NFL

Bengals Facing Big Free Agent Decisions this Offseason

Tee Higgins? D.J. Reader? Tyler Boyd? Jonah Williams? Which impending UFAs will the Bengals prioritize re-signing this offseason?

January 11, 2024

One of the biggest issues for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2023 season — outside of the fact that they caught the injury bug before the season even began — was starting slow.

It’s a problem that has been lingering for a couple of years. Last season Cincinnati started the year 1-2, putting themselves into an early hole. But they had a fully healthy Joe Burrow who was able to help them climb out of it. The Bengals went on a ten-game win streak and found themselves competing with Kansas City in the AFC Championship. 

This season, the Bengals started the year in another hole at 1-3 and were faced with a must-win game in Week 5 in Arizona. As Joe Burrow’s calf began to heal, the offense as a whole started to show some life and the team started to dig themselves out of the hole with four straight wins. 

Follow that up with a loss at home to Houston and a loss to Baltimore where we watched Burrow’s season end for good. Now, it was Jake Browning’s job to lead the Bengals. While the team managed to go 4-3 with Browning under center, it wasn’t enough for a 3rd straight playoff berth. 

Another problem was the run game. In a pass-centric league you don’t necessarily expect to see teams win big every week with their rushing attack, but if you’re going to be a pass-happy team, you must at least use your run game to keep the opposing offense honest. The Bengals struggled to run the ball effectively at the start of the year, failing to break 100 yards on the ground until Week 8, when they beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-17 on the road. The team didn’t seem like they were serious about running the football until Week 13 in Jacksonville where they put up 156 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground. 

The addition of Chase Brown to the roster has added to the run game’s explosiveness. Assuming Joe Mixon is on the team next season, we could see the two backs split reps in 2024. 

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Next Year’s Roster

Speaking of next season, the Bengals will have a lot of decisions to make about their own free agents. One of Cincinnati’s top free agents going into the 2024 offseason is wide receiver Tee Higgins. Higgins and the Bengals failed to get a deal done before the season started and Cincinnati still has the option to place the franchise tag on the 24-year old, which would be worth roughly $21.7 million for one year, according to OverTheCap.com‘s projections.

On Monday, Joe Burrow met with the media to give his final remarks on the 2023 season and he was asked about Higgins. Burrow, who does not speak flippantly, made it clear that he wanted Higgins to remain in Cincinnati. 

“I expect Tee to be back,” Burrow said. “I think that’s the sentiment in the locker room. We all want Tee back.”

Higgins battled multiple injuries this season, and through 12 games he racked up 42 catches for 656 yards and five touchdowns. Time is winding down to the moment where we will know whether or not the two sides are able to reach a deal or if Higgins will get the tag. The franchise tag window is open from February 20th to March 5th. 

“I expect Tee to be back. I think that’s the sentiment in the locker room. We all want Tee back.” – Joe Burrow

Cincinnati’s lead run-stuffer DJ Reader is also an unrestricted free agent in 2024. The 29-year-old tore his right quad in Week 15, but his market value is around $15.9 million a year according to spotrac.com.

Another key to the Bengals offense had a lot to prove this season. Jonah Williams moved from left tackle to the right side when Cincinnati signed four-time Pro Bowler Orlando Brown Jr. to a four-year, $64.09 million contract in March last year. His ability to successfully make the switch has increased his value. He will likely be a sought-after free agent by other teams in the coming months. 

The Bengals went 4-3 with Jake Browning under center after Burrow got hurt and proved himself to be one of more capable backup quarterbacks in the league. The 27-year-old is an exclusive-rights free agent — the Bengals could keep him with a league-minimum salary in 2024, or they could choose to trade him to another team. 

“I’m one of the Top 32 quarterbacks in the world,” Browning told the media last week. “Just happen to be on a roster with a guy who’s proven he’s a top five quarterback in the world.”

In 2024, the minimum salary for a veteran is expected to increase to $915,000, and the number goes up with each year of experience.

Draft Needs

The NFL combine kicks off on February 25, with the 2024 draft to follow two months later on April 25 — the Bengals have the 18th pick. Cincinnati’s biggest needs are at the tight end, defensive line, and offensive line positions. The team could also be in the wide receiver market depending on how the free agent market unfolds with Tyler Boyd and Trenton Irwin also set to hit free agency in March. 

Elise Jesse
Elise Jesse started her career as a sports broadcaster and has been covering the Cincinnati Bengals for nearly a decade. Her feature storytelling has earned her an Ohio Valley Emmy Award in broadcast journalism and a Media Service Award from the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
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