The Cincinnati Bengals have a serious of intriguing salary cap decisions to make over the next few months as several key players such as wide receiver Tee Higgins and defensive tackle D.J. Reader are slated to leave this offseason. While Higgins has established himself as arguably the best number two receiver in the NFL, Reader will be far more difficult to replace for Cincinnati this offseason.
Reader has established himself as one of the best nose tackles in the NFL and Cincinnati doesn’t have a promising backup to bring in for him either. There are several decisions available for Cincinnati this year.
First off: Is Bengals Great D.J. Reader Actually Going to Leave this Offseason?
While there is a possibility that the team will come to the same conclusion that Reader will be the most difficult player to replace this offseason and therefore try to sign him, a combination of factors make that highly unlikely.
For starters, Reader is a thirty year old nose tackle who will be coming off of a season ending injury to his lower body.
While skill positions have made returning from ligament tears and major injuries appear fairly easy, imagine being a 330 pound man who has his body on such a fine tipping point between being powerful and being lethargic, being demanded to eat approximately 20,000 calories a day (I’ve been there, that’s real) and now being unable to exercise for a long period due to a hamstring injury.
There is a strong possibility that Reader will not come back at nearly the same level next season and if he can return to form, it will probably take him some time. At 30, Cincinnati may not be too eager to wait for that.
Second, Reader has entered a contract year and due to his performance up to to date, he will most likely be requesting a contract in the realm of $20 million per season.
With the money shortages due to the skill players on the offensive side of the ball, Cincinnati will most likely balk at this demand and let their notorious nose tackle leave the team.
Now, with the assumption that Reader is leaving, lets go over Cincinnati’s choices.
Option 1: Bring in a Defensive Tackle via the NFL Draft
The obvious choice to replacing a long term starter would be to find a long term option in the 2024 NFL Draft. While that doesn’t seem too difficult, finding a nose tackle is not as easy as it seems particularly because the 2024 Draft Class is fairly weak at the defensive line positions.
Assuming Cincinnati will not use a first round pick on a defensive tackle for the first time since the disastrous first overall pick of Dan Wilkinson in the 1994 NFL Draft, there are not many nose tackles available in the draft.
I have mentioned before that my preferred option of the Cincinnati front office down this avenue would be to draft Michigan defensive tackle Kris Jenkins in the second round.
Jenkins may only weigh in at 305 pounds but if given the offseason, he can add weight to what appears to be an incredibly strong base. Jenkins father of course was an All Pro nose tackle for ten years for the Carolina Panthers and New York Jets so that may impact that recommendation.
While Jenkins is appealing, this is arguably the best long term option but would be the worst short term option as starting an undersized rookie nose tackle in one of the toughing divisions for rushing offenses would certainly come with some growing pains.
Option 2: Free Agency Alternatives
Although he would certainly be the most appealing option, there is a long list of reasons to not bring in superstar defensive tackle Chris Jones.
Jones would certainly ask for a fortune north of $25 million per season and still wouldn’t fit the mold of a nose tackle. In the AFC North, Jones would still not plug the middle well enough to stop the run against elite running teams like Baltimore or Cleveland.
Similar to the draft, there simply aren’t a ton of great options to bring in a long term option at nose tackle this offseason. Most of the viable players are over 30 and will give some of the same concerns that Reader would but the others are seriously untested. While he is still a major uncertainty, I would recommend that Cincinnati bring in Grover Stewart from the Indianapolis Colts.
While he won’t be as good of a defensive tackle as Reader was, Stewart will likely come in as a bargain due to his age.
Stewart also graded out remarkably well via Pro Football Focus (PFF) with a 77.3 run stopping score for a defensive tackle (good enough for fifth in the NFL). Stewart weighs in at 314 pounds and while being a little lighter than a traditional nose tackle, Stewart would be a viable option for Cincinnati in the short term.
The con is that Stewart is actually a year older than Reader and certainly would show some deterioration with age year after year in Cincinnati.
There are multiple options for Cincinnati to take and it certainly isn’t going to be an easy decision. After all, Reader is one of the best nose tackles in the NFL and there aren’t any great options to replace him in either the NFL Draft or Free Agency. Cincinnati could always figure out a creative option with a trade for a nose tackle but Cincinnati has been one of the most conservative teams in the NFL regarding trades and they most likely won’t be starting now.