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Another Bengals spending spree points to a make-or-break year in 2021

Zac Taylor faces a crucial third season leading the Bengals, who have spent big again in free agency. Joseph Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals learned just how quickly narratives can change in the NFL over the past 13 months.

Of course, for that to happen, it requires a team to be ambitious and take on some risks. When the Bengals had the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, pundits wondered if they had either attribute as they prepared to select quarterback Joe Burrow.

That was before Cincinnati shelled out hundreds of millions in new contracts. In the past two off-seasons, the Bengals dipped into free agency to bring in new blood trying to accelerate a much-needed rebuild.

Based on their spending pattern, all signs point to 2021 being a potential make-or-break year for the franchise.

On external players alone, Cincinnati shelled out more than $39 million in guaranteed money as part of deals worth more than $119 million in totality, according to OverTheCap.com. Cincinnati director of player personnel Duke Tobin made good on his word of being active during the beginning of free agency.

"We are certainly not going to sit on our hands," Tobin said on March 8.

Cincinnati couldn't afford a passive approach to improving the roster based on the last couple of seasons. The group coach Zac Taylor inherited upon his hiring in 2019 was highlighted with players who were drafted between 2010 and 2012. Last week, wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins joined quarterback Andy Dalton [released in April 2020] and defensive end Carlos Dunlap [traded in October] as long-time contributors who were no longer on the roster.

And as they moved on from those franchise staples, the Bengals spent lavishly retooling their roster. Last season, Cincinnati spent $39 million in guaranteed money on external free agents: cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive tackle D.J. Reader, safety Vonn Bell and guard Xavier Su'a-Filo.

Waynes missed all of 2020 with a pectoral injury suffered during training camp and Reader played five games before he was lost with a season-ending quad injury. Taylor said because of their limited availability, he considered both players an extended part of the 2021 free agency class that continued to bolster the defense.

"To get them back is really just going to be a tremendous help for that side of the ball," Taylor said.

Waynes and Reader will join a unit that recently added defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and cornerbacks Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple.

Waynes' contract also provides a hint at how the Bengals could view 2021 and beyond. Waynes received $15 million guaranteed as part of a three-year deal worth a total of $42 million. This year, Waynes only represents $3.8 million in cap savings if the Bengals decided to part ways with him. In 2022, however, that savings number jumps to $11 million heading into the final year of his deal.

Even before Waynes suffered his injury, the Bengals structured his contract for financial flexibility after 2021.

The Bengals could have some key decisions to make. Cincinnati has won just six games in two seasons under Taylor. After a four-win season in 2020, team president Mike Brown issued a rare public statement that confirmed Taylor was going to return for the 2021 season.

With the latest run of moves in free agency, Taylor is hopeful about the roster that could decide his long-term future with the franchise.

"I'm really encouraged by the guys we've added to the mix," Taylor said. "They're exactly the pieces that we had in mind adding."

If Burrow lives up to expectations by the time his rookie deal runs out in four years, Cincinnati knows it could be in the market for a contract extension that will require significant cap space.

That's what makes this year so critical. The Bengals have spent the money required to overhaul a team quickly. Now they're on the verge of finding out exactly where they stand.