ANALYSIS: Who could return, who likely will not among Bengals’ free agents?

Before the Cincinnati Bengals even left Arrowhead Stadium after their loss in the AFC Championship game, attention had already turned to the offseason and what the roster might look like with several contracts expiring.

The Bengals kept most of their Super Bowl roster intact in 2022, but that likely won’t be the case this year as the organization turns its focus on Joe Burrow’s extension, which ultimately impacts the ability to bring back some players in free agency.

Burrow is expected to be made the highest-paid quarterback in the league. Others up for possible extensions include Tee Higgins and Logan Wilson,. All three of those players still have one year left on their rookie contracts. There are 19 players whose contracts expire with the start of the new league season March 15, including starters Eli Apple, Jessie Bates, Vonn Bell, Hayden Hurst and Germaine Pratt.

Long snapper Cal Adomitis, linebacker Clay Johnston and tight end Mitchell Wilcox are “exclusive rights free agents,” meaning the Bengals would need to simply issue a qualifying offer (a one-year contract at the league-minimum salary) in order to bring them back. Linebacker Joe Bachie, as a restricted free agent, is free to negotiate and sign with any team, but the Bengals can offer him one of the various qualifying offers that come with the right of first refusal and/or draft-pick compensation. All four of those guys could be back, but Johnston tore his ACL and wouldn’t be ready for the start of the season.

Here’s a look at the 15 unrestricted free agents on the current roster, and the likelihood they return:


The five-year Bengals’ free safety played on a $12.9 million franchise tag last year, and theoretically, the team could just tag him again, but even Bates seems to believe his time is coming in Cincinnati is coming to a close. The Bengals drafted Dax Hill as his future replacement, and it’s time to move forward with that plan.

Prediction: Not likely to return


Bell, the team’s starting strong safety the past three seasons, has been productive and as one of the first players in the building each day, he exemplifies the kind of hard-working leader the Bengals want on their defense. He made an average salary of $6 million over his three-year contract, so it likely just comes down to what kind of money Bell is seeking. Spotrac says he could get about $9.7 million annually. Cincinnati would have a hard time replacing both him and Bates.

Prediction: Could return


The former Ohio State player wasn’t the most consistent cornerback in his two seasons with Cincinnati but for a player that came in as a depth piece, he stepped up in some big moments. He played his best over the second half of the season when Chidobe Awuzie was out, but with Awuzie back next season and rookie Cam Taylor-Britt showing progress as the second starter, Apple likely will be looking elsewhere for starting opportunities.

Prediction: Unlikely to return


Hurst came to Cincinnati on a one-year “prove-it” type of deal and showed he could be a reliable target for Joe Burrow. Hurst’s future will depend on whether he wants to get paid like C.J. Uzomah did last year or if he would settle for less. Several tight ends are expected to be on the market and the Bengals should have their pick of interested players.

Prediction: Could return


Pratt made it clear this year he wants his payday. That just might have to be elsewhere, but only because the 2018 third-round draft pick probably earned it. If his time in Cincinnati has come to an end, he will be remembered for clutch contributions like his interception at the goal line in the playoff opener against Las Vegas last season to seal the franchise’s first playoff win in 31 years or the game-changing play he made to strip the ball from Travis Kelce’s hands in a key win over the Chiefs in December.

Prediction: Not likely to return


The Bengals could save as much as $10 million in cap space by cutting Joe Mixon, and Perine already showed when Mixon was out he could fill those shoes. Perine’s blocking ability makes him a better fit for the offense now, and Cincinnati could add another running back in the draft. The Bengals sure could use the savings, but if Mixon stays, they likely won’t be able to afford both him and Perine.

Prediction: Likely to return


Flowers has a distinct enough role as a guy who can cover tight ends, and with the quality of tight ends in the AFC, that’s a valuable contribution to this team. He came to Cincinnati from Seattle midseason in 2021 and has played 26 games with the Bengals.

Prediction: Likely to return


The Bengals signed Jake Browning to a reserve/futures contract, and it seems about time to make a decision on whether to move forward with him as their backup or bring Allen back for a third year. Cincinnati clearly liked Browning enough to keep him around the past two years on their practice squad, but Allen has a strong relationship with Burrow and the staff.

Prediction: Could return


The 38-year-old long snapper wants to play until he’s 40, but coming off surgery to repair a torn biceps at his age -- and being able to keep up the consistency he showed over his first 14 seasons – won’t be easy. Adomitis did well enough to take the job, but it’s hard to know if Darrin Simmons will want to give Harris another shot.

Prediction: Not likely to return


A member of Zac Taylor’s first draft class, Sample missed most of what likely will be his last season in Cincinnati. He injured his knee in the Week 2 loss at Dallas and underwent season-ending surgery at the end of September. Drafted mainly for his run-blocking, the Bengals should be looking for a better pass catcher.

Prediction: Not likely to return


A veteran offensive lineman, Scharping did a decent job as Alex Cappa’s backup until he had to go up against Chris Jones in the AFC Championship. It wasn’t a good last impression for the team to have fresh in mind when it comes time to make a decision on his future.

Prediction: Not likely to return


The 32-year-old free safety has a limited role on defense but has played a key role on special teams since joining the Bengals in October 2021, and he’s an outstanding leader on and off the field. He’s also not an expensive player to keep.

Prediction: Likely to return


Targeted just 13 times over his two seasons with the Bengals, the wide receiver proved himself as a punt returner. He likely will have to compete for that job with a rookie draft pick this year, but he did enough to earn another chance if he wants to stay.

Prediction: Could return


Davis played a reserve role on defense and served as a special teams contributor over 34 regular-season games since joining the Bengals in mid-2020. He only played 50 snaps on defense this season but 46 of them came as Mike Hilton’s replacement in Week 9 against Carolina and he’s a cheap backup at a thin position.

Prediction: Could return

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