The Cincinnati Bengals have long been cheap, unwilling to spend on free agents. Over the past two weeks, that reality was washed away by cash.
Messages are sent in a variety of ways. In the NFL, they are usually sent through code.
In January, former LSU star quarterback Joe Burrow said he wanted to play for a pro team committed to winning. Burrow, the Heisman Trophy winner and national champion who threw for more than 6,000 yards and 60 touchdowns with the Tigers in 2019, sent a message to the team with the No. 1 overall pick.
The Cincinnati Bengals need to make changes.
Over the first two weeks of free agency, Cincinnati has answered the bell.
The Bengals, long known for deep pockets and short arms, have spent like a frat boy in a gentlemen’s club.
General manager Duke Tobin spent $127 million on defensive tackle D.J. Reader, cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes, safety Vonn Bell, wide receiver Mike Thomas and guard Xavier Su’a-Filo. All are younger than 30 years old, and outside of Thomas, each projects as a starter in 2020.
Cincinnati had never spent close to $100 million in an offseason on outside before.
Whether these signings prove fruitful or folly is unknown, but it’s also irrelevant. The Bengals were essentially called out by Burrow, who wanted to see the franchise shed the deserved label of cheap and upgrade around him. They did so, bolstering the secondary in particular while also franchise-tagging star receiver A.J. Green.
Assuming Cincinnati selects Burrow as everyone strongly expects, the Bengals could be an interesting team, especially offensively. Burrow will be handing off to Joe Mixon and throwing to Green and Tyler Boyd. It’s not the Greatest Show on Turf, but it isn’t last year’s team either.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Burrow publicly stated he’d play for any team which drafted him. There’s no reason to believe he would have made a public fuss if Cincinnati owner Mike Brown sat on his wallet once more, but the optics would have been awful.
Lest we forget, the Bengals drafted a quarterback first-overall in 2003 with Carson Palmer. The same Palmer who literally retired to escape Cincinnati before being dealt to the Oakland Raiders in 2011. The same Palmer who, this offseason, stated on CBS radio that Cincinnati never truly attempted to win the Super Bowl during his tenure.
Brown, Tobin and the franchise can’t afford a repeat. They can’t allow the narrative to remain status quo and have Burrow find the same fate as Palmer.
However, there’s also another factor. The fans.
Last year, Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium became a ghost town during the final months of the season. The empty green seats seemed to outnumber the patrons.
Owners will put up with plenty, but not empty seats. Air doesn’t pay for beer, nachos and parking.
Whether the Bengals will draft Burrow, keep spending in future years and start winning big is unknown. Those things are to be discovered.
What we do know? Cincinnati is showing its fans — and its future face — it’s willing to try.
Message sent by the Bengals.
Top 10 uniforms we need back ASAP
1. 1967 San Diego Chargers (powder blues, number on helmet)
2. 1965 Buffalo Bills (standing red buffalo)
3. 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Creamsicles)
4. 1960 Philadelphia Eagles (simplified wing, lighter green)
5. 1983 Seattle Seahawks (silver helmets, bird on sleeve)
6. 1995 Denver Broncos (light blue helmet with “D”)
7. 1977 Atlanta Falcons (red helmets, tops)
8. 1987 Cleveland Browns (road whites on whites)
9. 1993 New York Giants (GIANTS on helmet, white pants)
10. 1985 New England Patriots (Pat Patriot, red and white scheme)
"“We needed to know what Drew was going to count on our (salary) cap this year, what resources are we using because then that gives us the ability to do some other things. To Drew’s credit, his No. 1 goal was to make sure we had an opportunity to improve our roster, keep our roster together and be as competitive as we can be.”"
– New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis on Drew Brees’ taking less on his deal
The Saints have long done a high-wire act with the salary cap, and this year is no exception. Despite being limited in available funds, New Orleans restructured the deals of cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Janoris Jenkins, re-signed guard Andrus Peat and added receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
Loomis’ ability to do so was largely due to Brees taking $25 million when he could have demanded $35 million. The difference is a better roster, and perhaps a final shot at a second Super Bowl.
Also, good on Brees for donating $5 million to help with the COVID-19 crisis. Fantastic stuff.
Info learned this week
1. Veteran receivers finding tough go on the open market
It was the wrong spring to hit free agency for veteran wideouts.
During the NFL Scouting Combine, the expectation in league circles was a bear market for receivers looking to cash in on a second and third contact.
The reasoning? The rookie class is generational at the position, and general managers would rather use a draft pick and get four years of cheap production from a young stud than pay top-dollar for a player on the back end of his career.
The situation has played out exactly how many front-office men expected. Beyond Amari Cooper, only Randall Cobb got more than a two-year deal as a receiver, getting three years and $27 million from the Houston Texans.
Robby Anderson and Emmanuel Sanders signed two-year pacts with the Carolina Panthers and Saints, respectively, but those deals are likely structured as one year with an option for 2021.
Then there were Devin Funchess, Nelson Agholor and Demarcus Robinson, who all signed one-year deals despite being young and with upside.
