Lots of choices. Decisions. Many paths from which the team could direct themselves. It all starts now, plucking out the players that they want to stay, letting the others slip away. Let's take a look at eight unrestricted free agents that Cincinnati will need to make a decision on as to whether they return or leave for free agency. We broke it down two ways, writing why a player returns and why he wouldn't.
Why He Signs: The Bengals find value with Benson being a workhorse, rather than a large-yardage back. With a lead late in the game, Benson's value surfaces when he's running the football and killing the clock.
Why He Won't: When the Bengals do not have the lead, he becomes largely ineffective with a 3.3 yard/rush average. Additionally, Benson has only recorded 15 rushing touchdowns in the past three seasons (41 games). Compare that to Rudi Johnson, who scored 36 rushing touchdowns in a three-season span from 2004-2006 (48 games).
Why He Signs: Keeping the Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall tandem together helps the Bengals defense grow with a young front seven and allows Mike Zimmer to expand the playbook.
Why He Won't: Cost. Joseph will be one of several elite cornerbacks hitting free agency that could find a fat, yet affordable, contract waiting for him in another city with a deal easily in the $7-8 million/season range.
Why He Stays: Johnson is undoubtedly the least spoken of linebacker on the team, yet he's also one of the most productive. He participated in 50% of the team's snaps, including two games (against the Colts and Ravens I) in which he played the entire game. Along with an interception and a shared quarterback sack, Johnson recorded three pass defensed and finished fourth on the team with nine special teams tackles. Plus he would likely be affordable.
Why He Won't: Simply put. He could be a regular starter with another team. To answer the question as to why he couldn't replace Rey Maualuga, who could move to middle linebacker, is we don't know. Johnson, the team's backup weak-side linebacker, was with the Bengals when they drafted Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga and he was never given a shot unseat either job that both USC linebackers took.
Why He Signs: Mike Zimmer and Marvin Lewis love having Jones, the defensive captain, on the field as the defensive quarterback, moving players to where they're supposed to be before the snap. Jones finished the season with a club-high 160 tackles, two quarterback sacks, four quarterback pressures, a forced-fumble. He also posted nine games in which he led the team in tackles. Finally, the team might not be convinced that Rey Maualuga, or Roddrick Muckelroy are ready to take over.
Why He Doesn't: If there's a player heading into free agency that we could say will certainly return, it's Jones. However, after the team saw the youth movement on offense with the wide receivers, they could hope that a similar enthusiasm shows up on defense with younger linebackers.
Why He Signs: The Bengals coaching staff loves Fanene's versatility. He's also proven to be effective as a pass rusher, with six quarterback sacks in 2009. He finished that season third among all Bengals defensive linemen in tackles.
Why He Won't: With the emergence of Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, along with the growing belief that the Bengals will draft a defensive linemen in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, the issue facing Fanene will be playing time.
Why He Signs: The Bengals like Williams as a run-stopping safety who, even after missing four games, finished the season fifth on the team in tackles. Unless the team addresses safety in the NFL Draft, they might be forced to sign him to a third season. Remember, free agency doesn't happen until a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is signed, so the known between player and team could win-out here.
Why He Won't: Along with turning 31 before the start of the 2011 season, Williams has only played 16 of a possible 32 games due to injuries the past two seasons with Cincinnati.
Why He Signs: Owens still has talent and he finished the season ranked first in receptions (72), yards receiving (983) and touchdowns (9).
Why He Won't: Along with rumors that the Bengals were going to deactivate Owens in the final three games of the season due to his attitude and performance during practice and games, the Bengals simply won't have a need for Owens with the emergence of Jerome Simpson and the re-emergence of Andre Caldwell. Jordan Shipley and Chad Ochocinco round out a nice core of receivers that need to be on the field.
Why He Signs: Along with being a versatile tight end in the backfield and on the line of scrimmage, the most underrated aspect of Reggie Kelly is his influence and mentorship of Jermaine Gresham and Chase Coffman.
Why He Won't: Age and whether the team wants to carry a third tight end primarily to block.