The Cincinnati Bengals were supposed to be in a rebuilding year. Their franchise QB, the decorated Joe Burrow, was coming off of an ACL and MCL tear in his rookie season. They drafted his right hand man in college in wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, signed some big names, but it wasn’t expected to work this fast. They are heading to the AFC Championship in a year that they were supposed to be rebuilding. Let’s go over how they got here, and where they could be going in the future.
The first aspect we can look at when discussing the Bengals sudden rise to championship contention is their free agent moves over the last few seasons. The biggest name is Trey Hendrickson. He was signed to a 4 year, $60 million dollar deal during the 2021 offseason. Hendrickson broke out in 2020 with the New Orleans Saints, but salary cap problems meant that he would have to go to free agency. The Bengals wasted no time bringing in Hendrickson, who has been arguably their best defensive player and one of the best pass rushers in the league this year. He has shored up what was a weak Bengals pass rush in a big way, and is crucial to their success. You can also look at Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie, two defensive backs that were brought in via free agency and thrown right into the fire as the Bengals primary corner backs. They have found a lot of success, especially Hilton thus far in the playoffs, and cleaned up one of the worst secondaries in the league over the last few seasons. Larry Ogunjobi was another name that has been crucial at defensive tackle for them. He was one of the most underrated signings of the offseason and has been huge for the Bengals in the trenches stopping runs and getting after the quarterback. Cincinnati also signed Riley Reiff to their offensive line, and he has been alright, but just being out there is enough for them as the Bengals absorb the most sacks in the league. It is something that will surely be addressed in this upcoming offseason. Other names from earlier free agency classes are guys like Vonn Bell and D.J. Reader, who have also been key starters on that improving defensive unit. Are you sensing a trend yet? Almost all of the key free agents brought to Cincinnati over the last few years have been on the defensive side of the football. That defense held the high scoring Raiders and Titans offenses to under 20 points a piece. These are moves that have propelled them to contention, and glossing over them is unfair. The exciting part, even more of the Bengals talented roster was drafted and developed. That’s what we will take a look at now.
Teams like the Cincinnati Bengals have to nail their draft classes to compete with bigger markets, and they have to make a home for and develop their drafted stars to ensure that those players aren’t persuaded by the shiny lights of markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas. This isn’t an easy feat, but the Bengals are making it look easy. They have developed numerous young stars that are a huge reason for their success currently. The biggest name? You know him, you love him: Joe Burrow. The QB sensation that has won the heart of damn near every football fan in America this season was drafted first overall by the Bengals in 2020. After an up and down rookie season that ended abruptly after a horrific knee injury, the Bengals were faced with a decision. Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow’s favorite receiver from that legendary 2019 LSU National Championship team was going to be available in this draft. Another prospect was catching eyes though. Penei Sewell was an offensive tackle out of Oregon, and he can be described best as a dancing bear. A huge player with unmatched skill. He was the clear cut best offensive tackle in this draft. The Bengals had to protect Burrow, especially after watching him shred his knee as a rookie. He was the franchise, and you have to protect him. The idea of pairing him with a receiver that he has already leveled top tier college defenses with was so enticing though. It was the biggest decision of the draft. In my eyes, they wisely went with Ja’Marr Chase. While Sewell has also been great, Chase awarded the Bengals with a legendary rookie season. He became the Bengals single-season receiving yards leader in year one. It was one of the best rookie seasons we have ever seen. Him and Burrow made sure that the front office knew that they appreciated being back together. From LSU Tigers to Cincinnati Bengals, Burrow to Chase have been nothing short of folk heroes, and they seem to be just getting started. While those two guys steal the spotlight, there are other names that deserve to mentioned in this section. The Bengals wouldn’t be where they are without young stars like Joe Mixon, Jessie Bates, Evan McPherson, Sam Hubbard, and Logan Wilson as well. These young guys have all changed the culture of Cincinnati. Football is fun again in Southern Ohio, and Joe Burrow is leading the charge. This Bengals front office has hit time and time again in free agency and the draft, and deserve a ton of credit for bringing in so much talent to such a deprived market. It makes you wonder, what does the future hold in Cincinnati?
The Bengals have been doubted in both playoff games by many people. They continue to keep pushing and finding new ways to win football games. Joe Burrow was sacked more times than any quarterback in a playoff win in NFL history against the Titans in the divisional round. He played it cool, proving he has a high pain tolerance while rookie kicker Evan McPherson proved he has a golden leg. The young guns in Cincinnati just won’t quit. They’ll have a date in the AFC Championship with either the Buffalo Bills or Kansas City Chiefs, and if they are able to keep this Cinderella run alive and win that game, then they will be in the Super Bowl. I don’t think anyone believed that the Bengals would be playing in the Super Bowl this year, I would’ve called you insane. Here they are though, and they are here to stay. Their mix of smart free agent moves and surplus of young talent means that they could be in contention for quite a while. They’ll obviously have to be a little conservative with their spending for the next few seasons, as they’ll have to extend all of that young talent, but they’ll most likely be active in free agency this offseason. The name they could be after? Terron Armstead. The premier offensive lineman in this free agent class. Signing him would secure Joe Burrow’s blind side for a long time. They need to give him a blank check, and let him write a number on it. That’s how important this guy could be. I fully expect them to be aggressive and get after a few offensive linemen in the draft and free agency. They’ll likely only improve in the offseason. They’ll begin next season as one of the Super Bowl favorites, and rightfully so. If they get some offensive linemen in Cincinnati to protect “Joey Franchise” then I don’t know who can stop them. We saw the Chiefs do the same thing for Patrick Mahomes, and Burrow deserves that treatment. Joe Burrow versus Justin Herbert will provide the next generation with the entertainment and thrill that the 2004 QB draft class provided the last generation with. Ja’Marr Chase will continue to thrive. The defense will only get better. The offensive line will improve as well. The Bengals could have a run of dominance in the AFC North and the AFC as a whole. We’ve seen the Bengals squeak out two wins already, and it feels like whenever Joe Burrow is on the field, the game is within reach. They might ride that charisma and this roster all the way to a Super Bowl championship this year. They’ll be in contention for a few more in the coming years as well. I fully believe that. The fans deserve it, and it is great for the game of football. The future is bright in Cincinnati, and it is lead by Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, and the rest of the stars that have turned Cincinnati into a surprise powerhouse this season.