The Cincinnati Bengals took one look at their defensive roster this offseason and knew something drastic needed to happen.
Cincinnati, a traditionally frugal franchise in free agency, committed $95 million to two free agents, former Texans defensive tackle D.J. Reader and ex-Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes. That was part of the spring overhaul that included upgrades at every level of a defense that was tied for the NFL’s worst defensive yards per play in 2019.
There’s no denying the Bengals have made a considerable effort to give defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo a reloaded roster. However, a major question still lingers over the unit.
Even with all the additions, it remains to be seen whether the Bengals have a cornerstone player to build their defense around as the franchise begins its era under rookie quarterback Joe Burrow. Finding young players to build around is paramount as the Bengals look to accelerate the rebuilding process.
“I said since I’ve gotten here, this has been a proud place when it comes to defense for a long, long time, and it hasn’t been that way the last few years,” Anarumo said during the draft in April. “Some of the players are getting older — whatever the reasons — but part of it is it’s our job to evaluate talent and get younger bodies in here that can compete for spots.”
When the Bengals made five straight playoff appearances from 2011 to ’15, they had formidable defensive players to complement quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green, who were both drafted in 2011 and the backbone of the offense for the previous nine seasons.
Defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins have anchored the defense since they were selected in the 2010 draft. Since the NFL started tracking sacks in 1982, no Bengals have more than Dunlap (81.5) and Atkins (75.5).
However, both players appear to be entering the twilight of their careers. Dunlap, 31, needed a late-season flurry to reach nine sacks in 2019, while Atkins, 32, tallied 4.5, his lowest total since 2014.
When the Bengals signed Reader this offseason to a four-year deal worth $53 million, the deal suggested the 26-year-old will be the next star of the defense. Reader isn’t known for posting gaudy totals (he has 6.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in four seasons), but the Bengals believe he’s the best nose tackle in the league and is a disruptive pass-rusher, despite the numbers.
Waynes, the other big-money free agent, is similar to Reader in the relative lack of flashy stats. Despite Waynes totaling only four interceptions over the past three years, the Bengals signed the 27-year-old to a three-year deal worth $42 million. Waynes is expected to replace former outside cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, a 2012 first-round pick who started 67 games for the Bengals in eight seasons.
After the Bengals signed Waynes, Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor praised the traits Waynes brings to the secondary: solid tackling, top-end speed, making plays on the ball and an overall understanding of the game and what Anarumo wants to accomplish.
“There’s some carryover there between what they’ve done (in Minnesota) and what Lou does here,” Taylor said in April. “It’s not exactly the same, but there’s a lot of carryover in the terminology. So we just felt like he was a really good fit for us.”
There’s also the chance the Bengals find long-term success with the linebackers they drafted. Logan Wilson (third round), Akeem Davis-Gaither (fourth round) and Markus Bailey (seventh round) could all make the initial 53-man roster and fix a unit that struggled significantly for most of last season. Tack on safety Vonn Bell, who signed a three-year deal worth $18 million in free agency, and the Bengals are poised to have a high-impact player on each unit of the defense.
There’s no question Cincinnati’s rebuilding process hinges on Burrow’s development over the next four to five seasons. But if this offseason’s defensive transactions fail to yield long-term dividends, it could significantly delay the ambitions of ending a playoff victory drought that’s on the verge of hitting 30 seasons.