the injury to Burrow, Taylor's resume isn’t bulletproof. One coaching area to watch: defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo regularly draws interest in head coach hiring cycles. He’ll be tough to replace if he winds up accepting the top job elsewhere.
Burrow shines as one of the game’s brightest stars, and he’ll be slinging passes in the Queen City for some time, having signed a five-year, $275 million extension prior to the season. Ja’Marr Chase, the fifth overall pick in 2021, figures to be the next Bengal to sign for big money. In the offseason, the team addressed another premium position by signing hulking left tackle Orlando Brown, Jr. to a free agent contract. Few teams have such a strong core trio on offense.
The defense has played well in recent years, but they’ve taken a step back in 2023, particularly concerning since much of the unit is older. Still, the team locked up pass rush tandem Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard through 2025, and they’ve invested a lot of their draft capital on this side of the ball, with their first three picks in both 2022 (safety Dax Hill, cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, defensive lineman Zachary Carter) and 2023 (edge rusher Myles Murphy, cornerback DJ Turner, and safety Jordan Battle) going to defense. None of those players have emerged as stars yet, but the hope is they can seamlessly replace veterans as they age out.
The Bengals quietly have a number of needs on both sides of the football. Tee Higgins, long the other receiver opposite Chase, hits free agency after the season, as does slot receiver Tyler Boyd. Right tackle Jonah Williams will also enter the market. Re-signing or replacing those players will cost, and there aren’t obvious internal candidates to step into their shoes. And beyond those players, center Ted Karras and running back Joe Mixon enter the final years of their contracts, and both are older players.
It’s a similar story on defense. D.J. Reader, currently Pro Football Focus’ 11th-ranked defensive tackle, hits free agency at age 30. His interior defensive line running mate, B.J. Hill, sees his contract expire a year later. It’s a similar story in the secondary, where Chidobe Awuzie’s contract expires after the season and Mike Hilton’s only runs through 2024.
In 2023, aside from Burrow’s injuries, the team’s biggest holes are at left guard and safety. Cordell Volson, a fourth-round selection in 2022, ranks 71st of 75 guards in pass blocking. Protection has been an issue on and off throughout Burrow’s career, but the signings of Brown, Karras, and Alex Cappa have solidified the line. Safety has been a different matter. Starters Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell departed in free agency prior to the season, and while Dax Hill has filled Bates’ shoes competently, Nick Scott proved a disaster, ranking last among safeties per PFF and losing his starting job to Battle.
While the Bengals have more holes to address than one would expect, they do have quite a bit of cap room to maneuver with. Over the Cap projects them to have nearly $85 million in 2024 cap space, top 10 in the league. Extensions or replacements for players like Higgins and Williams will eat into that total significantly, but they should be able to plug their holes.
Cincinnati will also get a bit higher pick than the last couple seasons, presumably. They built this run on Burrow, the first overall pick, and Chase, fifth. The last two seasons, they’ve picked at the very end of the first, but this year they’ll likely be in the top half, a good range to find a replacement for Higgins, Williams, Boyd, or add a defensive centerpiece. The Bengals retain all their draft picks and Over the Cap expects them to receive a compensatory fifth and seventh.
Prognosis and Plan
Cincinnati already took care of step number one: keeping Burrow around for the long haul. Next they must extend Chase. That duo and Brown at left tackle forms the foundation of a quality offense.
They can’t stop there, however. They must re-sign or replace Williams at right tackle, and also they should look at upgrading Volson at left guard. Wide receiver looms as a more significant priority. Even if they elect not to re-sign Higgins, they should deploy the franchise tag and seek to get compensation in trade. With Boyd also a free agent, they can use both free agency and the draft to complement Chase in the receiving corps. Augmenting tight end can take some of the load off the receiving corps; Drew Sample is a pending free agent and signee Irv Smith Jr. has disappointed.
On defense, they can plug holes easily enough in free agency and the draft. But they could stand to add a star-level talent somewhere on the defense, with so many of their best players getting older. Unfortunately, those are the toughest players to find, and the most expensive. Building a quality defense will get even trickier if Anarumo gets a long-deserved head coaching appointment elsewhere.
But all in all, the Bengals look to be in great shape. They’ll compete as long as they have Burrow and Chase healthy, and team-building is just a matter of filling in the right pieces around them. A handful of savvy moves and some better injury luck, and the Bengals can bring the city of Cincinnati a long-overdue championship.