NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17, meaning free-agent signings could be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.
The Cincinnati Bengals are in a critical offseason. After a 4-11-1 season, the franchise is looking to build around budding star quarterback Joe Burrow, who had a promising rookie year before his season-ending knee injury. Cincinnati is also entering a pivotal third year under coach Zac Taylor after just six total wins in his first two seasons. With the Bengals clear of the salary cap by more than $40 million, Cincinnati has ample room to improve its roster in what should be the final stage of a multi-year rebuild.
Here's a breakdown of every 2021 NFL free-agent signing by the Cincinnati Bengals, and how each will impact the upcoming season:
Trey Hendrickson, DE
The Bengals agreed to a four-year, $60 million deal that includes $32 million over the first two years, according to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.
What it means: The Bengals scrambled at the end of the first day of the tampering period to land Hendrickson minutes after former Cincinnati edge rusher Carl Lawson agreed to terms with the New York Jets earlier on Monday evening. Hendrickson tallied 13.5 sacks for the Saints in 2020 and joins a team that had a league-worst 17 last season. Cincinnati's newest addition comes at a significant price, too. At an average of $15 million per year, according to ESPN's Fowler, Hendrickson has the second-highest average annual salary on the Bengals' roster, trailing only Geno Atkins, who could be a cap casualty this offseason.
What's the risk: Well, the risk is considerable. Hendrickson had a mere 6.5 sacks before his breakout season in 2020, and there's more reason to be cautious. Despite the high sack total in 2020, Hendrickson ranked 26th among qualifying edge rushers in Pass Rush Win Rate (ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen) and created 7.5 sacks in 2020, according to ESPN Stats and Information. That's six sacks fewer than his total, which indicates it may be difficult for him to repeat last year's production. The Bengals are banking on Hendrickson being able to replicate his success in New Orleans for a defense that needs playmakers.
Riley Reiff, OT
The Bengals and former Vikings offensive tackle Reiff, 32, agreed to a deal.
What it means: The Bengals made one of their biggest splashes of the offseason when they landed Reiff, who is slotted to be the right tackle. Reiff's signing has already made a big ripple effect. The Bengals released former starting right tackle Bobby Hart to create some cap space for Reiff and the rest of their free agent class. It also could make a big impact on what the Bengals end up doing with the No. 5 pick in this year's draft. With Reiff and Jonah Williams as the starting tackles, the Bengals have some options with their first-round pick.
What's the risk: If the Bengals end up going with Reiff as their starting right tackle and pass on drafting one in the first round, it likely means passing on a potential long-term piece in Oregon's Penei Sewell or Northwestern's Rashawn Slater. Granted, there's a chance Sewell won't be on the board by the time the Bengals are on the clock and Reiff helps account for that, but it's definitely something to be considered as the Bengals mull the ways to turn a four-win team into a playoff contender.
Chidobe Awuzie, CB
The Bengals and Awuzie agreed to terms on a three-year deal.
What it means: The Bengals pick up an outside cornerback, a key position they needed to fill on Day 2. The move likely shuts the door on bringing back 2016 first-round pick William Jackson III, who hit free agency after a solid 2020 season. Awuzie is expected to play opposite Trae Waynes, one of Cincinnati's big-money signings last offseason. Waynes missed the entire 2020 season after he suffered a pectoral injury during training camp. In 2019, Awuzie’s last full season, he had 14 pass deflections when lined up on the outside, the seventh-most among cornerbacks with 300 minimum coverage snaps.
What's the risk: Awuzie was placed on injured reserve last season after he suffered a hamstring injury in Week 2, so his health will be part of the risk. But in a year plagued by COVID-19, soft-tissue injuries were not atypical. And Awuzie returned to play six of the last seven games, with the exception due to a one-game stint on the COVID-19 reserve list. The other part of Awuzie's risk will stem from his ability to play well on the boundaries. In 2019, his expected catch rate was plus-4% when he was the nearest defender, according to NFL Next Gen. Cincinnati will need that type of play at minimum if he is to improve the secondary.
Mike Hilton, CB
The Bengals agreed to a four-year deal with the former Steelers cornerback.
