Ben Baby, ESPN Staff Writer 52d

Cincinnati Bengals free-agency preview: Everything centers around Joe Burrow

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals enter 2021 NFL free agency coming off a 4-11-1 season in 2020 and have at least 24 unrestricted free agents.

The mission for the Bengals is pretty obvious -- building around budding quarterback Joe Burrow. As a rookie, the 2020 top overall draft pick showed he has the potential to be Cincinnati's franchise quarterback. A season-ending knee injury underscored the importance of giving Burrow a quality offensive line. If the Bengals can add another dynamic receiving target this offseason, their offense will be poised to take a big step in Burrow's second season.

Here's what to expect from the Bengals when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17:

QUARTERBACK

Under contract: Burrow, Ryan Finley, Kyle Shurmur

UFA: Brandon Allen

Game plan: The intrigue here will be about the backup position, and even that is somewhat muted. Allen had some good moments at the end of 2020 and showed the capability to be the Bengals' QB2 in 2021. That could leave Finley at risk of being cut before the start of the season.

RUNNING BACK

Under contract: Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard, Trayveon Williams, Jacques Patrick

UFA: Samaje Perine

Game plan: The Bengals locked in their long-term outlook at this position in 2020 when they signed Mixon to a contract extension. With Mixon on the shelf for a bulk of last season because of a foot injury, Bernard showed his value and his functionality in Cincinnati's pass-heavy offense.

WIDE RECEIVER

Under contract: Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, Auden Tate, Trenton Irwin, Scotty Washington

UFA: A.J. Green, John Ross, Alex Erickson, Mike Thomas

Game plan: This should be a major point of emphasis in free agency or the draft. The Bengals need another outside receiver to pair with the veteran Boyd and Higgins, who is going into his second season. For years, Green has been that option, but the seven-time Pro Bowler is likely on the way out.

TIGHT END

Under contract: C.J. Uzomah, Drew Sample

UFA: Cethan Carter

Game plan: While Carter isn't flashy, he does a lot of things in special teams and run-blocking that give him considerable value. Uzomah, the top pass-catching target in this group, missed nearly all of 2019 with an Achilles injury he suffered in Week 2. Sample showed strong signs of development in his second season.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Bobby Hart, Trey Hopkins, Jonah Williams, Billy Price, B.J. Finney, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Michael Jordan, Fred Johnson, Hakeem Adeniji, Isaiah Prince

UFA: Alex Redmond, Quinton Spain

Game plan: This is the biggest unit of need for the Bengals. The Bengals' pass-blocking woes are no secret in the NFL. Cincinnati needs one tackle and arguably both starting guard positions before the start of 2021. They need to plug at least one of those three positions with a big-name player in free agency.

DEFENSIVE END

Under contract: Sam Hubbard, Khalid Kareem, Freedom Akinmoladun

UFA: Amani Bledsoe, Carl Lawson

Game plan: The Bengals' defensive free agency plan will hinge on what happens with Lawson. If they don't bring him back either with the franchise tag or a long-term contract, the Bengals will need to add another pass-rusher to fix a unit that needs to bring more pressure.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Under contract: Geno Atkins, D.J. Reader, Josh Tupou, Renell Wren

UFA: Christian Covington, Mike Daniels, Xavier Williams, Margus Hunt

Game plan: Players such as Covington and Daniels were emergency fits for a unit that was depleted in 2020 because of injuries and COVID-19. Regardless, if the Bengals part ways with Atkins and reap the cap savings that come with that move, they need to sign multiple defensive tackles to put alongside Reader.

LINEBACKER

Under contract: Germaine Pratt, Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither, Markus Bailey, Keandre Jones

UFA: Josh Bynes, Jordan Evans

Game plan: Not only did Bynes fill the role as a veteran linebacker in 2020, he exceeded expectations and became their starter in the middle. It makes sense for the Bengals to bring Bynes back, even if 2020 third-round pick Logan Wilson is ready to take over for Bynes in the middle of the defense.

CORNERBACK

Under contract: Trae Waynes, Darius Phillips, Winston Rose, Donnie Lewis

UFA: William Jackson III, Mackensie Alexander, LeShaun Sims, Jalen Davis

Game plan: Jackson is the big target here. He played well enough to merit a sizable contract for 2021 and beyond. Waynes, one of the big acquisitions in 2020, missed the entire season with a pectoral injury. The Bengals likely will be in the market for a slot cornerback to replace Alexander.

SAFETY

Under contract: Vonn Bell, Jessie Bates, Trayvon Henderson

UFA: Brandon Wilson, Shawn Williams

Game plan: Wilson has been the Bengals' third safety but proved to be one of the NFL's most explosive kick returners. Bates was arguably one of the best safeties in the NFL last season and could be a priority to receive a long-term extension before he hits free agency in 2022.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Under contract: K Austin Seibert, LS Dan Godsil

UFA: P Kevin Huber, K Randy Bullock, LS Clark Harris

Game plan: For years, Bullock fought off others for his starting job until Seibert finally wrestled it away from him at the end of 2020. Cincinnati will have to decide if Seibert or another option is good enough to be the starting kicker. Huber will be 36 at the start of this season and has been one of the Bengals' most reliable players.

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