2. Ravens lose Brockers but add on the defensive line
The Baltimore Ravens watched Michael Brockers leave town but welcomed in Derek Wolfe.
After agreeing in principle to a three-year, $30 million deal with Brockers during the NFL’s negotiating period, the Ravens ultimately failed to sign the defensive end over being unable to conduct a physical. For Brockers, all ended well with the Los Angeles Rams electing to re-sign him for almost identical terms.
However, Baltimore general manager Eric DeCosta shored up the position by nabbing veteran defensive end Derek Wolfe from the Denver Broncos on a one-year deal worth up to $6 million. Wolfe has been productive throughout his eight-year career, but numerous ailments have kept him from playing 16 games in four of the past five seasons.
Still, the signing of Wolfe provides depth in a quality front seven for the Ravens, which also added former All-Pro Calais Campbell in an earlier trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars. These moves might allow defensive coordinator Wink Martindale to blitz less should he choose, something he led the league in by a wide margin in 2019.
3. NFL schedule release unclear amid coronavirus, QB uncertainty
The NFL typically releases its schedule a week prior to the draft. This year, it could be different.
While the league has continued with business as usual in regards to the draft and free agency, will the schedule get the same treatment? In one sense, why not? The NFL can always push the slate out and then adjust accordingly as MLB has to. However, does it make sense to wait?
NBC’s Peter King argued the league may wait until May to get a better grasp of the country’s situation, along with figuring out where some of the big-name quarterbacks land. Both fair points. We’ve reached out to the league to see if it’s planning to alter the normal rollout. So far, no word back, so it’s anybody’s guess.
With the way league commissioner Roger Goodell has acted to this point with his main offseason attractions, I’ll still bet on the schedule coming out in a three weeks or so.
4. Raiders’ stadium construction continuing on schedule
The Las Vegas Raiders is still on track to be a thing in 2020.
Despite growing concern around the soaring cases of coronavirus in the United States, construction on Allegiant Stadium in Vegas has continued without delay. This despite one of the workers testing positive for COVID-19 last week.
While the stadium is on pace to open for the start of the NFL season, the question must be asked: what happens if it doesn’t?
The same question applies to SoFi Stadium for the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers, but those teams aren’t moving cities, only venues. The Raiders would likely need a temporary site in Vegas, and anything beyond Allegiant Stadium won’t be up to league standards.
It’d be an ugly situation for a team long in the quagmire with optics.
5. Jordan Love is arguably the most intriguing player in the draft
Talking to people around the league, Jordan Love is a fascinating study.
On one hand, he’s a very impressive young man with a good build, rocket arm and athleticism for days. On the other, he’s a mid-major prospect who threw 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions at Utah State.
The question isn’t whether Love will go in the first round. He will. The question is when?
Assuming Burrow and the Bengals are a certainty, the Miami Dolphins and Chargers pick fifth and sixth. Both need quarterbacks. Do they go chalk with Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, or does Love wow one of them and make the quantum leap into the top 10?
If he does, one of those aforementioned quarterbacks starts what could be a long slide. Maybe the Raiders stop it at No. 12, but if not, we could see him get into the 20s. However, if Love does go to Miami or Los Angeles, does a team make an aggressive move up to nab the odd man out?
One team to watch? The Colts. Indianapolis has Nos. 34 and 44 overall, and doesn’t have a quarterback signed for 2021. If Love gets into the back half of the round, would general manager Chris Ballard make a move if he has eyes for Love?
Only five quarterbacks have ever started conference championships games for multiple franchises. Joe Montana (49ers, Chiefs), Kerry Collins (Panthers, Giants), Kurt Warner (Rams, Cardinals), Brett Favre (Packers, Vikings) and Peyton Manning (Colts, Broncos).
Warner and Manning are the only two to win for each team, with the latter the only quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl as a starting quarterback for two different organizations.
The Detroit Lions should draft a quarterback with the No. 3 overall pick.
Matthew Stafford isn’t going anywhere for 2020, nor should he. Let the veteran play one more season, but with Tua Tagovailoa sitting behind him. For the Lions, who have won a single playoff game since 1957, it’s time to be aggressive.
Tagovailoa is coming off a dislocated and fractured hip. He could use the proverbial redshirt season, and the Lions have to be thinking about the long-term future of the franchise. They could draft Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah, and Okudah could become Deion Sanders and Darrell Green molded into one man. It makes no difference if the team is without a quarterback.
While Stafford has been capable, he’s also becoming increasingly injury-prone. Getting older doesn’t fix that issue.
Of course, general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia aren’t likely to be clamoring for a first-round quarterback. Why? Because they need to win to keep their jobs, and Okudah (or another player) helps now. Tagovailoa doesn’t. This is where ownership should overrule all, something that’s rarely a good idea but perhaps necessary here.
The Lions need a jolt. They need a long-term plan. They need a star to sell.
Tua brings them all those things and maybe something even more important. Hope.