Bengals reportedly replacing three starters on defense

Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson (24) is stopped on a carry by Dallas Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, left, in the first half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)
Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson (24) is stopped on a carry by Dallas Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, left, in the first half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

Credit: Roger Steinman

Credit: Roger Steinman

The Cincinnati Bengals let their top pass rusher go in free agency and now appear to be parting ways with their starting right cornerback and slot cornerback.

According to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, the Bengals agreed to terms Tuesday on a three-year deal with former Dallas Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie.

The Cowboys’ 2017 second-round draft pick likely comes to Cincinnati as a replacement for Jackson, who officially becomes a free agent Wednesday with the start of the 2021 league calendar.

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Awuzie was limited to eight games in 2020 because of a hamstring injury in Week 2 that put him on injured reserve for seven games and a brief stint on the COVID-19 list that caused him to miss the game against Cincinnati. However, the 6-foot, 200-pound athlete was considered one of the top available cornerbacks going on the market this offseason.

According to Garafolo, the Bengals liked his athleticism and consistency. He picked off just four passes in 49 games over four years but added 37 passes defensed and was reliable when on the field. Awuzie ranked No. 30 overall on the ESPN Top 100 free agents list for 2021 – one spot ahead of Jackson – and ProFootballFocus gave him a 72.2 overall grade and 70.5 coverage grade in 2019, his last full season.

The 25-year-old cornerback was the second defensive player to agree to terms with the Bengals through the first 24 hours of the legal tampering period, when teams begin making their moves that then can be made official after free agency opens 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Former Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson – a fourth-round pick in 2017 – agreed to a three-year $45 million contract with the New York Jets on Monday evening, guaranteeing him $30 million. Although he consistently applied pressure to opposing quarterbacks, he finished with just 5.5 sacks in 2020 and 20 total through four seasons, the middle two of which he dealt with injury after recording an impressive 8.5 sacks as a rookie.

Shortly after Lawson’s new deal was reported, NFL Network national insider Ian Rapoport and others broke news that the Bengals were signing former Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who ranked second in the league with 13.5 sacks in 2020.

Hendrickson agreed to a four-year, $60 million contract that guarantees $20 million in 2021 but nothing beyond that, according to ProFootballTalk on NBCSports.com. Half of that is a $10 million signing bonus, plus there is a $6 million roster bonus and a base salary of $3.8 million, plus other per-game roster bonuses.

The Bengals have agreed to terms with former Steelers slot cornerback Mike Hilton, as first reported by Rapaport. Mackensive Alexander, who joined the team in free agency last year, was only on a one-year contract and likely will be heading elsewhere.

Hilton was an undrafted free agent signee with the Jaguars in 2016 and ended up with the Steelers the following year. He appeared in 59 games with 20 starts over four years in Pittsburgh and had seven interceptions and 32 passes defensed.

The money behind Awuzie’s deal had not been reported at time of publication, but factoring in the cap hit on Hendrickson, the Bengals had about $28 million open, according to overthecap.com, without factoring in any of the expenses the organization would be considering for future spending, such as projecting injuries, paying for a practice squad and other items.

Overthecap.com gave Cincinnati about $40 million in cap space going into free agency, but a more realistic figure would have been closer to $21 million. Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said the organization still could make more room by moving players out of the roster, but the wiggle room is down to about $9 million in cap space after Hendrickson’s signing.

Cincinnati still has big holes to fill on the offensive line as free agency provides opportunity to get some veteran pieces before the Bengals go into the draft April 29 with the No. 5 pick. Arguably the best option on the board already became unavailable hours into the legal tampering period Monday when former Patriots guard Joe Thuney agreed to a five-year, $80 million deal with the Chiefs.

Former Giants guard Kevin Zeitler is headed to Baltimore on a three-year deal, preventing his return to Cincinnati after he was released by New York. The Panthers swooped in and got a tackle and guard in Cameron Erving (Dallas Cowboys) and Pat Elflein (New York Jets), respectively.

Plenty of other names remain available, as the Bengals continue to weigh options.

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