With deals for Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins, Ja'Marr Chase looming, Bengals must hit on defense in NFL draft

Cincinnati has benefitted from Joe Burrow, middle, and big-play receivers Ja'Marr Chase, left, and Tee Higgins, right, operating on their rookie contracts. But the bill for each will come due beginning next offseason. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

CINCINNATI -- When it came time for the Cincinnati Bengals to rebuild their aging defense in 2021, they did something uncharacteristic for the franchise.

They went shopping.

A club historically hesitant to spend in the open market raided free agency’s shelves, signing players such as defensive tackle D.J. Reader, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and defensive end Trey Hendrickson. As a result, seven of the 11 defenders who started Super Bowl LVI against the Los Angeles Rams were playing for other NFL teams in 2020.

Every starter is scheduled to return for the 2022 season, but the Bengals have a predicament ahead of the upcoming draft. Last year, the Bengals had $93.2 million of their salary cap allocated to the defense -- the third-largest portion in the NFL according to Roster Management System. The financial flexibility that allowed the Bengals to spend big on defense in recent years is likely to disappear next offseason, which means Cincinnati must hit the draft hard in order to restock for the future.

And like everything with this team, the conversation involves quarterback Joe Burrow.

Burrow, the top overall pick in the 2020 draft, has lived up to the billing of the franchise quarterback. Even though the Bengals lost the Super Bowl, Burrow, in just his second season, became the quickest of any quarterback drafted No. 1 to lead his team to a Super Bowl, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Cincinnati has benefitted from Burrow and big-play receivers Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins operating on their rookie contracts. But those paychecks could change as early as next offseason, when Higgins and Burrow will become eligible for new deals. If Burrow gets paid at the top of the market, his next deal could, as a low estimate, gobble up $30M of Cincinnati’s salary cap.

With the team’s financial dynamics about to change, that puts the cap squeeze on the defense. One way to alleviate that pressure is to find key defensive starters in the draft.

The Bengals’ run in nailing their offensive picks the past few years has proved they can.

“I think it’s good any time you can hit on your draft picks, and they’re really good players for you,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said this week. “It certainly helps things to have guys on those younger deals.”

Because the Bengals successfully retooled the current defense in free agency, any moves in next week’s draft won’t carry immediate urgency. Starting defensive positions will be hard for any rookie, even a player Cincinnati takes at No. 31, to secure.

“That's the good news,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “I don't know that we have to just go reach and say, ‘We have to have this.’”

A few entrenched starters are players Cincinnati drafted. Linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt each had massive moments in the playoff run, while standout safety Jessie Bates III was given the team’s franchise tag for this season.

But the Bengals will need more homegrown defenders sooner rather than later.

One reason the Bengals were forced to dip into free agency in '20 and ’21 was the failure to replace the team's aging defensive stars -- Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Dre Kirkpatrick -- in a timely fashion. Duke Tobin, Cincinnati’s de facto general manager, effectively has two draft classes to avoid a similar predicament in future years.

If the Bengals end up paying Burrow, Chase and Higgins what they’re worth, drafting the right players will be pivotal if the Bengals want to remain one of the NFL’s best.