Bengals’ offseason path, Part 2: Cap casualty and extension candidates

CINCINNATI — The Bengals enter the offseason reeling from the disappointment of Sunday’s loss, but also facing a hard reality of a team that will need to be reformed in significant ways in order to return to the AFC Championship Game stage.

This makes them one of the most fascinating franchises in the NFL over the next four months.

The Bengals have an estimated $44 million in cap space, the fourth-most in the NFL. They have only one projected offensive starter not under contract for next year (Hayden Hurst) and three on defense (Vonn Bell, Jessie Bates, Germaine Pratt).

The expected extension for Joe Burrow making him the highest-paid player in league history is the biggest piece.

The timing, guarantees and overall structure of a potential Burrow deal will serve as the first domino for a series of other important decisions that could include jettisoning a fan favorite or two, choosing between important contributors on a veteran defense and then assessing what’s left to fill. In the gaps with a draft that the club cannot afford to be a whiff.

Here’s the second of a three-part series taking a deeper look at the critical crossroads ahead in Cincinnati’s offseason path.

Part 1: Burrow and the free agents
• Part 2: Cap and other casualty extensions
• Part 3: Coaching staff and a path forward

Potential cap casualties

The Bengals have crushed free agency over the last three seasons, but they did so in more ways than just value and production. The structure of the deals left easy outs and significant money that could be saved by cutting a few older players.

How many will they choose to do? How much will this offseason be about keeping the band together even if it means keeping large contracts on veterans approaching 30?

Notably, the Bengals aren’t fans of taking on large chunks of dead money. Here are the biggest dead cap hits in recent years.

Most dead money taken since 2019

Year Player Cap savings Dead money


Geno Atkins




Trae Waynes




Dre Kirkpatrick



Maxing out around $5 million in dead cap on a single move is worth keeping an eye on. The Bengals have been more willing to make these moves and accept sunk costs since head coach Zac Taylor arrived. Still, those times they were willing to take on the dead money were obvious moves from a performance standpoint. Neither Geno Atkins nor Trae Waynes played another game in the NFL after being released.

For years, taking on any dead money was a true rarity often to the detriment of the Bengals as they held onto aging veterans with big cap numbers rather than replacing them with a younger player. Robert Geathers and Leon Hall in their final years were prime examples.

Here’s a list of the primary cut candidates including the money saved against the cap and dead cap hit if a move was made. This is not to say the Bengals would do this, merely the situations that would make sense due to contract structure, status and/or age.

Bengals cap casualty candidates

Player Age Cap savings Dead money
















DJ Reader, technically, could be on this list as cutting him would save $11.5 million against the cap, but there’s zero chance that guy is going anywhere.

The toughest decision of the bunch would be Tyler Boyd, entering the final year of his deal. If you took his name off the chart and just blindly posted the facts above, he would be an obvious cap cut. But this isn’t a blind move. This is Boyd, a heart and soul of the Bengals’ culture rebuild and a trusted target of Burrow. If that money would clear the way to extend Tee Higgins, for instance, then it could make sense for the future. But Boyd has shown no signs of slowing down in his seventh year.

Taylor sent Boyd out with Jessie Bates for the coin toss in Buffalo. An interesting tandem considering the possibility Bates leaves as a free agent this year and Boyd’s contract status. He merely pointed out how the character of both made sense at that moment.


Jessie Bates’ likely Bengals departure marks notable change for player and team

“Those are two guys, one on offense and one on defense that have been here since a lot of these coaches walked in the door and just been consistent and represented this franchise the right way and this city the right way,” Taylor said of the decisions. Just thought we are walking into a tough environment. These guys have gotten us through a lot of tough moments, tough environments. Just an appreciation for those two guys.”

Also, Cincinnati loves to have an answer in the pipeline before moving on from critical cogs. They don’t have that. They didn’t find a fit in the middle rounds of the draft last year that could have made such a move make sense. Is Trenton Irwin enough to move on from Boyd? Enjoy the Irwin story as much as you’d like, they are not on the same level. For those reasons, I think you see Boyd stay and play out the final year of his contract before the team goes younger in the position. But they will be looking for receivers in this draft to put next in line, no question.

The other tough call will be Joe Mixon. Getting out from under an aging running back contract would be a smart move no matter the name. Mixon hasn’t been spectacular enough to be immune to this move. Especially if the Bengals could re-sign Samaje Perine for a smaller amount and draft a back in the mid-rounds. The dead money is higher than they would prefer, especially since Mixon isn’t an obvious cut.

The Bengals value efficiency in the running game above all else. Mixon had a long stretch of being one of the most efficient backs in football this year, but also long stretches of being one of the worst. His rushing success rate has stayed below the league average of 40.2 percent. Mixon’s success rate was 37 percent in 2021 and 38.6 percent this past season.

He’s powerful, physical, rarely fumbles and his energy and confidence have been a major part of the Bengals’ culture. That’s why they chose to pay him back in the 2020 preseason.

“I thought he was a great leader for our team,” Taylor said last week of why they wanted to extend Mixon. “Brought a lot of good energy. Works his tail off, loves to practice, loves to play football. Just loved his energy.”

