CINCINNATI -- What was left unspoken by the potential top overall pick in the NFL draft said volumes about the franchise he is projected to join.
"You want to go No. 1, but you also want to go a great organization that's committed to winning -- committed to winning Super Bowls," former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow said on "The Dan Patrick Show" in January.
The Cincinnati Bengals, who have the No. 1 pick in the April 23-25 draft, haven't won a playoff game since 1991. And for years, the narrative has been that they don't spend enough to compete at a high level.
During the first week of free agency, the Bengals spent the type of money that could reassure skeptics, even a No. 1 draft pick, that things might be changing in Cincinnati. The franchise went out of character and spent $95 million combined on deals for defensive tackle D.J. Reader and outside cornerback Trae Waynes. Before last week, Cincinnati had not committed more than $26 million to a single free agent since 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
With those deals, the front office showed just how invested it is in winning. And after a slow start out of the gate, Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin held true to what he said at this year's NFL scouting combine.
"It's not a question of whether we're going to spend,” Tobin said on Feb. 25.
Less than a month later, there were no questions. On Tuesday, Cincinnati landed former Texan Reader with a four-year, $53 million contract. A few hours later, sources confirmed former Viking Waynes came to terms with the Bengals on a three-year, $42 million deal. Cincinnati tacked on a three-year deal for offensive lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo initially believed to be worth $10 million, according to a source.
The moves should improve one of the NFL's worst defenses. The Bengals paid Reader like one of the best defensive tackles in the league. He will be a staple for assistant coach Nick Eason’s defensive line, especially as eight-time Pro Bowler Geno Atkins, 31, is on the verge of the twilight of his career. Waynes will boost a secondary that needs to improve on the edges.
But these moves carry the most weight when viewed through a long-term lens. Like everything the franchise has done since parting ways with coach Marvin Lewis after the 2018 season, all moves are done with the premise of getting the Bengals back into playoff contention.
Throughout the offseason, the premise has been questioned by many media pundits. During an interview session with local reporters at the combine, Tobin jokingly responded that he was "praying for them" after he heard a message at Guardian Angels Parish about turning the other cheek. Then he pointed out all the numbers that showed how much money the Bengals spent during the collective bargaining agreement that ran from 2011 to 2019.
One of those happens to be where the Bengals rank in cap spending against the rest of the NFL. Since 2013, Cincinnati ranks 12th. In Indianapolis, Tobin talked about the Bengals' wins and playoff appearances, citing numbers that also put them in the top half of the league.
"If we’re not trying to win, let me tell you there are a lot of teams having more success doing it than us," Tobin said.
But the Bengals have missed the postseason for four straight seasons and had the league's worst record in 2019 at 2-14. On top of that, the Bengals are among the stingiest when it comes to free agency. Between 2015 and 2019, Cincinnati ranked 30th in total spending in free agency and in guaranteed money, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
That needed to change this year for multiple reasons. For starters, the Bengals are in the depths of a massive rebuild that accelerated with spending on the open market.
Again, that’s the short-term prism. In the long term, it’s about convincing players and coaches that the front office is willing to do what it takes to truly compete.
And that includes Burrow, the potential franchise quarterback of the future. And that level of commitment won’t be lost on someone who knows exactly where things stand a month before the draft.
"Coming in, if you’re the No. 1 pick, the team that’s picking No. 1 is there for a reason," Burrow said at the scouting combine. "So there are going to be ups and downs, and you have to stay steady through the process."