Will A.J. Green and Geno Atkins be latest to go in Bengals' 'changing of the guard?'

CINCINNATI -- Carlos Dunlap's moment of clarity finally arrived when he turned into a realtor last October.

The former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end's frustration with his role peaked after a Week 7 home loss to the Cleveland Browns. Minutes after the game, Dunlap tweeted out a sale listing for his property in Cincinnati, the team that drafted him back in 2010. A couple of days later, he was traded to the Seattle Seahawks.

"That's when I finally came to realize and accept that Cincinnati, this was the first time in my career that it was a real thing that I would no longer wear black and orange, that I would be wearing different colors to finish my career," Dunlap said last week in an interview with CBS Sports Radio's Zach Gelb.

Other franchise legends could be joining Dunlap out the door as Cincinnati approaches the final critical offseason during this rebuilding phase. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins and wide receiver A.J. Green are among those who might not return. That scenario gives the Bengals more salary cap space to build a potential playoff contender around rookie quarterback Joe Burrow.

Dunlap foreshadowed that possibility when discussing Cincinnati's direction under coach Zac Taylor.

"I just know they're committed to whatever their vision is," Dunlap said in his radio interview. "It's clear that I was not one of those pieces. It seems like A.J. and Geno's time is coming, too. I guess it's a changing of the guard."

Atkins has two years remaining on a contract extension he signed in 2018 and Green is slated to be a free agent after playing 2020 on the one-year franchise tag.

If next year's salary cap is around $180 million, as ESPN's Adam Schefter reported, the departures of Atkins and Green put the Bengals roughly $30 million below that mark, according to ESPN's Roster Management System. Cincinnati will save around $9.6 million if it cuts Atkins this offseason.

If that happens, it will continue the Bengals' trend of parting ways with beloved veterans as the franchise transitions to try to build a winner in the Burrow era.

Cincinnati drafted Dunlap and Atkins in 2010 with Green and former quarterback Andy Dalton arriving as members of the 2011 draft class. The foursome played a key role in Cincinnati's five straight playoff appearances from 2011-15.

But in 2019 the Bengals started to shift away from those veterans who have played a combined 40 seasons with the franchise.

Cincinnati moved on from Dalton and drafted Burrow with the top overall pick in 2020. That also allowed the Bengals to be uncharacteristically aggressive in free agency. Cincinnati signed defensive tackle D.J. Reader and cornerback Trae Waynes to contracts worth a combined $95 million.

If Atkins and Green don't return, the Bengals' expected cap space should allow them to be aggressive for the second straight offseason.

They can opt to fortify an offensive line that ranked 29th last season in Pass Block Win Rate, an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen. Or the Bengals could fill needs at defensive end, cornerback and wide receiver either by re-signing current players (DE Carl Lawson and CB William Jackson III) or finding guys on the open market ahead of April's draft.

With Burrow entering the second year of his rookie deal in 2021, building the best team around him is the top priority. Even in a rookie season cut short by a left knee injury, Burrow showed the ability to elevate those around him.

Between free agency and the draft, where the Bengals will have the fifth overall pick, Cincinnati will have the assets to revamp its roster ahead of a critical make-or-break year in Taylor's third season.