What it means: The Bengals were in the market for a starting slot cornerback after a trial run with Mackensie Alexander last season didn’t pan out. To replace Alexander, the Bengals turned to an AFC North rival. Hilton outperformed his status as an undrafted free agent and appeared in 59 games in four seasons with the Steelers. During that stretch, he tallied seven interceptions, three forced fumbles and 32 pass deflections. The Bengals are expected to have an entirely new starting secondary on the field in 2021 with Hilton, recent acquisition Chidobe Awuzie and 2020 signing Trae Waynes, who missed last season with a pectoral injury.
What's the risk: There doesn’t appear to be a lot of risk, especially given the history at the position. Hilton will be the third player in as many years to hold that role. Since Alexander’s departure was expected, Cincinnati had anticipated needing someone to fill that role for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit. Last season, the Bengals were 28th in the NFL in yards per play and 20th in points allowed per drive. If there is a risk, it’s arguably the collective one. With all the pricey pieces added the last two offseasons, Cincinnati needs its investments to pay off.
Samaje Perine, RB
Perine, 25, returns to the Bengals on a two-year deal.
What it means: Perine has bounced around the last couple of spots but has found his way to Cincinnati in each of the past two seasons. On Wednesday, Perine and the Bengals came to terms on a two-year deal, according to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. While Perine won't factor into the top two spots on the depth chart, he's a capable back should anything happen to Joe Mixon or Giovani Bernard. Last year, Perine played in all 16 games and averaged a career-high 4.8 yards per carry. He's a dependable running back the Bengals are familiar with, two important traits under third-year coach Zac Taylor.
What's the risk: There is very little risk here, assuming Perine received a modest deal. It gives the Bengals some stability at running back. In fact, one could argue it makes Bernard's expiring contract slightly more expendable. However, Bernard is a different type of running back than Mixon or Perine, so he could be back as long as the Bengals don't need the cap savings.
Larry Ogunjobi, DT
The former Browns defensive tackle agreed to a one-year deal with the Bengals, according to a source.
What it means: Ogunjobi, 26, comes to the Bengals to fortify the interior defensive line, an area of concern in 2020. Ogunjobi should improve Cincinnati's interior pass rush. In four seasons with the Browns, he tallied 14.5 sacks. That could be very important if the Bengals decide to part ways with Geno Atkins, who has been one of the NFL's best defensive tackles for the past decade. Atkins represents $9.5 million in cap savings if he is released.
What's the risk: With Ogunjobi signing a short-term deal, the risk is limited. Either Ogunjobi proves to be better than he was last year in Cleveland, when he tallied a mere 2.5 sacks, or he continues that level of production and the team parts ways with him after the season. However, limited investment also means there should be a reasonable expectation level for Ogunjobi's production with Cincinnati.
Mike Thomas, WR
Thomas, 26, and the Bengals agreed to a one-year deal.
What it means: Thomas, not to be confused with the Saints wide receiver with the same name, gave the Bengals some depth at outside receiver last season. His production was somewhat limited as his playing time diminished toward the end of the season. Thomas was with Bengals coach Zac Taylor when both were with the Los Angeles Rams, so he has familiarity with the third-year coach's scheme and expectations.
What's the risk: This is another limited-risk signing for the Bengals, which has been a relatively common theme the last couple of days. That also means Cincinnati hasn't made a ton of big splashes this offseason, which has particularly been the case on the offensive side of the ball. If that trend continues, it will be concerning for a franchise looking to build around budding quarterback Joe Burrow.
Ricardo Allen, CB
The Bengals signed Allen, 29, to a one-year deal.
What it means: The Bengals added another depth option to the secondary when they officially signed Allen on Monday. Allen spent seven years with the Atlanta Falcons and was mostly a starting safety. Allen started in 76 of his 77 appearances and has 11 career interceptions. In 2020, Bengals defensive backs accounted for just seven of the team's 11 total interceptions. Allen will fill the role vacated by Shawn Williams, who agreed to a contact with the Arizona Cardinals.
What's the risk: Allen presents limited risk. He likely will be the third safety behind Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell and primarily be used in substitution packages. While the terms weren't immediately available, the Bengals certainly have the cap room to afford a one-year deal for a veteran. The potential upside should far outweigh the cost of Allen's salary.