Part of the reason the Cincinnati Bengals have undergone such a stunning turnaround over the last three or so years while overcoming heaps of history is because of the team’s ability to write great contracts.
This isn’t anything new. The Bengals have (mostly) always been good at taking care of their own players and even pulling off great bargain trades, as seen recently with B.J. Hill.
But this new marriage of being aggressive with outside free agents and that ability to navigate the tricky salary cap quite well helped produce the Super Bowl run.
Going into 2022, let’s break down the best salary cap bargains, which highlight and provide proof of this idea in action.
CB Eli Apple
(AP Photo/Jeff Dean)
2022 salary cap hit: $3,750,000
Percent of cap: 1.77
Position rank: 42nd among CBs
Apple’s deal looks especially good considering last year we had to compare it to the $42 million the team splurged on Trae Waynes while getting pretty much nothing. Apple’s nearly outside the top 20 cap hits on the team and outside the top 40 leaguewide. Despite this, he had a very solid year as a boundary starter last season at a spot with shaky depth while getting picked on a lot.
LB Logan Wilson
(AP Photo/Steve Luciano)
2022 salary cap hit: $1,348,798
Percent of cap: 0.64
Position rank: 60th among LBs
Wilson might be one of the best values in the NFL outright. He checks in at just over the $1 million mark and 60th among linebackers overall despite being the guy with the headset in the heart of the defense, a stat-sheet stuffer (70 tackles, four picks, one forced fumble last year) and a near-Super Bowl MVP winner.
K Evan McPherson
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
2022 salary cap hit: $910,928
Percent of cap: 0.43
Position rank: 29th among Ks
Less than a million for a guy who went 28-of-33 as a rookie while hitting 9-of-11 from 50-plus yards, then hit every single attempt, including game-winners, in the playoffs on the way to the Super Bowl? Steal.
CB Chidobe Awuzie
(AP Photo/AJ Mast)
2022 salary cap hit: $7,302,941
Percent of cap: 3.44
Position rank: 19th among CBs
The Bengals have a bargain at the other boundary corner spot with Awuzie, too. They’re paying top-20 money to a guy they thought might be the No. 2, but he’s stepped up just fine as the No. 1. Last year, Awuzie allowed just 53 catches on 93 targets while posting 53 tackles with two interceptions, earning an 83.3 PFF grade.
QB Joe Burrow
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports
2022 salary cap hit: $9,870,037
Percent of cap: 4.65
Position rank: 19th among QBs
To be fair, this is by design via the NFL, not the Bengals’ own doing. But it’s still worth pointing out what a bargain that rookie quarterback contract is for teams. And especially the Bengals — Burrow’s only the sixth-highest cap hit in 2022. He’s got the 19th cap hit across the NFL at the position while being the Comeback Player of the Year, driver of the culture change and so much more. Not bad.
WR Ja'Marr Chase
(AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
2022 salary cap hit: $7,004,464
Percent of cap: 3.30
Position rank: 22nd among WRs
We’ve got to cheat a bit and include Chase too. He’s 22, yet a top-three player at his position upon arrival. NFL teams are going buckwild right now overpaying wideouts as the general league strategy about team building seems to shift a bit. Yet the Chase, owner of a Randy Moss-like debut, is outside the top 20 in positional cap hit and outside the top 10 on his own team.
WR Tee Higgins
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports
2022 salary cap hit: $2,369,124
Percent of cap: 1.12
Position rank: 75th among WRs
Higgins would be a No. 1 on quite a few teams across the league. Yet he’s in Cincinnati as the technical No. 2 and his big-play ability, believe it or not, made that Chase breakout possible given how defenses respect his game. He still managed 1,091 yards and six scores on a 14.7 per-catch average over 14 games last year.
(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
LT Jonah Williams: He’s been solid with the potential for more at left tackle, yet his $5.6 million cap hit is nearly outside the top 20 among left tackles.
CB Mike Hilton: A very productive slot man and important locker room leader, Hilton’s a mere $5 million cap hit, slotting him 32nd among corners.
WR Stanley Morgan: Don’t scoff too much at the importance of special teams guys. Morgan’s hardly a $1 million cap hit and 124th among receivers.