CINCINNATI — Like many Bengals fans monitoring free agency, Zac Taylor fell asleep.
After a chaotic evening when he made eight calls to five people in two hours and lost his car keys at a tire shop, the hours rolled toward midnight Wednesday. He sat watching “The Amazing Race” with his sons, phone nearby, waiting to hear the final word from director of pro scouting and free-agency leader Steven Radicevic on one of the most important negotiations in recent team history.
Then, he fell asleep on the couch.
Only to wake up living a dream.
The Bengals signed the premier offensive lineman available, Orlando Brown Jr. They snatched him out of thin air and away from the Kansas City Chiefs only 46 days after Brown held Bengals star pass rusher Trey Hendrickson without a QB hit in the AFC Championship Game en route to a sackless postseason run and Lombardi Trophy.
A three-year quest for proper protection of Joe Burrow found a 6-foot-8, 345-pound treasure.
“Sometimes these deals come together at 10 o’clock at night and sometimes they come together the next morning,” Taylor said. “I fell asleep at 8:30, I wake up at 12:30, the first texts I saw was ‘Boomer Sooner’ from all these Norman (Oklahoma) friends I have. Then I got to filter through all the texts and find the one from Steve that really matters. Sure enough, it came together.”
Did it ever.
A month of meetings, debates and calculations were tabled in exchange for a frenetic 24-hour pivot that culminated in the largest outside free-agent signing in Bengals history.
“They reached out and showed some interest the night before we agreed,” Radicevic said. For all the planning, this could only be called a surprise. “Yeah, I would say so.”
One call, one day, one surprise.
“Out of nowhere,” offensive line coach Frank Pollack said. “I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Really? Wow!’”
Upon stomaching a second consecutive season when missed blocks ended realistic championship runs and facing the closing of the coveted rookie quarterback contract window, the Bengals staff needed to assess the next step.
Sure, identify extensions and plot to execute them, Burrow first in line.
More than anything, however, early meetings in February were themed on keeping the chemistry rolling and retaining their own. This was Plan A.
Along with the rest of the football world, the Bengals assumed Jessie Bates was gone. They would never spend what he was going to get — eventually a four-year, $64 million mega-deal in Atlanta.
Vonn Bell, Samaje Perine, Hayden Hurst and Germaine Pratt were primary targets.
Beyond the year’s theme of retention, however, their more important organizational golden rule applied: Value of each player matters most.
In the moment, it sent Plan A into disarray.
Perine’s passing on an aggressive push by the Bengals to shift to Denver was an upset. He signed for two years and $7.5 million with the Broncos, nearly identical money to what the Bengals offered. Personal reasons took him to Colorado.
Unwillingness to go over predetermined value and years for players at or approaching age 30 in their contract was a conscious choice and tenet of this regime. That moved the team away from inking Bell for three years and $22.5 million as the Panthers did.
Bell’s departure provided a pivot back to 27-year-old Germaine Pratt, because the linebacker market settled quickly, signing a reasonable three-year, $21 million contract.
They didn’t want to match the three years and $21.8 million with $13 million guaranteed Hurst landed in Carolina. He made sense in Cincinnati for one year and $3.5 million last year. Analysis suggested a slow tight end market due to a legendarily deep draft, which there was, just not for Hurst.
Watching all three leave turned free agency into a free-for-all for them more than it has during this string of recent success.
“In years past we’ve known we got to get either a pass rusher or got to stop the run, go with DJ (Reader), get pass rusher with (Hendrickson), we knew we needed corners with Will Jackson leaving,” Radicevic said. “This year, we were doing more of trying to keep our guys. It was more of a pivot this year than last few years. … We really wanted Hayden and really wanted Vonn Bell back and Samaje back.”
The average annual value of the new deals for Perine ($3.3 million), Hurst ($7.3 million) and Bell ($7.5 million) equaled $18.1 million.
“You are trying to prioritize bringing guys back on deals that are fair and reasonable,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “And, then, you don’t get any of them back. You lose a back and tight end and both safeties are gone. But the benefit of that is … ”
Callahan held a pregnant pause for effect.
“There’s money,” he said.
In the wake of the disappointing latest loss of Perine, Callahan was walking down the hallway Wednesday morning and passed Radicevic, who offered a simple, offseason-altering question.
“Would you be interested in Orlando Brown?”
Brown wasn’t in the original plans. He was the top player available at a premium position of need, but there was no reasonable path to him beyond the wild unpredictability of free agency.
“Kind of a no-brainer from a talent standpoint, this is a guy the coaches would be interested in,” Taylor said. “It was more hopeful than realistic.”
