The organization only has nine of 25 starters from that Super Bowl season under contract for the 2024 season, and although there could be more among the five free agents, it seems reasonable to expect turnover.
Here are five of the biggest questions the Bengals need to answer this offseason:
1. Who replaces DJ Reader?
Even if the Bengals do re-sign defensive tackle DJ Reader to another contract, he might not be ready to go at the start of the 2024 season, and the team really doesn’t have a replacement at his level. There’s also no guarantee Reader will be back to the level he was before his surgery to repair the torn tendon in his right quadriceps.
Reader remains optimistic he will be back and “better than ever,” because he recovered from the same injury on his left leg in 2020, but crossing 30 years old this summer could create concern. Josh Tupou, Zach Carter and Jay Tufele stepped up in Reader’s absence after his Week 15 injury, but Tupou also is heading into free agency.
Carter showed some good things in Year 2, but defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said he was still “a little bit too inconsistent.” The Bengals might need to go out and get another veteran to step in.
2. Is Jonah Williams back?
Jonah Williams showed he was serviceable right tackle, but was he good enough and will the Bengals be able to afford him on a new deal?
That spot has been a big issue even dating back to that Super Bowl season, and it’s an important one in terms of trying to keep Joe Burrow healthy in 2024. Williams might have earned himself a big second contract, and his versatility could make him a desirable free agent. Cincinnati is expected to have $54 million in cap space available, but with other contracts to figure out with players like Ja’Marr Chase’s extension and possibly Tee Higgins, it will be interesting to see how the Bengals address that position.
The organization has invested in the offensive line each of the past two offseasons, and offensive line is a hit or miss position in the draft. Williams and Cordell Volson ended up being decent picks, but prior to those two, the Bengals haven’t had a lot of success drafting offensive linemen.
3. What to do about Tee Higgins?
The Bengals have proven they know how to draft good receivers, so perhaps they end up moving on from Higgins with another new young talent, but if Burrow is to be believed, that might not be the plan afterall.
Burrow made definitive-sounding comments Monday that he expects Higgins back, and that drew a lot of attention because the franchise quarterback has a lot of say in the direction the team takes with the offense.
Higgins wants No. 1 receiver type of money, and it seems unlikely the Bengals will be able to give that to him and still pay for Chase’s extension. The most obvious solution would be to use the franchise tag on Higgins to at least get one more year out of him, but he was plagued by injuries this season so there is some risk to that $20 million investment.
4. Is it time to move on from Joe Mixon?
Mixon took a paycut last summer to stay in Cincinnati when the team might have needed to move on for a cap savings, but Chase Brown showed how much more effective the running game can be with a more explosive option. That could be enough of a reason for the Bengals to use that cap savings in 2024 and part ways with Mixon, who was efficient enough in short yardage gains to top 1,000 yards rushing but lacked the consistent big plays Cincinnati needs.
Burrow said a more explosive running game would help him take fewer hits, and although he credited the tandem of Mixon and Brown for showing improvement in that regard this season, it’s telling that was so important to him.
It remains to be seen if Brown can fill a bigger role than he did as a rookie. So if Mixon does get cut, it seems likely the Bengals would want another veteran to add into the mix. The third down role never really got solved, either.
5. Secondary issues
The safety position ended up being a bigger dropoff than anyone expected, even after Anarumo forecasted that when he said it would be a “dark day” if he lost both Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell in one offseason. So what do the Bengals do at that position?
Nick Scott was benched midseason for rookie Jordan Battle, and Dax Hill struggled in his first season as a starter. Communications issues were a big part of the defense’s struggles and inexperience on the back end of the defense impacted the linebacker play that had been so solid the previous two years. The Bengals believe young players in the secondary will be improved by this year’s experience, but is it realistic to expect that big of a jump?
They also have a hole to fill with Chidobe Awuzie’s expected exit, and it seems likely that is a position they address in the free agent market. Cam Taylor-Britt was playing at a high level before an ankle injury sidelined him four weeks, and DJ Turner played well early but seemed to hit a rookie wall at the end.