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Next moves for Cincinnati Bengals after Giovani Bernard release

The Cincinnati Bengals cut ties with one of their veteran leaders in Giovani Bernard on Wednesday. What could be next as the team tries to retool its roster?

Matt Fitzgerald

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The Cincinnati Bengals announced on Wednesday that they’re releasing running back Giovani Bernard, which leaves a leadership void in the team’s youthful locker room.

Bernard was a long-tenured Bengal with eight years of NFL experience, and his release saves $4.1 million in salary cap space. If Cincinnati are meant to compete in 2021 against a loaded AFC North division, adding more seasoned veterans, high-end talent through the draft and protection for young quarterback Joe Burrow will be critical factors to the cause.

Cincinnati Bengals have RB depth despite Giovani Bernard’s exit

Between Samaje Perine and Trayveon Williams, there are a couple decent backs on the Bengals roster to fill in the No. 2 spot for Bernard. However, neither of them are game-changing type of players, or at least have shown that type of ability, so Joe Mixon will still be the predominant workhorse.

Running back is generally the most replaceable position in all of football. The difference here is that Bernard stuck with the Bengals through some lean recent years after being accustomed to going to the playoffs every season. He may have wanted a fresh start elsewhere, but his departure will hurt more from an off-field mentoring standpoint than his on-field production.

3 moves for Cincinnati Bengals after Giovani Bernard release

Get three starters in the first two days of 2021 NFL Draft

3 moves for Cincinnati Bengals after Giovani Bernard release: NFL Draft
Apr 20, 2019; Eugene, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks offensive lineman Penei Sewell (58) points the scoreboard after the Oregon spring game at Autzen Stadium. Mighty Oregon beat Fighting Ducks 20-13. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it takes something radical or even revolutionary even in the NFL Draft, the Bengals must do something big.

With an early run of quarterbacks expected, Cincinnati may well have its choice of who the front office believes to be the best non-quarterback prospect in the entire 2021 class with the fifth overall pick.

Beyond that initial selection, though, the Bengals really need to hit big on all three of their top draft picks. It stands to reason that after the team spent a lot on defense in free agency that at least one offensive lineman and one premier offensive weapon will be in play. It’s absolutely vital that Cincinnati gets it right one way or another, lest the second year of Burrow’s rookie contract turn out to be a lost cause.

Read More: Cincinnati Bengals mock draft: Full 7-round 2021 NFL Draft projections with trades

Sign Ryan Kerrigan or Jadeveon Clowney

3 moves for Cincinnati Bengals after Giovani Bernard release: Sign Ryan Kerrigan or Jadeveon Clowney
Oct 18, 2020; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (99) takes the field during player introductions before a game against the Houston Texans at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Trey Hendrickson was a splashy open-market acquisition, yet he had the benefit of playing alongside other top edge defenders in Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport with the New Orleans Saints. The Bengals’ depth chart is thin in that area, and in need of another veteran presence.

Kerrigan has already visited with Cincinnati and presumably didn’t see his financial demands met. That was a while back, though, so perhaps if the parties reconvene, a deal can be worked out. The 32-year-old is a four-time Pro Bowler who still has some juice left in the tank but was relegated to situational duty on Washington’s loaded front last season.

As for Clowney, it’d be quite a coup to get him away from the division rival Cleveland Browns, who are in hot pursuit of him for the second straight offseason. Clowney could get a decent one-year payday from the Bengals and then choose where to play in 2022 if he finds the situation isn’t to his liking.

Either way, Kerrigan or Clowney would be an upgrade over incumbent Sam Hubbard and give Cincinnati a legitimate 1-2 punch to rush the passer.

Get help at the linebacker position

3 moves for Cincinnati Bengals after Giovani Bernard release: Get help at the linebacker position
Dec 7, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Washington Football Team running back J.D. McKissic (41) runs the ball as Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Avery Williamson (51) chases during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. Washington won 23-17. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With such a bad front seven, it’s almost impossible for the Bengals to expect greatness in 2021. They’re counting on a trio of second-year players in Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey to probably play key roles, with Germaine Pratt as the slightly more senior leader.

There’s talent in terms of what they can do dropping in coverage, yet none of these youngsters can defend the run to save their lives. Their Pro Football Focus run defense grades from 2020 are an abject disaster.

Someone like Avery Williamson or K.J. Wright would be a huge get. The problem? Cincinnati would probably have to sell those players that they’re ready to win now. That goes back to the draft and how important it is. If the Bengals can’t get multiple instant-impact rookies, it’ll probably be a hard sell.

Then again, overpaying for Williamson or Wright to provide direction to the position group and massively improve their prospects versus the run would be well worth it. Given how much the traditionally conservative Cincinnati brass has spent on defense already, though, don’t hold your breath that this will happen.

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