CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow recently declared the organization’s window for success will be open his entire career, but with the end of another special season comes the uncertainty of whether anticipated roster changes will impact another run at an AFC Championship.
The Bengals had returned the bulk of the roster from their Super Bowl season, with the exception of the much-needed rebuild of the offensive line, but contracts for several key players are now set to expire, and the defense especially could see some turnover.
Among those who are heading to free agency are safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, cornerbacks Eli Apple and Tre Flowers, linebacker Germaine Pratt, tight end Hayden Hurst and running back Samaje Perine.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said that uncertainty of which players will be departing didn’t impact his feelings of Sunday’s 23-20 loss at Kansas City. The abrupt end to a 10-game winning streak, one game short of a return to the Super Bowl, was enough sting on its own without adding thoughts of some special bonds breaking.
“That whole thing has taken shape yet,” Taylor said Monday on locker cleanout day for the team. “You don’t quite go there. We’ve had exit interviews with a lot of players, they know how we feel about them, certainly guys whose contracts are up. It’s a great group of guys. … It shows what we have in the locker room. Now the next phase of the NFL happens where you start to go through this transitionally into free agency and we’ll see how it plays out for a lot of guys.”
Taylor’s staff could see some changes with offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo having been in the mix for openings the past year and a half, and quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher has gotten some calls about offensive coordinator positions.
However, Burrow believes the foundation is in place for this team to continue competing for championships.
“I feel great about the direction that we’re headed in,” Burrow said after Sunday’s game. “That’s the great thing about the NFL, it’s not like college where you only have four years, you have as many years as you want to, hopefully. We will come back, have a great offseason and get better as a team, get better individually and come back next year ready to go.”
Burrow and his trio of starting wide receivers, as well as running back Joe Mixon, are all set to return, and the offensive line rebuilt with four new starters this past season remains intact on paper.
The young defenders drafted in 2022 should be ready to play more significant roles, if called upon, next season. Dax Hill was drafted as a potential replacement for Bates and grew through a year of shifting roles, and Cam Taylor-Britt developed as he was thrown into the fire as a starting cornerback when Chidobe Awuzie tore his ACL.
Taylor has praised Duke Tobin and the front office for finding the right ways to fill holes with players that fit the culture of the locker room. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd said as long as a good core group of players are returning, the newcomers will come along.
“It’s still the right core of guys who are still going to be here,” Boyd said. “They will show other guys the way of this organization and how things get done. At the end of the day, we have guys on this team who are going to get guys built to be ready.”
Center Ted Karras said it’s tough knowing some players will be gone, especially after this locker room had a chance to get so close and build bonds they considered unique. But they understand the business side of things, too.
Some of those free agents could be back.
“The team’s not gonna be the same,” Karras said. “There’s gonna be changes to every NFL franchise. It’s just the nature of the business. Guys are gonna have to find their role. I don’t know if we have a lot of free agents, but some guys have been there. I’ve been there. This is my first year in four years that I’m not a free agent going into the offseason, so it’s a little different feeling. But I emphasize with a lot of the guys that are gonna go on a journey and understand that it’s a business. Hopefully we can get everybody back that wants to be here.”
The Bengals can start securing their long-term future with the ability to extend Burrow, and Higgins if so desired, this offseason. Much of the roster build depends on the organization factoring in what figures to be a big contract for Burrow and possibly Ja’Marr Chase next year.
Taylor said he’s glad he doesn’t have to try to figure out a player like Burrow’s worth in terms of dollars, but those conversations start now internally.
“That’s just the business we’re in right now,” Taylor said. “He’s everything we want to be about. He is a hard worker. He cares about his teammates. He cares about where he’s from, Ohio, this fanbase. I think he represents us the right way. I think we take a lot of pride in having Joe Burrow as our quarterback.”