Which Bengals’ rookies, free agents will make biggest impact?

The Cincinnati Bengals overhauled their roster this offseason, and several of the newcomers are expected to play significant roles in 2020.

Following a surprising spending spree to rebuild the defense in free agency, the Bengals used their position atop the draft order to add some other strong pieces, addressing needs at quarterback, wide receiver. Monday was set to be the first day the rookies integrated with the veterans in voluntary virtual offseason meetings. The next big step will be getting them all together on the practice field, whenever the NFL permits players to workout at team facilities.

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Here are the top seven newcomers who could make an impact this season:

1. Joe Burrow, former LSU quarterback

It’s unclear how well the No. 1 overall draft pick will transition into the league, but one thing is for certain: His play will impact the Bengals’ offense for better or worse.

As the team’s new quarterback, he’s the commander of the offense. It should help having Joe Mixon to hand off to, assuming he doesn’t hold out for a new contract, but Burrow will have to prove himself a leader in the huddle. He did that for LSU but blossomed at the college level late and he won’t have veteran Andy Dalton to mentor him.

2. D.J. Reader, former Texans nose tackle

Reader comes on a four-year, $53 million deal and is expected to add a bigger inside presence to pair with Geno Atkins. He doesn’t bring a ton of sacks on his resume’ but at 6-foot-3, 347 pounds, he’s a physical presence who could help Atkins’ sack numbers return to normal. They both could benefit from the other, and Reader — being just a fifth-year player — should be an impact beyond 2020.

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The Bengals defensive line as a whole wasn’t as strong in the pass rush last season as expected, and although Andrew Billings had one of his best seasons, Reader should be an upgrade.

3. Logan Wilson, former Wyoming linebacker

The rookie third-round draft pick fills a big need at the linebacker spot and is one of the few guys in that group considered a true three-down defender. The Bengals really liked what they saw from him at the Senior Bowl and as a three-year captain, he could rise quickly to fill a leadership role among a fairly young spot in the defense.

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Wilson brings great size (6-foot-2, 240 pounds), experience (39 starts in college) and production (104 tackles, 9.5 for loss, three interceptions and six pass breakups) to the middle of the defense, which ranked among the worst in the league last year with the linebacker spot a clear weakness.

4. Trae Waynes, former Vikings cornerback

Cincinnati needed to improve the secondary and elected to do so through free agency with additions like Waynes. He replaces released veteran Dre Kirkpatrick in the starting lineup, opposite William Jackson, and comes at a cheaper cost than his predecessor.

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. The Bengals allowed 70 completions of 20 yards or more last year, which ranked as the third-highest total in the league according to ESPN Stats & Info, and Waynes is considered a reliable cover corner who can help with that.

5. Vonn Bell, former Saints safety

Zac Taylor already confirmed that Bell is expected to be an instant starter, so he will make an impact in a lot of ways. The former Ohio State product and 2016 second-round draft pick is dynamic against the run and that is a big plus for a defense in the AFC North.

Bell’s arrival also gives defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo more flexibility in the back to levels of the defense. Shawn Williams lined up as a little 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. It will be interesting to see just how that looks.

6. Tee Higgins, former Clemson wide receiver

The rookie was considered first-round talent in this year’s draft but the Bengals felt fortunate he dropped to Day 2 and they were able to get him at No. 33 overall. He could be an immediate starter, depending on how things go with John Ross, and if not, he adds much needed depth. The competition also could provide motivation for Ross to get back to the level he was playing to start 2019 before yet another injury set him back.

»ANALYSIS: Grading Bengals’ 2020 draft

Higgins isn’t as speedy as Ross but he’s built like A.J. Green at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds and he tied as Clemson’s all-time touchdown leader (27) and finished his junior season in 2019 averaging 19.8 yards per catch.

7. Josh Bynes, former Ravens middle linebacker

Rookie fourth-round pick Akeem Davis-Gaither is another nice addition to the linebacker group but Bynes likely can make more of an impact right away. Bynes brings nine years of NFL experience, and although he hasn’t played a ton of snaps over the last few years, he’s been productive when on the field and he provides the group a much-needed veteran leader.

He had a minus-8 expected completion percentage last year when the nearest defender in coverage, according to NFL Next Gen stats, and ProFootballFocus.com graded him at 76.2 last year. Nick Vigil was the Bengals’ highest-graded linebacker with at least 100 snaps last year, at 54.4, so Bynes is clearly an upgrade.

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