With 19 free agents, Bengals looking at how to ‘fit the puzzle back together’

INDIANAPOLIS — The Cincinnati Bengals have 19 players set to be free agents when the league calendar ends March 15, but director of player personnel Duke Tobin said it’s important to keep as much of the team together as possible, so he’s hopeful many of them return.

At the same time, Tobin understands players wanting to test the market, and that might make some of them more difficult to re-sign than others.

While Cincinnati has dipped into the external free agent market more in the past two years than previously, Tobin said the organization is back in a position of trying to keep the draft picks it has developed and players that have helped make the team successful. The Bengals also recognize losing too many players from what’s been a competitive roster would not be ideal.

“My job is to have as many good players on our football team as we can fit in, and so it’s a challenging piece, as our players mature and earn bigger contracts and find the successes thereafter,” Tobin said. “...It’s our job to keep as many of them as we can. The reality of the NFL is that it’s hard to do, but it’s not impossible, and we’ll fit the puzzle back together.”

The Bengals already re-signed long snapper Cal Adomitis, but five starters remain on expiring contracts — safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, cornerback Eli Apple, linebacker Germaine Pratt and tight end Hayden Hurst.

Bates has long been expected to move on ever since the Bengals used the franchise tag to lock him up for 2022 after the parties couldn’t reach an agreement on a long-term deal last offseason, but Tobin didn’t rule out a return.

“It’ll depend,” Tobin said. “It won’t be probably what happens right away, but we’ll see. I don’t know where the market will go for Jessie. We value him a lot. He’s been a really good player for us and a really good leader for us and we’d love to have him back. But we’ll see where the chips fall on that.”

Asked if it is important to re-sign at least one of the two free agent safeties, Tobin simply re-stated the importance of trying to bring back every good player that contributed to the team’s success.

He said with all of those players, it will depend on what the market is for them and what other deals get done this offseason. If some players can’t get the value they want elsewhere, maybe they want to come back and make it work with the Bengals, who have a lot of pieces to try to fit together with Joe Burrow’s extension and future spending projections.

The Bengals did prepare for the possibility of losing Bates and/or Bell with the decision to use their 2022 first-round draft pick on Dax Hill, who proved to be as versatile as projected from his time at Michigan.

“There’s thoughts that we have on how we want to use him moving forward, and I won’t get into all that,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “There is the flexibility that he has to do a lot of different jobs and do them well. I think the best thing for a player is to get them in one role so they can continue to grow and sometimes you don’t always have that luxury.”

Pratt seems likely to want to test the market after playing his way to a potential big payday with his second contract. He spoke often this past season about wanting to be on the field more to show he can be a three-down linebacker, and that seemed an indication he was expecting to look elsewhere for opportunities.

Tobin said Cincinnati won’t be able to prevent him from doing so, but he’s another player the team likes.

“What the number is and how that fits in with the rest of the total picture is something we’re working through right now,” Tobin said of Pratt’s situation. “I would assume, normally when guys play well and get to the end of their first contract, they want to see. And we want guys to be able to go out and see, so they’re happy if they do come back with a deal they have with us. We don’t want guys to jump into something (with us) and then say, ‘what if.’ And so, with Germaine, he’s earned the opportunity to go out and see what his market value is. He’s an important part of what we do. We like him a lot. He’s played really well for us. He’s won games for us at times, big games. … And we have high regard for Germaine.”

Cincinnati hopes to not have to go outside the organization to fill too many holes.

“Roster building is cyclical,” Tobin said. “We are heading into a phase of our roster building that is going to be more focused internally than externally. Doesn’t mean we won’t be looking for opportunities externally. But we won’t be trying to build our team from the external UFAs. We are trying to maintain our team from the guys who have proven they belong and can effectively win for the Cincinnati Bengals. So, while we always will look at free agency, it might be a little bit different mindset.”

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