Roster makeover: Bengals sign 5 free agents, cut two veterans, trade backup QB

Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (97) is congratulated after a sack in the second half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (97) is congratulated after a sack in the second half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Veteran Geno Atkins among players leaving Cincinnati

CINCINNATI -- On a day the Cincinnati Bengals added an offensive tackle and made official the signing of four other free agents, it only made sense they also would be clearing some salary cap room in the roster.

The Bengals on Friday morning signed former Vikings offensive tackle Riley Reiff, who had come for a visit Thursday, and made official with pen on paper the additions of defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie.

Shortly after those deals were finalized, Bengals coach Zac Taylor announced during a virtual press conference Friday the organization was releasing veteran defensive tackle Geno Atkins after a memorable 11-year career in Cincinnati. The third-year coach also confirmed the expected release of right tackle Bobby Hart. The Bengals also traded backup quarterback Ryan Finley to the Texans.

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“Appreciate all three of those guys,” Taylor said. “Geno has been here a really long time, and he’s a Hall of Fame player. He has meant a ton to this organization, myself being here just for two years and how he embraced us and what he’s given us. He’s had a tremendous career, and he is going to continue to play and continue on with that career. And then with Ryan and Bobby, obviously, you know, they’ve done some really good things for us over the last two years since I’ve been here and wish them the best of luck as well.”

The departure of Atkins, who Cincinnati drafted in 2010, signifies the end of an era for the Bengals, who in the past year have parted ways with four of their top remaining players from the past decade. The Bengals also watched 2011 first-round pick A.J. Green leave in free agency, as he signed this week with Arizona. Last year, the organization released veteran quarterback Andy Dalton and traded defensive end Carlos Dunlap to Seattle.

Atkins is approaching his 33rd birthday, and his production has declined over the past two seasons, most noticeably in 2020 when he was limited by a shoulder injury. The eight-time Pro Bowler was on contract through 2023 but his release frees up $9 million in salary cap space.

It also cleared a spot for 26-year-old Ogunjobi to sign. The former Browns defensive tackle fills the three-technique role next to D.J. Reader.

“I am just going to put this out there, I have nothing but respect for Geno,” Ogunjobi said in his introductory press conference Friday. “That’s like, my mentor, my big brother. He’s helped me tremendously in my career. I have nothing but respect for Geno. … When I say he’s my mentor, he’s like, my mentor. I would send him film, my pass rushes, everything I was working on. He helped me a lot. We trained together my rookie and second year. He was a big part of my development as a player so I have nothing but respect and love for him.”

The Bengals hit on their biggest needs this week, addressing the rush and cover on defense and adding a veteran presence on the offensive line to protect Joe Burrow.

Cincinnati already had agreed to terms with Ogunjobi, Hilton, Awuzie and Hendrickson earlier this week, but Riley needed a little more convincing with a visit. The group of free agents went to dinner at The Precinct on Thursday with quarterback Joe Burrow, Taylor and others, and Reiff was sold but needed to complete the business side of the deal Friday morning before agreeing to sign. Jeff Ruby’s “Steak Burrow” was quite the recruiting pitch, and so was Burrow himself.

“I’m super excited,” Reiff said. “We went out to eat with him last night, had a good steak. I went away from eating that steak, and I was like I want to block for this guy. I’ve seen him on the film, but he’s even better off the field.”

Reiff, who signed a one-year, $7.5 million deal, said he was told he will play right tackle, and Taylor confirmed Jonah Williams is set to remain at left tackle.

Before Reiff climbed on board, it seemed the Bengals were spending all their energy on the defense for a second straight year in free agency., but Taylor said the first five free agent additions fit right in the plan. Hilton, the former Steelers slot corner, fills the role Mackensie Alexander played in 2020, and Awuzie, who spent his first four NFL seasons with Dallas, replaces Will Jackson at outside corner.

Hendrickson swaps into the defensive end spot vacated by Carl Lawson’s departure to the New York Jets.

“I think we’ve done well for ourselves, the way that it’s all played out,” Taylor said. “Free agency is a long week. It’s a long two weeks. But I’m really encouraged by the guys we’ve added to the mix. They’re exactly the pieces that we had in mind adding. Really targeted these guys. For them to all work out has been really exciting for our staff and our organization.”

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