Cincinnati Bengals' NFL free-agent signings 2022: La'el Collins further bolsters Joe Burrow's protection

The Bengals gave Collins a three-year, $30 million deal that in reality is more of a two-year, $20M deal worth up to $22M, sources tell ESPN's Adam Schefter. Icon Sportswire

NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2022 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 16 at 4 p.m. ET, which means free-agent signings can be made official after that. The first round of the 2022 NFL draft begins April 28 on ESPN.

The Bengals made an improbable run to the Super Bowl in 2021, leaving the franchise with high hopes heading into 2022.

Here's a breakdown of every 2022 NFL free-agent signing by the Cincinnati Bengals, and how each will impact the upcoming season:

La'el Collins, OT

The Bengals gave Collins a three-year, $30 million deal that in reality is more of a two-year, $20M deal worth up to $22M, sources tell ESPN's Adam Schefter.

What it means: The Bengals landed the big recruit who was in town on an official visit. Cincinnati secured its third big move on the offensive line and picked up a starting right tackle in Collins, who has better pass block win rate numbers than any tackle the Bengals have had since 2019. It's a clear sign Cincinnati was serious about improving Joe Burrow's passing pocket in '22. Between Collins, center Ted Karras and right guard Alex Cappa, Cincinnati made big investments in boosting its offense and can now maximize their big skill players like Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins.

What's the risk: There is certainly some risk attached here. According to Schefter, the contract is essentially a two-year deal, with the final year attached to soften the cap hits in '22 and '23. That means there will be some significant financial fallout if Cincinnati decides to cut ties with Collins before '24. And over the last two seasons, Collins has missed 21 of 33 possible games because of injury or suspension. Cincinnati can't have a repeat of what happened with Cordy Glenn. The Bengals traded for Glenn in 2018, a relationship that soured just one year later.

Eli Apple, CB

Apple is returning to Cincinnati on a one-year, $4 million deal, per source.

What it means: Apple has been one of the most polarizing players in the NFL but he seems to have found a role in Cincinnati. After starting the season as a back up, Apple eventually became a starter once Trae Waynes suffered an injury, and eventually held onto the position. Apple gives Cincinnati an option it feels comfortable with as a starting outside cornerback. And despite the jokes and memes, Apple was solid in coverage in '21. His allowed completion percentage was 3.6% lower than expected when he was the nearest defender, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

What's the risk: If the Bengals are banking on Apple to be a starting outside cornerback, it's with the expectation that he will either continue to play as well as he did in '21 or improve. Outside of Apple, Cincinnati has some unproven depth and will be taking a decent risk if it doesn't bolster the unit further.

Hayden Hurst, TE

The Bengals land the former Falcons tight end on a 1-year deal, per a source.

What it means: Cincinnati is the latest stop for the 2018 first-round pick out of South Carolina. After spending his first two seasons with the Ravens, Hurst spent the last two years with the Falcons. In 2020, his best season to date, he had 56 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns. He fills the role vacated by C.J. Uzomah, who signed with the Jets in free agency.

What's the risk: The risk in this deal represents who isn't on the roster. Both of the tight ends who signed with the Jets, Uzomah and Tyler Conklin, were reportedly linked to Cincinnati and signed with the Jets on deals that paid at least $7 million. The Bengals are hoping Hurst can produce at a similar level to Uzomah while freeing up some cap room to address other needs on the roster.

Alex Cappa, OG

The Bengals and Cappa have agreed to terms on a four-year, $40 million deal, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

What it means: The Bengals knew they needed to shore up the offensive line after Joe Burrow was sacked 70 times in 20 games last season. The front office decided to make a big splash at the immediate start of the NFL's negotiating window by landing Cappa, who ranked 44th in pass block win rate as a guard in 2021. The Bengals didn't have anyone higher than 57th, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It's a clear admission that Cincinnati's blocking wasn't good enough last year and must improve if the Bengals want to get back to the Super Bowl.

What's the risk: There isn't a ton of risk upon first glance. Cappa hasn't had any injury issues. He has started every regular season game for the Bucs over the past two years. And with a reported $40M contract, that's a very manageable cap hit as the Bengals look to continue to improve the roster this offseason. Given what the offensive line looked like the last two years, there's more risk in not signing a player like Cappa.

Ted Karras, C

Karras, a former New England Patriots guard, agreed to join the Bengals on a three-year deal worth $18 million, per a source.

