After five consecutive losing seasons and some rough play on defense, it’s not a surprise that the Cincinnati Bengals saw a need for some changes. In fact, it was already last offseason when the team started making significant moves in free agency, finally spending big where they almost never had before.
A year ago, for example, they signed cornerback Trae Waynes and defensive tackle D.J. Reader to big-money contracts. Due to injuries, however, they didn’t get much out of either one of them. They are hoping to see better return on investment this year.
They are joined by four new defensive starters signed this free agency period. Those include Mike Hilton of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who will start at slot cornerback for the Bengals. Also signed are cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. That last move swaps defensive tackles with the Cleveland Browns, who last year signed Cincinnati’s Andrew Billings.
“We hit on defense, which is fine by me. Where we were, we needed help there. We needed some new names, some new faces, some guys coming from other programs and guys with careers left in them,” Bengals’ director of player personnel Duke Tobin told the team’s website earlier this offseason. “Guys with success and toughness and swagger. When the opportunities came on defense, we didn’t turn them down.”
That would be a fitting way to describe Hilton, who had a consistently ascending career once he landed in Pittsburgh. Hilton originally came into the league as an undersized, undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss. Two teams cut him by the time he made his name with the Steelers.
All of the team’s other additions are equally big, though generally, they come at the expense of others. Hilton even replaces Mackensie Alexander, who the Bengals signed in free agency a year ago. They let Carl Lawson go in free agency, so Hendrickson fills his shoes. As for Awuzie, he will step into the previously-released Dre Kirkpatrick’s role.
“We’re pleased with the way it happened,” Tobin said, about the way they were able to add to the defense via free agency. “You have to look at free agency to where the depth is, where the opportunity is and then adapt to that. It doesn’t always line up with your number one needs.”
The Bengals have gone 6-25-1 over the course of the past two seasons, including a 4-11-1 record last season. They are hoping to mark a turnaround as 2020’s first overall pick, quarterback Joe Burrow, returns from a torn ACL with a year of experience under his belt — and perhaps a tighter defense to support him on the backside.