ANALYSIS: Grading the Bengals moves in free agency

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Two weeks into the NFL legal tampering period and start of free agency, the Cincinnati Bengals still have some big holes to fill, but the additions and re-signings so far have placed the roster in a decent position.

The Bengals brought in some solid veteran newcomers, while re-signing important role players and depth pieces from last year.

Vonn Bell returns after a year with the Carolina Panthers, and he is joined by four other new signings in offensive tackle Trent Brown, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, tight end Mike Gesicki, safety Geno Stone and running back Zack Moss. The re-signings from the 2023 roster are tight ends Drew Sample and Tanner Hudson, running back Trayveon Williams, offensive lineman Cody Ford, linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither and wide receiver Trenton Irwin.

Additionally, Tee Higgins returns on a franchise tag, and quarterback Jake Browning and long snapper Cal Adomitis were brought back on restricted free agent tenders.

Here’s a breakdown of the position groups and how new signings, departures and re-signings impact them.


Browning’s return was no surprise after how well he operated in a tough situation last year, replacing Joe Burrow for his first meaningful NFL action over the final eight games. The Bengals moved on from A.J. McCarron and will still need to add there, but they should feel good about their backup situation. Browning proved he could be a capable starter.


The Bengals traded Joe Mixon and replaced him with Moss, who is known to be better in pass protection and stands out because of his breakaway speed. That will help Cincinnati’s offense take steps toward being more explosive overall, but Moss still has something to prove as a No. 1 running back. It’s a good move on paper. Trayveon Williams’ return was a bit surprising considering how little he’s been utilized on offense, but his impact on special teams made him valuable. It would be nice to see him take steps as a running back, as Chase Brown needs pushed in Year 2.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP


Higgins is back, barring a trade, but Tyler Boyd is almost certainly gone and that leaves a hole that will still need filled. Irwin was a solid contributor as the fourth receiver last year and will play another important role in 2024, but the Bengals will be looking to take advantage of a deep wide receiver class in this year’s draft.


Gesicki had a trio of 50-catch seasons on his resume’ and looks to be a nice fit for Cincinnati’s offense. He was used often in the slot in 12-personnel packages in the past, but can operate as the tight end in 11-personnel the Bengals have leaned on in the past. With Boyd gone, it could be nice to have that flexibility. Burrow also will like having Gesicki as a target in redzone situations.


The Bengals have used free agency to address their offensive line each of the past two offseasons and this one was no different. Jonah Williams’ departure, signing with Arizona, left a void at right tackle and Brown is one of the best in dropback 1-on-1 pass blocking situations. The Bengals could still draft an offensive tackle to develop for the future or compete for playing time in 2024, but Brown coming on a one-year deal means they have a veteran they can count on to help win this season. Ford’s return gives them depth at both guard and tackle. He ended up being the first option off the bench last year.

Credit: Lynne Sladky

Credit: Lynne Sladky


DJ Reader signed with Detroit, and there is still a need for another defensive tackle with Josh Tupou a free agent. Rankins adds to the interior pass rush along with BJ Hill and has been solid in run stopping the past two seasons; however, the depth at the defensive tackle positions already was a concern and now two key pieces are departing. This is a spot that needs addressed in the draft but could still benefit from another free agent addition if there is room in the budget.


Davis-Gaither likely could have gone elsewhere after his production his first four seasons with the Bengals. He’s a solid No. 3 linebacker behind Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt and plays a significant role on special teams. His return his huge. Markus Bailey is still an unsigned free agent but is more easily replaced.


Nick Scott’s release was no surprise after his struggles led to rookie Jordan Battle starting the final seven games. Stone is a great get at free safety, coming off a seven-interception season with Baltimore and entering his second contract. He’s a guy who was known for his work ethic and overcame the adversity of being a late-round draft pick who was cut three times before gradually finding a role with the Ravens. He fits well with Cincinnati’s culture, but makes Dax Hill’s role in question.

Bell didn’t have the impact last season that Carolina hoped for, and as he approaches 30 years old in December, it’s unclear what level of production he will provide, but his role as a leader is very much needed. He’s a player that can compete for playing time still and step in as a starter if needed. Regardless of where he sits on a depth chart, he will be vital to helping bring along young players and bringing the defensive chemistry back to the levels shown in 2021 and 2022.


Chidobe Awuzie’s role diminished last year as he worked back from 2022 ACL surgery and DJ Turner emerged as a rookie, but Awuzie’s departure in free agency still leaves a hole. Turner struggled at the end of the season but showed promise for the future early on, and Cam Taylor-Britt is looking for more growth in Year 3. The Bengals have invested a lot in the secondary through the draft the past two years and may need to continue that trend if a free agent addition isn’t made.


Cincinnati’s roster build is still incomplete. The biggest need is a second run-stopping option at defensive tackle. That will be the key to a better grade.

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