After all, last year in Kansas City, Brown declined an offer for six years, $139 million ($23.1 million AAV) and a $30.25 million signing bonus hours before the franchise tag deadline. There was no world where the Bengals would approach that figure.
“We just assumed we were out of that business,” Callahan said. “We assumed, like most people did, he was just going to extend with K.C. and be their tackle in K.C.”
Make no mistake, they were hunting tackles, just on lower levels. Left tackle Jonah Williams had surgery for a dislocated kneecap and his play regressed last year. He enters into a $12.6 million fifth-year option season. La’el Collins tore his ACL days before Christmas, battled back problems and didn’t practice on Wednesdays all season while not delivering on expectations as a pass protector. His health for opening day is in question and he crosses 30 this year.
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Their analysis was the market wasn’t particularly strong, though. Their initial evaluation of top tackles available held Brown at the top tier and the rest far below it, with San Francisco’s Mike McGlinchey and Jacksonville’s Jawaan Taylor next in line.
The Bengals were deep in adapting on the fly when Radicevic received the interest from Brown’s camp late Tuesday. That led to the Brown option’s leading the discussion at a Wednesday morning meeting with coaches, ownership and the personnel staff.
“We met as a group on it the next morning,” Radicevic said. “Really wanted to see if it was something we would be able to pursue. When we felt like it was something where both sides could be able to come to an agreement or get close to it, that’s when things heat up and gain traction and feel like this might be something that may come together. This was most of the day on Wednesday spent on that. Making sure it will be a good fit on both sides.”
For Brown, the reason they kicked tires on Cincinnati’s interest after talks broke down and Kansas City moved to Jawaan Taylor was pretty clear.
A man who blocked for two MVP quarterbacks, Lamar Jackson 2018 and Patrick Mahomes 2022, focused primarily on adding a third. Not to mention a second Lombardi.
“The biggest thing with him was he wanted to have a chance to win more Super Bowls,” Radicevic said. “He wanted to play with Joe.”
The Burrow Effect strikes again.
“Big time,” Brown said on being drawn by Burrow. “I’m kind of spoiled, you could say, in the football world with the guys that I’ve played with, the teams I’ve been on as well. Being able to play with a guy like 9, that’s a tough opportunity to pass up.”
Taylor, Callahan and Pollack quickly went back to the tape, rewatching to confirm they weren’t viewing his arrival through rose-colored glasses and refresh any original evaluations. Pollack said knowing the “cap constraints,” he’d barely watched Brown in the run-up to free agency, straying away from the top-tier tackles.
“My hat’s off to (director of player personnel Duke Tobin) and his crew and the ownership,” Pollack said. “I was not expecting us to be in a position to do anything for someone of his caliber. It just kind of came on our radar, with me anyway, the day that we got that deal done. It was exciting. They said, ‘Hey, take a look at this guy, he might be in play.’”
Brown didn’t take long to pass the eye test. His size marks an ideal fit for a pass-heavy Bengals offense based on the firm pocket. A presence like Brown’s can provide powerful traits ideal for the team’s midseason philosophical shift from outside zone run to the downhill gap scheme out of the shotgun. Everything about the Bengals linemen moved away from nimble and toward power. Which drew them even more toward Brown.
Now came time to ensure the culture fit. Upon speaking with Brown and updating Burrow, Taylor reached out to mutual friend Zac Selmon, now athletic director at Mississippi State, who served as associate athletic director during Brown’s time at Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma through and through,” Taylor said. “He is a great resource for me explaining how great of a person Orlando is.”
With the wheels in motion between Brown’s camp and Radicevic, Taylor needed to get his wheels in motion. He’d had a flat tire for days, and after “driving lopsided down Columbia Parkway” two days in a row, finally took it to the tire shop that morning. He needed to hop a ride with the day’s chauffeur, Callahan, back out there. They placed a call to Brown along the 20-minute ride.
“When we talked to him on the phone it felt like, ‘Yeah, these are the kind of guys you pay this kind of money to,’” Callahan said, referencing a similar feel as Reader, the star defensive tackle to whom the Bengals gave $53 million in free agency three years ago.
They were officially sold. This would come down to Radicevic and the front office’s closing the deal. Only, amid the madness, Taylor glossed over details from the attendant at the service counter of where they left his keys before closing for the night.
“Brian and I tore my car apart between calls with Orlando Brown,” Taylor said. “I can’t find my keys. I’m like, ‘Bro, I’m sorry you took me out here, you got to take me home.’”
Brown didn’t need much selling in this conversation. He made clear initially that he sought a winner and the draw of Burrow was obvious. As he spoke with Radicevic, Burrow, Taylor, Pollack and others, one message stood out.
