The Bengals can work to re-sign or even use the franchise tag on any of their players before they hit free agency, but it’s unlikely they are able to negotiate new deals for all of them. Here is a look at how likely each is to return.
LIKELY TO RETURN
Cal Adomitis (exlusive rights free agent): There’s no reason not to re-sign Adomitis, who has been a serviceable long snapper since replacing Clark Harris in 2022.
Markus Bailey: Bailey didn’t get enough chances on defense to command attention on the free market but he plays a decent enough role, particularly on special teams, that the Bengals could bring him back as a cheap depth piece.
Jake Browning (exlusive rights free agent): Browning proved he can play in the NFL, so as much as he might like a chance to go elsewhere with a greater chance of starting games, the Bengals have the opportunity to offer him a one-year contract for the league minimum salary. He’s a solid backup to Burrow.
Tee Higgins: Higgins has been an elite pass-catcher for the past four years, recording 1,000 yards in both 2021 and 2022 before an injury-riddled 2023 campaign. He would be a hot commodity on the free market with a chance to earn WR1 money, but when Joe Burrow says he expects Higgins back, it likely means something. It’s unlikely the Bengals reach a long-term agreement with him, but he’s a prime candidate for the franchise tag as the team seeks to make a return to the postseason and prolong the Super Bowl window. At the very least, he is tagged and traded.
Tanner Hudson: After starting out the season on the practice squad, where he was signed in late 2022, Hudson ended up playing 12 games and led the tight ends in receptions and receiving yards. He brings experience, and he would be a good one to keep around.
Trenton Irwin: Irwin has played a valuable role as the “next man up” in the wide receiver room. He started five games in 2023 and finished with 316 yards and a touchdown on 25 receptions.
Mitchell Wilcox: Wilcox only played 21 percent of the offensive snaps in 2023, a drop from 45 percent the year before, but his role on special teams became more significant with some turnover in that regard.
UNLIKELY TO RETURN
Chidobe Awuzie: Was a solid free agent addition in 2021 and a lockdown corner his first season and a half with the Bengals before his ACL tear mid-2022. He missed the team’s final nine games, as well as the playoff run that year, and then it looked like he lost a step this past season. His market won’t be as strong as it was when he hit free agency with the Cowboys, but Cincinnati likely moves on.
Tyler Boyd: As much as the Bengals valued Boyd over the past eight seasons, they don’t seem likely to pay a third wide receiver, so unless they trade Higgins, expect Boyd to walk. He can probably get paid more elsewhere. His time in Cincinnati was memorable, as he hauled in 513 catches for 6,000 yards and 31 touchdowns and proved a key veteran in the transition period for Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase.
AJ McCarron: McCarron’s brief return to the Bengals made for a good story, but the team can probably find a younger third-string quarterback.
Irv Smith Jr.: The Bengals had hoped Smith would flourish on a prove-it deal like his predecessor Hayden Hurst, but that did not end up being the case and by the end of the season, he wasn’t even active on the final three gamedays. Smith played 12 games and caught just 18 passes for 115 yards and one touchdown.
Josh Tupou: Tupou is one of the last few holdovers from the Marvin Lewis era, and he’s served a valuable role as a spot starter and rotational guy, but it’s likely time for the Bengals to move on and go a little younger at the defensive tackle position.
Jonah Williams: After bad results with offensive linemen taken early in the draft, the Bengals finally hit on one with Williams, who anchored the left tackle positions for four years before making a successful transition to right tackle in 2023. He likely can earn a big payday now and it’s unlikely Cincinnati will be able to match what others are offering.
Trayveon Williams: The Bengals were hoping 2023 would be the year Williams would break out with more opportunities in the offense following Samaje Perine’s departure. However, he ran the ball just 15 times for 69 yards and his biggest contributions still came on special teams, where he can be replaced.
COULD GO EITHER WAY
Joe Bachie: The Bengals claimed Bachie off waivers from Philadelphia in May 2021, and he’s seen a heavy dose of playing time on special teams but barely played on defense. He’s a cheap option for any team and certainly could end up back in Cincinnati, especially if Bailey ends up gone.
Akeem Davis-Gaither: Davis-Gaither hasn’t gotten the opportunities he probably deserves while playing behind Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt, and there could be enough interest from other teams with more defensive snaps to offer that the Bengals won’t be able to match. That said, Cincinnati will certainly make an effort to bring him back.
Cody Ford: Ford ended up higher on the depth chart than expected and brings value as someone that can play guard or tackle, but he only played seven percent of the snaps on offense while the starters remained healthy all season.
DJ Reader: Health is a concern, and Reader is almost 30 now. The Bengals don’t tend to give players a third contract, as they like to go younger. However, Reader also proved difficult to replace and if his injury concerns lower his cost, perhaps there is a path back for him with Cincinnati.
Drew Sample: Sample wasn’t expected back last year and then ended up with a deal later in free agency and showed how important he is as a run blocker, while also making some progress as a pass-catcher. He likely will have a chance to return, but Sample also had a good relationship with former offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, now Tennessee’s head coach, and the Titans might be able to offer him more.
Max Scharping: An experienced backup the Bengals might want to keep around, Scharping could have some decisions to make in free agency.