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Extending Joe Burrow Is The Obvious Top Priority Of A Critical Bengals Offseason Full Of Tough Decisions

Every team but one is always disappointed to some degree or another at the end of each NFL season, but the Cincinnati Bengals did go from relative obscurity and laughingstock to the AFC Championship Game two years in a row. Won one, lost one, as Joe Burrow simply put it after Sunday's 23-20 loss in Kansas City.

Now looms a series of watershed moments for this Bengals franchise that have nothing to do with anything on the field. It's all about how this front office and owner Mike Brown handles pending contract negotiations with Joey B, not to mention how creative Cincinnati can get at maneuvering the salary cap around to accommodate Burrow's big payday.

Good news is, Burrow's extension won't really be felt until 2024 even when he signs in the next several months. With the new TV/media rights deals kicking in, the NFL salary cap is going to skyrocket in the coming years, so getting Burrow's deal done just as that goes into effect is better than having to do it later down the road.

Take in today's news for evidence of this:

But Joe Brrr isn't the only key player Cincinnati has to focus on. Tough calls need to be made about certain players' futures. Thankfully, for a variety of reasons, it's rather easy to discern who will stay and who has a decent chance of leaving.

SO…worry not, Bengals folks. I think the collective football intelligence in the organization is pretty damn good these days. Everyone's gonna say the championship window is slamming shut once Joe signs on the dotted line. Here's a general outline of how I'd manage the cap while keeping an eye on the future. Shout out to OverTheCap.com for the resources to do this in more detail than would otherwise be possible.

Restructures and cap savings:

  • DE Sam Hubbard ($4.45M)
  • RB Joe Mixon ($4.26M)
  • RG Alex Cappa ($3.28M)
  • DT BJ Hill ($3.11M)

Major Extensions:

  • Joe Burrow: 7 years, $360 million
  • Tee Higgins: 4 years, $86 million
  • Logan Wilson: 5 years, $74.5 million

The reason Joe has a shorter deal than, say, Patrick Mahomes, is because the Bengals have the second-least liquid ownership in the NFL. You have to put a certain amount of guaranteed money in escrow when you sign these mega contracts. That's why the low-ball guaranteed money for Jessie Bates this past offseason when extension talks broke down was so jarring for many to see.

So while the AAV is a little over $51 million for Burrow's imagined new contract, it's backloaded and accounts for the continual escalation of the league-imposed salary cap. Plus, with the way I imagine Cincinnati will structure it, there's room to renegotiate and restructure along the way to ensure the Bengals' championship window does indeed stay open.

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As for Tee Higgins, I think many expect him to walk. However, a sensible extension such as the one I've proposed with little guarantees in Year 4 gives Cincinnati flexibility. It's modeled after the three-year, $60 million deal Mike Williams signed with the Chargers, only a little more expensive of course. Hell, run it up to $90 million for Higgins if you want.

Logan Wilson becoming one of the highest-paid linebackers beginning in 2024 is reflective of the dilemma I shall proceed to discuss in the next section. On his own merits, Wilson is one of the surest-tackling players in all of football, is savvy in coverage and just continues on a promising, upward trajectory approaching the end of his rookie contract.

Jessie Bates and Germaine Pratt are as good as gone

Germaine Pratt is rated as PFF's No. 1 coverage linebacker. He had a hell of a season in a contract year and I'm sure somebody will shell out some cash for him. It just won't be the Bengals, especially after this:

If you notice what I did with the extensions and the major paydays, there's no one who's about to hit free agency that Cincinnati will give big money to. Once Daxton Hill became 2022's first-round pick and Bates got hit with the franchise tag, the writing was on the wall for his exit. I'm a little dubious of Hill taking over one of the starting safety spots. Based on his draft status, there's no other direction to go.

To be clear, I don't personally want Bates or Pratt gone. I don't wish any ill on the rest of their careers. I realize what's at stake for them. It's just the harsh reality of the NFL's business side. 

Eli Apple can pack up and take his big mouth with him

With rookie second-rounder Cam Taylor-Britt stepping up in the absence of injured CB1 Chidobe Awuzie, the Bengals officially don't have to keep Eli Apple around anymore. 

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I acknowledge he has physical tools, multiple years in the system and is better than most give him credit for, yet unlike Joe Shiesty, Apple crosses the line from confident to cocky and I'm not a huge fan of all that if you can't back it up often enough.