Leadership and energy are not as much of an issue now and Mixon struggled to consistently make defenders miss. PFF graded him 57th out of 61 qualifying running backs in their elusivity stat. NextGen Stats ranked Mixon 27th in rushing yards over expected.

Installing a draft pick or even a veteran at a lower cost makes sense. Consider the leaders in rushing yards over expected last year along with age and draft round.

Rushing yards over expected leaders

Player Team RYOE/att Age Draw




Rd6 (218)




Rd2 (35)




Rd4 (128)




Rd1 (25)




Rd2 (55)




Rd3 (89)




Rd4 (127)




Rd 7 (252)




Rd 5 (151)




Rd3 (73)




Rd4 (121)

Pick a round, any round. Only two of the top 11 required a first- or second-round pick and most are 25 or younger. Look no further than across the field on Sunday as Isiah Pacheco, a rookie seventh-round pick, put an exclamation point on a breakout season for the Chiefs helping them beat the Bengals. Finding the next big thing to build efficiency in the offense does not require the use of premium draft capital. It also would allow them to find a running back that ideally fits with the pass-heavy, checkdown-laden approach utilized by Burrow.

Considering other potential paths, are Mixon’s numbers and energy worth $7.5 million in cap space? The Bengals will have to answer that question.

Joe Mixon (Kareem Elgazzar / USA Today)

La’el Collins is coming off an ACL tear and back issues that plagued him during the season. He came along during the year and fit the scheme, but he was far from a top right tackle and you could see that money going to another free agent right tackle or draft pick. PFF graded him 52nd out of 57 qualifying tackles, with his strong performance in the running game lifting up his overall grade. He also needed to be managed through the year and didn’t practice on Wednesdays. Missing practices rarely sit well with this staff. Considering the age and injury history, signs point to the Bengals considering moving on from Collins. That would leave a glaring need on the line for their offseason priority list. Again. This move does not need to happen soon, it could be a matter of monitoring his rehab as well as seeing what happens in the free agency and the draft, but he certainly fits the bill for a potential move.

Chidobe Awuzie (ACL) and Trey Hendrickson (wrist) are not going anywhere unless complications arise from their injuries, which are not expected. The only thing to keep an eye on would be Hendrickson’s comfort in his current contract. He’s outperformed the deal originally signed, which was four years and $64 million. He’s the largest cap hit on the team but a bargain by top edge rusher standards. Many players in his position would be trying to assert leverage.

Any other money-saving moves would come as a surprise or not be a significant overall impact.

Extension candidates

Tee Higgins

Maybe the most impactful of the offseason decisions will be what happens with the Bengals’ star wideout.

Long, philosophical discussions can be had about the value of receivers, which saw its market explode this past year. Watching Higgins float above the Chiefs’ Jaylen Watson was only the latest example of how he changes the dynamic of every game he plays. How plausible is it to pay top dollar to two different receivers and an elite quarterback, with all expectations Ja’Marr Chase will receive a huge deal once eligible starting in 2024? How do the Bengals handle negotiating once again with agent David Mulugheta, who also represented Jessie Bates through the contentious and unproductive last two seasons, butting heads over guaranteed money?

Higgins is not a free agent. His contract dictates his reports and plays for the last year of his deal, worth $4 million, but conversations need to be had about a long-term contract. If the numbers are outrageous and it’s clear the two sides won’t see eye to eye, the Bengals could go the route taken by multiple teams in recent seasons and deal the receiver for a top draft pick and start the cycle over with a rookie receiver . AJ Brown was traded in Tennessee to Philadelphia for picks 18 and 101 last year. The first-round pick turned into receiver Treylon Burks. Minnesota traded Stefon Diggs to Buffalo for the No. 22 pick, which turned into Justin Jefferson. Both veteran receivers promptly were given large extensions by the acquiring teams. There are other examples, but you get the point.

The Bengals can also choose to bank on Higgins reporting this year and playing, then deal with extensions and franchise tags (or potential tag and trade) in 2024. The parallels to the Bates situation are almost too many to believe. Maybe Burrow takes less and says give that money to Higgins so the weapons stay together. Many options exist and the Bengals will have to sort through all of them.

The most likely outcome would be Higgins playing out the last year of his rookie contract just as Bates did, but this will be a fluid storyline to track closely from the draft through opening day.

Logan Wilson

Wilson also could receive an extension before next season. He’s proven a steal at the top of the third round in 2020, completing a franchise-altering first two days of that draft. He’s a star the Bengals would love to sign for the long haul, but will all be dependent on where Wilson stands in his desire to be on his own in a free agency. A year where he takes his game to another level would profit him to cash significantly on the open market in 2024.

He played well this year and continues to be a steadying three-down force in the middle of the Cincinnati defense, but he’s not yet reached the top-tier level capable of pulling in $20 million per year like Roquan Smith and Shaquille Leonard received with recent extensions. The Bengals will have discussions as the season draws closer, but Wilson will have to figure out his thoughts on security versus potential net gains.

(Top photo of Tyler Boyd: Nick Grace / Getty Images)


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