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Sorry To Say, But The Bengals Are Getting Smoked In Free Agency While They Work Out Joe Burrow's Complicated Mega Extension

Kevin C. Cox. Getty Images.

I'm sure Bengals folks on social media will have a reasonable, measured reaction to this headline. LOL. This take is less to do with losing their own free agents — although that's part of it — and more to do with the absence of impactful, outside veteran signings/acquisitions.

Don't get me wrong. Extending Joe Burrow is the obvious top priority for the Bengals. Without him, nothing works. To keep it real for a second, though, it's a little discouraging to watch Cincinnati's least-liquid ownership get outgunned and fail to retain critical free agents without any clear solutions lined up beyond rookies in the draft.

You obviously can't keep everyone, and there's still the whole-ass 2023 NFL Draft coming up, but you have to be lying to yourself if you don't feel at least some level of discouragement.

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo preemptively grieved the dark day it would be when the Bengals lost starting safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell. While it was expected that Bates would walk after playing under the franchise tag in 2022…

…Bell seemed like a no-brainer shoo-in to return. Until he wasn't.

Drafting Dax Hill in the first round last year sacrificed Cincinnati's ability to get more of an immediate impact player in 2022. Instead, Hill was mentored and set up to be the starter at one of the split safety spots in his second year. He does add a speed and athleticism element to the back end that Bates and Bell didn't have in their bag, yet that safety tandem was so critical to the success of Anarumo's scheme, that you can't help but be a tad apprehensive about whomever will fill in.

It's a pretty loaded class of free-agent safeties. As I said, Rams standout Taylor Rapp and former Chiefs second-rounder Juan Thornhill top my wish list. Will the Bengals pay up, count on a rookie, or lean on 2022 fifth-rounder Tycen Anderson to fill the other safety spot? On a scale of 1-10 Panic Meter, we're at about a 4 with those options.

Tailback Samaje Perine is also gone. He was a better pure runner than expensive incumbent starter Joe Mixon last season when given the opportunity to be the workhorse. Perine is one of many free-agent acquisitions by the Broncos. Their ownership is LOADED with cash. Two years, $7.5 million was beyond what Cincinnati felt it could afford. Now it's Mixon, re-signed third-stringer Trayveon Williams and lightly-used Chris Evans — who the coaches seem allergic to playing — filling out the depth chart.

Giphy Images.

The Bengals' only major success of free agency so far was somehow retaining linebacker Germaine Pratt on a three-year deal worth $21 million. That's an absolute steal considering Tremaine Edmunds got four years, $72 million to jump from Buffalo to Chicago. Pratt isn't quite on Edmunds' level. Still, what a bargain he is at that price.

BUT THEN, we get to the tight end situation. Hayden Hurst had 52 catches in his first year as a Bengal. Or as we now know, his only year as a Bengal.

(*Richest single owner, Panthers' David Tepper. The Walton-Penner Family Ownership Group in Denver is even more well-off).

Tell me where the upgrade for Hurst is on the open market in terms of cost-effective productivity. You can't. And as for the Waller bit of my quote tweet, you might be saying, "You idiot. Darren Waller isn't a realistic target. He has such a pricy contract. Why the hell would the Bengals trade for him?"

Maybe because the whole hang-up about acquiring or retaining veteran players for Cincinnati is all about guaranteed money.

And guess how much guaranteed money Waller has on his deal after this season? $0. Zero dollars. As outlined in this TikTok video:

Would you have said even a month ago that Jalen Ramsey and Darren Waller were slam dunks to be traded this offseason? I don't think you would. And look at them both go. Until Ramsey's salary for 2024 was guaranteed upon his move to the Miami Dolphins, he also had $0 guaranteed for the remainder of his deal. He's not due to hit free agency again until 2026. Waller's contract is a year longer. Both deals had easy outs.

I would've rented the shit out of Ramsey and/or Waller for what they were given up for. Ask the Rams if they regret burning a second-round pick in the middle of the season to rent Von Miller. It's disappointing that Cincinnati didn't make some move like that to really go all-in for 2023 before Joe Burrow's extension kicks in.

And here's the thing. You can say hindsight is 20/20. You can say there's still a ways to go in free agency. You can say it's easy to make these recommendations from the outside looking in. You can say the whole draft has to play out.

It can be all of those things…and. You can still be disappointed at the lack of proactivity as far as acquiring other talent to this point.

The championship window may well be for Burrow's whole career, but now is the time to really strike before the extension kicks in. And the Bengals are sitting on their hands, seemingly banking on multiple impact players to emerge from their 2023 rookie class.

Joe Brrr knows he faces an uphill battle with his extension because of how much guaranteed money Cincinnati needs to put in escrow. All indications are he'll do whatever it takes to be a Bengal for life. I'm pretty sure he'd make the Patrick Mahomes-esque move of getting a market-topping deal that finds a way to be team-friendly so that key guys can stay and significant outside help is possible.

Burrow's extension won't be finalized until after March 31 for reasons related to when you put the guaranteed money into escrow, as outlined here by The Athletic's Paul Dehner Jr.

I fully understand there's a bigger picture to bear in mind here. At the very least, you're staring down extensions in 2024 not only for Burrow, but for wide receiver Tee Higgins most prominently. Even with the salary cap going up, Cincinnati needs to set aside a solid chunk of change for the No. 1-caliber wideout. 

They can't afford to lose Higgins. Plus, you have star linebacker Logan Wilson, exceptional defensive tackle DJ Reader and CB1 Chidobe Awuzie, whose future is clouded due to the torn ACL he suffered in 2022.

Again…………

It can be all of those things, and…you can acknowledge that, as things currently stand, the Bengals have a whopping ONE-HUNDRED AND THIRTY-TWO MILLION DOLLARS in cap space for 2024.

If I use OverTheCap.com's franchise tag values as placeholders for Burrow, Higgins, Wilson and Awuzie — Burrow will be more, Higgins will be in that ballpark; Wilson and Awuzie won't come close to that price — Cincinnati would still have almost $27 million of cap room to play with next year. They can save another $17.4 million if they make the expected moves of releasing Joe Mixon and La'el Collins.

Extrapolate those values to how much cap room is available in 2025, and there's more than enough left over for Ja'Marr Chase's market-setting contract.

"Oh you're just playing fantasy football!"

"THIS ISN'T MADDEN, YOU DUMBASS!"

Go ahead I've heard it all before. Tell me I'm crazy or unreasonable. Please, be my guest. These aren't the pipe-dream moves you'd think they are on first glance. Cincinnati players understand they can't get the guarantees they would with most other teams. The draw is playing with Joe Burrow and, football gods willing, a sustainable winner.

All I know is, the AFC is a straight-up arms race right now and the Bengals have lost some serious artillery since the new league year began. I'm not losing faith yet whatsoever, and I'm not trying to overreact. It's just hard to stare down these seemingly obvious missed opportunities and wonder what could've been.

We're looking at a potentially downgraded safety room, a total no-name tight end corps that will pray for a rookie to be an immediate contributor, and a dubious cornerback position whose best player in Awuzie is coming off a major knee injury.

Unless there's an unforeseen splashy move on the horizon for some offensive line help or another impossible to imagine trade, the Bengals seem to be making Burrow's new contract a preemptive albatross that's preventing them from fully maximizing their chances at a third straight run to the AFC Championship Game or further.

For now, Who Dey Nation waits and clings to the hope of several successful offseasons that preceded this one. Let's hope a beacon of hope is set ablaze in the coming days.

Twitter @MattFitz_gerald/TikTok