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INDIANAPOLIS — The Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the NFL’s most appealing stories the past two years, rising from perennial disappointment to one of the league’s premier and most entertaining teams.
The Bengals have successfully climbed the mountain and find themselves on a high plateau with a great view.
The problem is the NFL’s system hates this. It’s designed to stop this.
So now the Bengals are beset with contract issues.
The elite young quarterback, Joe Burrow, playing on a cheap rookie deal the past three years is going to get paid soon. Same with a starting linebacker who’s also eligible for an extension. The starting tight end is a free agent. So is the backup running back. The safety tandem wants money, too, because they’re both scheduled to hit free agency as well.
And the coaching staff, which has done a great job of turning a young roster into a team that reached the past two AFC Championship games and one Super Bowl, hasn’t been poached yet but other teams started circling during the last head coach hiring cycle.
Bengals Trying to Keep Club Intact
So keeping the group intact has become Job 1 in Cincinnati — work that belongs to Bengals director of player personnel Dick Tobin, the club’s de-facto general manager, and coach Zac Taylor.
“How important is it to keep this team intact?” Tobin repeated as if not believing this was even a question. “How important is it to keep intact? It’s vital. It’s my job. My job is to have as many good players on our football team as we can fit in, and so it’s a challenging piece, as our players mature and earn bigger contracts and find the successes thereafter.
“You know, it’s our job to keep as many of them as we can. The reality of the NFL is that it’s hard to do, but it’s not impossible, and we’ll fit the puzzle back together.”
The central piece of that puzzle is quarterback Joe Burrow. He was the first overall pick of the 2020 draft and has developed into one of the league’s best two or three quarterbacks.
This offseason is the timing in which first-rounders picked in 2020 can sign extensions. That’s what Burrow and the Bengals expect to do and have been working toward.
“It’s not done yet,” Tobin said. “You know, it’s a good problem to have. I have been pretty vocal about what Joe means to us, and my job is to facilitate his success as best I can with putting pieces around him, and his contract will get done when it gets done.
“But it’s a good problem to have. He’s a vital part of what we’re doing.”
Joe Burrow Contract Will Be A Whopper
When Joe Burrow signs he will likely be the NFL’s highest paid player. Anything less and the Bengals got a huge bargain.
And what does that mean tangibly? Aaron Rodgers currently averages $50.2 million per season as the league’s highest paid player.
Burrow’s deal could conceivably push $60 million per season.
And while the Bengals will have no choice but to pay it — as they once paid less QBs Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton — they realize that will have ripple effects down the rest of their salary cap structure.
“We’re going to worry about it first and we’ll see what it gets done,” Tobin said. “We have some ability to control the cap hit for Year One with doing some other things, but we’ll see how it goes.
“Maybe it’s the first piece to come. Maybe it’s the last. But we’ll work towards it. I don’t think that we’re totally handcuffed with some other things as the process plays out…We’re going to try to get the right deal for Joe and for the Cincinnati Bengals.”
Regardless of that deal the Bengals will hae to make tough decisions. That has already begun.
Bengals May Have To Shed Good Players
The club is all but certain that safety Jessie Bates, who played on the franchise tag last year, will be signing elsewhere in free agency.
The club wants to re-sign fellow safety Vonn Bell and possibly use Bell and second-year player Dax Hill as its starters in 2023.
Tight end Hayden Hurst was a good contributor last season. But the coming draft is replete with tight end help and finding one is a much cheaper option.
There have been suggestions the team will eventually have to trade Tee Higgins because next year Ja’Marr Chase will want his contract extension. Tobin just about had a cow at such a thought.
“No, No,” Tobin said. “I’m not in the business of making other teams better. I’m in the business of making the Cincinnati Bengals better. That’s not on my mind. They want a receiver, go find your own. In my opinion, Tee Higgins is a good piece for the Cincinnati Bengals. So the trade stuff is a little ridiculous right now.”
If Tobin can indeed keep the roster around Burrow at a championship caliber then coach Zac Taylor better prepare to deal with some brain drain on his coaching staff after the season.
Both defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan interviewed for jobs this year and will likely do more of that next year.
Next Year More Challenging Keeping Coaches, Players
Anarumo was disappointed he didn’t get the Arizona job this year. He left his second interview with the Cardinals feeling as if he’d nailed it and was expecting to be hired.
The Cardinals hired Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon instead. But Arizona general manager Monti Ossenfort was indeed impressed with the job Anarumo did in the interview as well as what he’s done with the Bengals.
“Lou was an impressive candidate,” Ossenfort said. “I loved our time. We got a chance to speak to Lou a couple times. I had heard great things about Lou, and he exceeded those expectations that I had for him. Lou’s a great coach.”
This is how it is at for good teams. Other teams pounce. Good players want to get paid.
And the challenge of staying good begins to look harder than that of getting good.