Adding several new starters on defense earns Bengals an ‘A’ in free agency

Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore (12) runs past New Orleans Saints strong safety Vonn Bell (24) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. The Saints won, 12-9. (David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore (12) runs past New Orleans Saints strong safety Vonn Bell (24) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. The Saints won, 12-9. (David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

The Cincinnati Bengals traditionally have focused on investing in their own players when it comes to free agency, but now they are trying something different and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

In a monumental shift from the norm, they’ve spent more than $140 million in free agency this offseason, as second-year coach Zac Taylor and the front office seek to rebuild the roster following a 2-14 season.

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Over the last three weeks, the Bengals added five or six new starters, mostly upgrading a defense that ranked 29th while allowing 393.3 yards per game (including a league-worst 148.9 rushing yards per game). That alone deserves recognition, as Cincinnati makes the most out of an important offseason that includes holding the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

Here is a look at how the organization grades with each acquisition.

D.J. Reader, former Texans defensive tackle: A

Reader’s reported four-year, $53 million (still to be finalized) contract makes him the highest-paid nose tackle in the league, and he appears worth the investment to beef up Cincinnati’s interior presence on the defensive line.

He will pair well with Geno Atkins, who showed some drop off last year but could be helped by a guy like Reader — a massive 347-pound specimen who draws double teams. Reader only had 6.5 sacks over the last four years, all spent with the Texans, but he applies plenty of pressure and that was something the Bengals struggled with last year.

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Trae Waynes, former Vikings cornerback: B-

The Bengals need more turnovers in 2020, and Waynes only had seven interceptions in five seasons with Minnesota, but perhaps the biggest need from the secondary right now is players who can wrap up opposing receivers. Cincinnati allowed several big plays through the air last year – 70 completions of 20 yards or more, which ranked as the third-highest total in the league according to ESPN Stats & Info. Waynes, a reliable cover corner, can help with that.

Also, it’s notable that the structure of his deal pays out the most money early, so if it doesn’t work out, the Bengals aren’t eating up salary cap space later.

Xavier Su’a-Filo, former Cowboys guard: C-

Fans likely were looking for a bigger upgrade to the offensive line, especially since this doesn’t seem like much of an upgrade over John Miller. The bright spot is the contract is cheaper, as he comes on a three-year, $9 million deal (Miller’s was worth $16.5 million).

Su’a-Filo comes to Cincinnati with six years of experience, including 53 starts, but he did not play more than 11 games in his two-year stint in Dallas, and he had just four starts there in 2019 after starting eight games in 2018.

Mackensie Alexander, former Vikings slot corner: B+

Departed slot corner Darqueze Dennard was impactful in both the run and pass defense, so Alexander has big shoes to fill, but he brings some of the same qualities at a cheaper cost. Alexander is aggressive in the run game, where Dennard seemed to make the most difference last year, and doesn’t seem as prone to injury. Coming on a one-year, $4 million deal, he’s low risk.

Josh Bynes, former Ravens middle linebacker: B

Bynes hasn’t played a ton of snaps over the last few seasons, but he brings nine years of NFL experience, and he’s been productive when on the field. graded him at 76.2 last year, and he was between a 70 and 80 each of the last three years, including the 2017 and 2018 seasons with Arizona. Vigil was the Bengals’ highest-graded linebacker with at least 100 snaps last year, at 54.4, so Bynes is clearly an upgrade. He just needs more support.

Vonn Bell, former Saints safety: A

Bell was a surprise addition in Week 2 of free agency, coming on a three-year, $18 million deal. He’s an instant starter that gives defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo more flexibility in the back to levels of the defense. Shawn Williams lined up as a linebacker for much of 2019 and this could allow a more natural shift in 2020 with Jessie Bates and Bell at the traditional safety spots.

The former Ohio State product and 2016 second-round draft pick is dynamic against the run and can help mask the weaknesses at linebacker in that regard.

Mike Thomas, former Rams wide receiver: C+

Thomas, not to be confused with the Saints’ Michael Thomas, adds some depth at wide receiver but likely is more of a special teams addition, as he’s caught just 10 passes over four years with L.A. He’s a guy Taylor is familiar with from his two seasons with the Rams, and he took a big step on special teams last year, playing 45 percent of those snaps.

LeShaun Sims, former Titans cornerback: C

Like Thomas, Sims is a depth add and probably more of a special teams contributor. He had some struggles in coverage last year on limited snaps, but he’s only 26 and has good size, speed and ball-hawking skills.


If this was a normal offseason for the Bengals, they might have received a B, but it’s hard not to give credit for making such a drastic approach to the offseason. Adding up to six new starters gives them a great start to rebuilding, and there is still the draft to look forward to in a few weeks.

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