The Cincinnati Bengals began a renovation of their secondary last offseason by going big in free agency, signing former first-round pick Trae Waynes on the outside, Mackenzie Alexander in the slot, and the hard-hitting Vonn Bell at safety. They paired with William Jackson III and Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati retaining their policy short-standing of drafting only defensive backs who are the third of their name.
A year later, they seem to have put the finishing touches on the remake of their secondary. Though they are losing Jackson in free agency, they are expected to sign Chidobe Awuzie in free agency to replace him. And, of course, they are bringing in Mike Hilton from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That’s five defensive backs, including two outside corners, two slot defenders, and a safety, signed in free agency over the course of thee past 12-plus months. The only thing that’s left is for them to actually play well, which, outside of Bates, didn’t come often enough last season.
Granted, Waynes actually missed the entire season due to injury. Their top three cornerbacks on the field this year will have never played a snap for them before, which should be interesting—and is a reminder of why offseason practices actually matter, I would interject.
I presume that the Bengals signed Hilton to start in the slot, so that does leave the question as to what to do with Alexander, who is not really an outside corner, and anyway, would not be projected to start over Waynes or Awuzie in the first place.
Of course, it never hurts to have depth. The Bengals do have a deep secondary now, including also former starting safety Shawn Williams and Brandon Wilson, who has logged a lot of snaps over the years. That’s a secondary at least eight men deep that they really feel strongly about and wouldn’t hesitate to put on the field.
But as the Philadelphia Eagles’ ‘Dream Team’ of many years ago showed, assembling a group of talented players doesn’t make them a talented unit…and this is no Dream Team. Awuzie and Waynes and Hilton and Bell are good players, make no mistake, but they won’t be mistaken for a prime Richard Sherman or Tyrann Mathieu.
The active free agency periods over the past two years is a departure for Cincinnati, especially as a team with a history of drafting high in the secondary. I think they drafted half a dozen cornerbacks in the first round under Marvin Lewis alone.
What ultimately comes of it, we’ll it. All four teams in the AFC North, if healthy, should have talented cornerback pairings, the Steelers with Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, the Cleveland Browns with Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams (who missed all of the 2020 season), and the Baltimore Ravens of course with Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters.