Will The Bengals Make a Splash Free Agent Signing in The Secondary?
By: Jake Rajala
The Cincinnati Bengals finished 4-11-1 and last in the AFC North for the second year in a row. Despite a putrid outcome in the 2020 campaign, it’s safe to say that 2020 No. one overall pick Joe Burrow looks closer to a future All-Pro than a bust.
Joe Burrow registered 2,688 passing yards, 13 passing touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and an 89.9 passer rating in 10 games in his rookie season. That’s more than an exceptional showcase for a quarterback that played behind an atrocious offensive line, routinely had a poor rappaport with AJ Green, and competed in the best division in the NFL (AFC North).
There’s sound logic why many mock drafts peg Penei Sewell to the Bengals and why Pro Football Focus projects the Bengals to sign guard Joe Thuney in Free Agency. Simply, because they need to protect the future: Joe Burrow.
Even though Burrow had a tragic injury and was carted off the field with a horrific leg injury, Burrow showed Who Dey nation that there’s optimism on the offensive side of the ball. As for the defensive side of the ball, there are more question marks looming, particularly in the secondary.
The Bengals have five players in the secondary projected to be free agents: William Jackson, Mackenzie Alexander, Shawn Willams, Brandon Wilson, and LeShaun Wilson. It’s vital that the Bengals can adequately fill in the shoes of these profiles — especially when the Bengals boasted a below-average pass defense (ranked 19th in Passing YPG allowed).
How could Head Coach Zac Taylor approach the 2021 free agency period with an emphasis to replace some (or all) of these defensive backs that will likely depart from Cincinnati this offseason? I will diagnose this problem with a few potential solutions. Let’s take a deep look into this.
The Bengals obtained 26-year-old safety Vonn Bell (also known as the safety that laid out JuJu) in the 2020 free agency period. Now the Bengals secondary can get another younger defensive back stud in Ronald Darby (age 27) in the 2021 FA quarter.
Darby signed a prove-it deal with Washington in 2020. And the WASH starting CB did prove his worth with 16 pass deflections and 55 combined tackles.
Washington will have to resign Brandon Scherff and even Taylor Heinicke proved enough to be a valuable asset — especially when Alex Smith is also a free agent. If Washington can’t oust a top-dollar deal to keep Darby, the young (and talented) CB could land with a Bengals team that is sixth in cap space (nearly 37 million) and needs CB talent majorly.
I believe the Bengals are making a serious effort to build up their defense in the fountain of youth. We’ve seen Carlos Dunlap shipped out, Geno Atkins is likely gone, and AJ Green doesn’t appear to be getting resigned.
According to Pro Football Focus, Darby is the 11th best CB in Free Agency available. Even though it may seem far-fetched, this spot puts him ahead of Patrick Peterson, Mackenzie Alexander, and Jason Verrett on their board.
Brian Poole was one of the few bright spots on an atrocious Jets team and an avalanche of a fourth-quarter defense. Poole clocked in two interceptions, one sack, and seven pass deflections this past year.
Poole is one of the Jets top free agents, but it seems likely that Poole can break the bank and he will take that route at this point in his career. The Jets may opt to go after CBs that Saleh is familiar with: Richard Sherman, or choose to keep Marcus Maye, other free agents, and make splash signings at more abysmal holes on their roster.
Poole was stout covering in the slot last year. He is likely the next best slot corner after Mike Hilton and Desmond King in free agency.
If the Bengals can sign a CB like Ronald Darby or keep William Jackson in the building, they can have a stellar CB tandem between Poole in the slot and a Pro Bowl-caliber CB on the perimeter. It will seem likely that Poole will take a massive payday away from the even worse Jets organization and the Bengals may be the perfect team to “overpay” for his services.
The teams that have more cap than the Bengals (Washington, Colts, Patriots, Jets, Jaguars) all need cornerbacks, so the Bengals could potentially lose out on more glorified CBs, but land Poole.
Re-sign William Jackson
William Jackson is the best shutdown corner in free agency and it would be a mistake for Zac Taylor to allow a young, excellent player at a key position to leave. Upon the eclipse of 11 weeks of the season, Jackson had a PFF grade of at least 60 in nine of the games played.
After 2017 and 2018, the young Bengals CB Jackson was one of six cornerbacks to earn a 90+ coverage grade from Pro Football Focus.
The Bengals pose one of the top passing offenses in the league when Burrow is healthy — with or without Green. Coach Taylor showed that he was going to sling the rock (Top Three in pass attempts prior to Burrow’s injury) in the league with Burrow.
The Bengals need their secondary to at least match what they deployed last year, regardless of their starting cornerbacks soon having contracts expired. If the Bengals don’t resign Jackson, it will be hard to tell the next time that the Bengals land a “franchise” corner that composes lots of potential and talent.