CINCINNATI -- As the Cincinnati Bengals prepare for their final game of the 2018 season, they have a number of decisions to make about the future of head coach Marvin Lewis but also some significant players on the roster. Here's a look at what the future could hold for some longtime Bengals players:
Tyler Eifert, TE: The Bengals structured Eifert’s one-year deal last season specifically to account for his injury history. The contract was worth up to $8.5 million, with a large portion tied up in incentives and per-game roster bonuses. He was guaranteed only his $3 million signing bonus. It would not be surprising to see the Bengals propose a similar or smaller contract to Eifert after his season was ended after just four games this year. Eifert had some interest last year, but the market won't be great considering his extensive injury history. Eifert has played just 14 games the past three seasons and has never played 16 games in one season. But he's a significant threat in the red zone, and the offense struggled when he went down against the Falcons in September. The Bengals don't have a true No. 1 tight end, so Eifert could still be their best option outside of the draft. The positive here is that Eifert's broken ankle was a freak accident compared to the lingering back issues he has dealt with lately. He should be able to make a full recovery. If the Bengals decide to keep Eifert, he would be the No. 1 priority of the three starting tight ends with expiring contracts. Drafting a tight end should be a priority either way, but that's not so simple with other holes on the Bengals' roster.
C.J. Uzomah, TE: Uzomah took his opportunity and ran with it this season after injuries decimated the tight end group. Although the Bengals once thought of him as the third tight end, there’s no doubt that he surpassed Tyler Kroft as the No. 2 tight end behind Eifert. More importantly, Uzomah has shown that he can be relied on to be available. He has played every game this season, despite nursing a shoulder injury for most of the year. Uzomah had 42 catches for 433 yards and three touchdowns this season, which is the most receiving yards by a Bengals tight end since Eifert in 2015. Re-signing him should be a no-brainer.
Tyler Kroft, TE: He got hurt in the same season that Uzomah thrived, so he has probably fallen to No. 3 among that group. Kroft showed some potential last season but played in only five games this season. Although it's hard to know what the season could have been like if he had been healthy, Kroft has never shown the same potential as Eifert in his four years in Cincinnati. Right now, Uzomah has more potential, but that doesn't mean Kroft won't come back on a modest contract.
Cedric Ogbuehi, OL: The Bengals clearly lost all faith in Ogbuehi when they chose to move left guard Clint Boling to tackle instead of playing their former first-round pick. Ogbuehi never panned out in Cincinnati, and it’s clearly best for both sides to move on. He has been a healthy scratch most of the season. It would be hard to envision any scenario in which he returns, even as a backup.
Jake Fisher, OL: Fisher certainly hasn’t lived up to the expectations that came with being a second-round pick. He was beaten by Bobby Hart in training camp. When he got his chance to replace an injured Cordy Glenn, he was quickly hurt and put on IR. The Bengals certainly trust Fisher more than Ogbuehi, but he isn't a solution at starter. He could come back on a minimum contract with a chance to compete for a spot on the offensive line.
Bobby Hart, OL: Hart started every game at right tackle this season, but he clearly isn't a long-term solution. Between his below-average play and his team-leading penalties, the Bengals should be looking to free agency or the draft to find his replacement. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t be re-signed while they look for a solution. The Bengals like players they’re familiar with, and it’s unlikely that they’re going back to the Andre Smith well for a fourth time. Hart could be on the roster for training camp. It just seems unlikely he’ll be starting in 2019.
Michael Johnson, DE: The Bengals have always thought extremely highly of Johnson, a defensive captain who has taken some younger players under his wing. But the off-the-field attributes don't make up for his diminishing play on the field. Johnson is the "starter" at base defensive end, but younger players such as Sam Hubbard and Jordan Willis have actually gotten more snaps this season. Johnson will be 32 next season, and it’s hard to see them continuing to go with him at the potential expense of the other players’ development. It makes more sense that they would move forward with players such as Hubbard, Willis or Carl Lawson. If the Bengals retain their coaching staff, it’s possible that they re-sign Johnson at a contract closer to the veteran minimum than the $5 million in salary and bonuses he made in 2018. That way they could bring him to training camp and take no financial hit if they want to move on without him. It seems more likely that Johnson would want to move on or retire.
Preston Brown, LB: The Bengals don’t have many options at linebacker, so Brown should be a priority re-signing, despite his playing in only seven games this season. Brown isn’t injury-prone and didn’t miss a game in his four seasons before going to Cincinnati. The bad luck that has plagued the Bengals in the injury department this season ended Brown’s season early. Weakside linebacker Vontaze Burfict is certainly a question next season due to a history of suspensions and injuries, including a seventh concussion that he suffered last week. None of the younger linebackers besides Nick Vigil has panned out, and utility man Vincent Rey isn't getting any younger. The Bengals badly need to draft a linebacker, but they probably can’t plug two holes at once this year, unless Malik Jefferson takes a huge step forward. Brown will be only 27 to start the 2019 season and was solid when healthy. He could tide them over for a season or two until they figure out a solution to their linebackers.
Vincent Rey, LB: For a player who didn’t even think he would be drafted, the 31-year-old Rey has certainly had a longer career than he ever dreamed. But he isn't getting any younger, nor is he a full-time starter at this point. Rey has been a capable backup for Cincinnati and a mainstay in special teams, which is why they continued to bring him back year after year. At this point, Rey likely wouldn’t receive more than a minimum one-year contract. He could be brought back to retain some continuity because of the revolving door at his position.
Darqueze Dennard, CB: The Bengals might run into the same situation with Dennard as they did with Marvin Jones a few years ago. Jones left for Detroit despite efforts by the Bengals to bring him back because he wanted the chance to be a No. 1 receiver. Dennard might want the chance to be a starting outside cornerback elsewhere with those spots in Cincinnati locked up by Dre Kirkpatrick and William Jackson. Because of the increasing usage of the nickel formation, slot cornerback is just as important as the outside corners. However, it’s the outside corners that draw the attention around the league -- and the money. If another team offered Dennard a chance at that, it wouldn’t be surprising if he takes it. But it would be surprising if the Bengals don’t attempt to lock Dennard up before he hits the open market. He has become a vital piece of the secondary when healthy, and the options on the roster after him aren’t stellar.
Alex Redmond, OL: Redmond will become an exclusive-rights free agent in 2019, which means he cannot negotiate with other teams should the Bengals place a tender on him. There would be absolutely no reason not to do that at this point, considering Redmond started most of the season at right guard. Penalty problems aside (he was second on the team with nine), Redmond has a lot of potential and is only 23. There’s a lot of opportunity for growth and development here.
Trey Hopkins, OL: Hopkins was beaten by Redmond for the starting position in camp, but he has proven to be a solid utility player and a very good backup center. He’s certainly in position to be re-signed and perhaps even compete for a starting position in camp.