Key role players to re-sign:

  • TE Hayden Hurst: 4 years, $25M
  • S Vonn Bell: 2 years, $17M
  • CB Tre Flowers: 2 years, $5M
  • RB Samaje Perine: 3 years, $10M

The one-year prove-it deal Hurst signed turned out to be a revelation. He had a career-high 52 receptions and was pivotal in helping the Bengals stay ahead of the sticks in their quick passing game, while also creating splash plays down the field on occasion.

Since Bates is likely leaving, retaining Vonn Bell makes sense. Bell won't blow anyone away with advanced metrics or top-flight athleticism relative to others. Nevertheless, he's among the smartest players in the NFL that no one talks about and can function at either safety spot in Lou Anarumo's scheme.

Tre Flowers is a key depth piece to the secondary how can fill in on the outside if need be but is most at home matching up with big slots/tight ends as a plus-sized nickel. Regarding Samaje Perine, I like his experience and getting him at a relative bargain over a rookie alternative is what I'd like to see. Perine has proven he can take the lead role if need be in Joe Mixon's absence.

Bengals 2023 Salary Cap Space with all these moves: $25.949 Million

Tack on tenders to tight end Mitch Wilcox and long snapper Cal Adomitis and this is where I wound up, more or less. You can quibble with details about my proposed contract extensions or whatever. Doesn't have much bearing on this number.

As for free-agent targets from outside the building, 49ers linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair is a standout. He seems like a logical choice to compete for a starting spot next to Wilson, unless the Bengals feel good enough about Akeem Davis-Gaither stepping up. Bit of a different position for Al-Shaair, too, who was overshadowed in San Francisco by Fred Warner. Another 'backer who makes sense is Cory Littleton. He most recently played for the Panthers but shared time with Zac Taylor on the Rams.

There's more than enough room to make a splash in March. Let's see how aggressive the Bengals get.

Remaining cornerstone players with cloudy futures (2024 free agents):

  • DT DJ Reader 
  • CB Chidobe Awuzie
  • WR Tyler Boyd 
  • LT Jonah Williams 

I imagine the Bengals will either use the franchise tag on Reader or secure him on a top-market deal once free agency hits two offseasons from now. Provided Awuzie comes back from his knee injury fully healthy, he should garner consideration for another contract in Cincinnati. Much of it depends on how he fares in 2023. An excellent season may price him out of town.

Love me some Tyler Boyd. He's still really good. I just wonder if the Bengals won't try to go younger at wide receiver, because they'll be paying Ja'Marr chase as much as any player at the position, not to mention Tee Higgins assuming they extend him. Boyd is likely the odd man out. Glad he has at least one more strong year in Cincy — unless he's a shock cap casualty or something weird.

Finally, Jonah Williams. Gave up 12 sacks this season. I don't think he's that dude at left tackle. Joe needs a better blindside protector. We'll see if that's Jackson Carman or someone else. SPEAKING OF WHICH…

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MOCK DRAFT SZN IS HERE…

Cincinnati typically clings to draft picks and refuses to trade them. Trading back and acquiring more picks seems sensible with how well Duke Tobin has made out in recent years. Not holding my breath on that, though.

Thus, I give you an early seven-round simulation based on what the Bengals' needs are. Bear in mind, they need only about $2.6 million in effective cap space to sign their rookie class, per OTC. Plenty to spend on the open market.

Bengals 2023 Mock Draft

  • Round 1, Pick 28: Darnell Washington, TE, Georgia
  • Round 2, Pick 60: Dawand Jones, RT, Ohio State
  • Round 3, Pick 92: Christopher Smith, S, Georgia
  • Round 4, Pick 131: Jonah Tavai, DL, San Diego State
  • Round 5, Pick 165: DJ Turner, CB, Michigan
  • Round 6, Pick 206: Javion Cohen, OL, Alabama
  • Round 7, Pick 248: Justin Shorter, WR, Florida

Hopefully this whole thing brings some comfort to all of you Who Dey Nation loyalists. Hell of a damn season for the Bengals. Came up a little short. Get these extensions done, retain the core, add a few pieces from free agency and the draft, and we should be off and running to prove Joe Brrr's words right that the Super Bowl window is, in fact, his whole career.

Twitter @MattFitz_gerald/TikTok

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