Bengals ready to attack 2021 offseason, 'do everything we can to build around' Joe Burrow

A year ago, things seemed to take a turn toward the better in Cincinnati.

The Bengals owned the first pick in the 2020 draft and knew they were spending it on Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow. They flipped their own script in free agency, too, spending to improve on the back end of their defense. The combination produced a Bengals team that was not yet a contender, but was competitive — until Burrow went down with a season-ending knee injury.

The gruesome ending to Burrow’s rookie campaign hasn’t dissuaded Bengals brass from continuing their push forward. As did the rest of the league, Cincinnati saw enough to know it has its centerpiece, and it’s time to surround him with quality accessories.

“I think we have one of the premier, best young quarterbacks in the game, and we’re going to do everything we can to build around him,” Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said Monday, via team reporter Marisa Contipelli. “It’s going to start with him.”

Anyone who watched Burrow play in the first half of the 2020 season knew two truths: He has the makings of a franchise quarterback, and he had a strong chance of winning Offensive Rookie of the Year if he’d been able to play the entire season. It’s no knock on the eventual OROY — Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, who was stellar in his own right — but be it his ability to process quickly, his arm accuracy, his pocket presence or the many other encouraging qualities displayed by him in 2020, Burrow was as good as advertised.

Building around him is wise. It’s a no-brainer. It would be foolish to consider any other direction at this point in time, even with Burrow working toward a return from a significant knee injury.

But what remains intriguing is how the Bengals, who haven’t been known to spend lavishly on an annual basis, approach the start of the 2021 league year. Cincinnati currently has the sixth-most cap space in the league at $40.9 million, per Over The Cap, and in a year in which teams are battling a cap crunch, the Bengals appear to be in a good position to strike.

“We have been a top half of the league spending team,” Tobin said, via the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Charlie Goldsmith. “We are going to spend on players. … We have flexibility, which is a good position to be in.”

There are quality offensive linemen to be had when free agency opens in nine days, and everyone knows it is of the utmost importance to build a quality group of protectors for a young franchise quarterback. There’s also the looming questions regarding defensive end Carl Lawson (a franchise tag candidate), receiver A.J. Green, cornerback William Jackson and defensive tackle Geno Atkins.

Owning the fifth-overall pick, Cincinnati could realistically address any of those areas. Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, a premier and potential generational talent, could land with the Bengals at that slot, or it could end up being Burrow’s former LSU target Ja’Marr Chase. Either would immediately bolster Cincinnati’s offense in important areas, especially with Green’s production falling off significantly in 2020, and first-year receiver Tee Higgins proving he can take Green’s place in the future.

But the draft is still more than a month away. First, Cincinnati has a window to spend, and those decisions will start with determining if and how the Bengals want to use the franchise tag. The clear candidate for that is Lawson, but Tobin said Monday the team hasn’t made a decision on the tag, adding “I’m not going to break any news on that today.”

If Cincinnati wants to clear additional space for a spending spree, it can cut the 33-year-old Atkins — who was hampered by a shoulder injury — which would free up $12.1 million with a post-June 1 designation. When pressed on whether Atkins fits into the team’s 2021 plans, Tobin gave a standard parental answer: “We’ll see.”

The Bengals have work to accomplish as they attempt to return to relevance, and this month looms as an important one in that journey. It sounds as if they’re aware of the opportunity in front of them; Now, it’s time to follow through.

“We are not going to sit on our hands as we start off,” Tobin said.

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