As much as there would be negotiations to follow, the deal was done in his mind when one point was made clear.
“For them to believe in me as a left tackle is enough,” Brown said. “I want to put my life on the line for that.”
Brown, now with a 2-year-old of his own, specifically remembered his father, the late Orlando “Zeus” Brown Sr., telling him to always strive to be better than him. Zeus played nine NFL seasons with every snap at right tackle. Assurance to move to the premier spot on the other side — with reports of many in the league still viewing him as a right tackle — touched a special corner of his heart.
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“For me, I just want to be a franchise left tackle,” he said. “I want to win football games. I want to win Super Bowls. … Once I heard it was Cincinnati, this is a tough opportunity to pass up, regardless.”
The same phrase came from Radicevic three times in describing the pivot to Brown.
“Too good to pass up,” he said.
From there, the desire declared on all sides, the job of making the money align took over.
When McGlinchey came off the board to Denver at five years, $87.5 million ($17.5 million average annual value) and $52.5 million guaranteed, the market looked to be higher than expected. Taylor’s getting $20 million per year with $60 million guaranteed from the Chiefs raised eyebrows.
The Bengals weren’t able to go to those same levels of the tackle market, but as talks progressed they found a creative way to make it work for both sides. Cold, hard, upfront cash.
They dropped a $31 million signing bonus into the contract, largest ever given to an offensive lineman. In all, he earns $42.3 million in the first two years. The cash paid and cap flexibility (a tolerable out after three seasons) in the back of the contract made even more team-friendly for the Bengals.
In the end, at four years and $16.1 million per year, Brown is now the 18th-highest-paid tackle in the NFL, 10th on the left side.
The Bengals hit a second-wave price on a first-wave player.
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The flexibility and money to pounce on this market’s coming back to them was a direct correlation to the refusal to go over their value for Bell, Hurst and Perine earlier in the week. They didn’t realize the specific endgame in the moment, but Brown doesn’t happen if they chase Plan A.
“By not panicking or overspending at positions because you lost a guy allows you to be in a position to make this deal when players come available,” Taylor said. “This opportunity comes to you and you are able to take advantage of it.”
In a league where pro personnel staffs push into the dozens, Radicevic runs the majority of the show at the forefront of all the Bengals’ moves under Tobin. His role in adjusting and executing a plan nobody saw coming on the fly drew overwhelming praise internally and only piled on to what’s been arguably the league’s best run of free-agent success the last three seasons.
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“Steve does a great job of having plans A through Z,” Callahan said. “There are a million ways to go and a lot of it pivots fast. You always have a starting point plan and it never goes that way. All of a sudden, options come open. It’s a constant juggling of a million phone calls. Steve is a rock star. To handle all the things he handles on the agent side and conversations and setting the markets and knowing what’s out there and the cost. He’s been instrumental in our success the last three years.”
Brown and the Bengals agreed just after 10 p.m. Wednesday. He was on ESPN’s “Get Up” in New York the next morning singing praises of his new team. Meanwhile, Burrow was also in New York, doing promotional work on “The Today Show” with Joe Montana. Brown made his way over.
One year after cupcakes and crackers at Burrow’s house welcomed La’el Collins, Ted Karras and Alex Cappa to the team, it was cheeseburgers in a hotel room with his newest bodyguard.
“It was my first time meeting him,” Collins said. “He was fired up, just like I was. We sat and talked over cheeseburgers, believe it or not, in the hotel room. I asked him a lot of questions about himself, and vice versa, Cincinnati as a whole, the system, scheme, coaches, locker room, all of that. You can tell right away why he’s had the success he’s had.
“He’s not in it for accolades. He wants Super Bowls. I’m in it for the same reason.”
The Bengals took a thunderous leap toward the goal during this whirlwind 24 hours. Even if the grand moment of celebration for those closely affected was anticlimactic.
“I was already in bed sleeping,” Pollack said. “I woke up to a bunch of text messages early in the morning. I was like, ‘It must have went down. Wow.’ I didn’t need much coffee to wake me up that morning, I’ll tell you that. That was fun.”
The carousel of free agency didn’t stop, of course. Everyone needed to be back for more early the next morning chasing safety Nick Scott, Brown’s old Oklahoma buddy Cody Ford and potential tight end replacements for Hurst.
Taylor walked out his front door low on sleep from the news’ sparking a midnight adrenaline rush and plodded toward his garage only to face a jarring reminder. He forgot his car was still at the tire shop.
“What a disaster,” he said, laughing.
He called a ride share to take him back over and the driver was up for conversation.
Boy, did Taylor have a story to tell.
(Top photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)