What it means: The Bengals' priority of bolstering the offensive line continued with Karras' commitment Monday. Karras started at left guard and right guard for the Patriots in 2021 but has experience at center, too, where he started all 16 games for the Dolphins in 2020. He ranked 11th in pass block win rate as a guard in '21 and 27th as a center in 2020, according to NFL Next Gen and ESPN Stats & Information. He should be a starter, no matter where Cincinnati puts him.

What's the risk: If the Bengals are going to move on from center Trey Hopkins, whose cap savings of around $6M is identical to Karras' average yearly salary, the Bengals are banking that Karras will be an upgrade over Hopkins, who played in 2021 despite recovering from an ACL injury he suffered at the end of the 2020 season. It's not a big gamble, especially given Karras' contract, but it does present a modest level of risk.

B.J. Hill, DT

Bengals are re-signing Hill to a 3-year, $30 million deal including $15M in year one, per an ESPN source.

What it means: Hill surpassed all expectations when the Bengals traded for him at the end of the 2021 preseason. The defensive tackle appeared in 16 games in the regular season and tallied a career-high 5.5 sacks. But his impact was arguably bigger than that. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Hill created seven sacks. He became a big priority after starting defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi committed to the Bears on Monday. Ogunjobi had the higher sack total but created only four of them, per ESPN Stats & Info. The Bengals ponied up the money to keep Hill and ensured an interior pass rush to accompany edge rushers Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard.

What's the risk: According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Hill will receive $15 million in the first year of a three-year deal worth $30 million, which is fairly substantial given that he was a back-up in 2021 until Ogunjobi suffered a season-ending foot injury in the postseason. Of Cincinnati's first three commitments on Monday (Hill, Karras, Cappa), Hill represents the most risk. But after the Bengals made a big move for defensive end Trey Hendrickson last year that paid off, Cincinnati has shown an excellent track record in moves on the defensive line.

Brandon Allen, QB

Allen will re-sign with Cincinnati on a one-year deal, a source confirms.

What it means: The Bengals have been vocal about keeping Allen as Joe Burrow's primary back-up. Allen is another player who is familiar with the system as he has played under Zac Taylor since both were with the Rams. Allen most notably led the Bengals to a win over Houston on Week 17 of the 2020 season, when he threw for 371 yards and two touchdowns. It's a move that Burrow and the coaching staff will be fired up about.

What's the risk: Allen gives the Bengals a lot of stability and familiarity in the quarterback room, which is good. Excluding games at the end of the '20 and '21 seasons, Allen has done a serviceable job as a back-up. Allen's contract should present very little risk for the Bengals.

Michael J. Thomas, CB

Thomas and the Bengals agreed to a one-year deal.

What it means: Thomas gives the Bengals some depth at safety but will likely play a bigger role on special teams. According to Pro Football Reference, he was on the field for 30% of the team's snaps on special teams.

What's the risk: Thomas continues a trend of Day 4 deals that present little to no risk for the Bengals.

Josh Tupou, DT

Terms of the deal are undisclosed.

What it means: Tupou made nine starts in the regular season and one in the postseason, when he was battling a knee issue. After opting out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19, he didn't have the same statistical output that he showed in '19 but he still displayed his value to the Bengals. He can play anywhere from nose tackle to the traditional spot over or around the offensive guard.

What's the risk: It's unclear what the risk will be since the terms haven't been disclosed yet. But unless that number is pretty large, it's highly unlikely that this will pose a significant risk for the Bengals.

Michael Thomas, WR

Thomas and the Bengals agreed to a one-year deal.

What it means: Thomas has settled into a good depth role in Cincinnati. Thomas, who worked with Zac Taylor when the current Bengals head coach was an assistant with the Rams, is a versatile player for Cincinnati. He played on nearly 13% of Cincinnati's offensive snaps and just under 25% of the team's special teams snaps, according to Pro Football Reference.

What's the risk: Another move with little risk for the Bengals. Given the comfort the staff has with Thomas and the lack of salary attached to this deal, it's a no-brainer.

Clark Harris, LS

Harris has been signed to a one-year deal, the team announced.

What it means: The Bengals will bring their trusty long snapper back for a 14th season. Clark needs seven appearances to set the record for the most games played in franchise history. His veteran presence could be crucial if Cincinnati opts to move on from longtime punter Kevin Huber and go with Drue Chrisman, who finished his playing career at Ohio State in 2020 and signed to a futures contract in February.

What's the risk: This is the lowest-risk move the Bengals could make. According to the release announcing his new contract, Harris has made 1,876 snaps without an unplayable delivery.