While the signing of the proposed Collective Bargaining Agreement is becoming as infinitely delayed as the publication of a new J. D. Salinger novel, we'll have to keep spending our time musing on what story the 2011 Bengals could be. We've spilled a great deal of digital ink in discussing who will/should be manning the helm next season (the one thing we've definitively learned is that it won't be a Manning), what players need to be re-signed, what positions on the team are most in flux, and whether guys like Chad Ochocinco and Adam "Scofflaw" Jones should be invited back next season. One thing we haven't spent quite as much time chewing the fat about is the defensive line, largely because we've got a number of good young players there. In the interior, Domata Peko is proving to be a solid tackle (at least from eyeballing his play, even if the defensive metrics don't prove it out) and an emerging leader. Due to injuries with Tank Johnson and even Jonathan Fanene, Pat Sims moved into a starter role and played well. Geno Atkins got everyone all hot and bothered with his work last season. In a limited role, Clinton McDonald showed a little promise. And there's also Tank Johnson, who's still alive, as far as we know, and set to make $2.25 million this year. So we're looking pretty serviceable at defensive tackle.
We also know that Carlos Dunlap has one side of the defensive line nailed down as a pass rushing specialist. What's more of a question is who'll be the main guy anchoring that other side. Ostensibly, and in a world where everybody is healthy all the time, Antwan Odom, the team's big free agent signing three years ago, would be the one. But injuries and suspensions have forced Odom from playing in 26 of 48 regular season games during his time in Cincinnati, leading to speculation that the team might move on by giving him the axe. On the other hand, Odom has looked good when healthy, so maybe the team will wait to see if he has anything left to offer, which gets us to the question of day: what should the Bengals do with Antwan Odom?
In 2008, Odom signed a five-year, $29.5 million contract. He was coming off a career year with Tennessee where he started every game for the first time and logged eight sacks with 21 tackles. After a training camp injury forced him to miss the preseason during his first season with the Bengals, he played well, working around a shoulder injury that forced him to miss four games to record three sacks and a handful of passes defended. Odom was on his way to putting up his best year by far during the follow-up year. He rolled into the season like a juggernaut, matching his career high in sacks (8) in the first six games and coming up only two tackles shy of a career-high. I remember thinking how it seemed like nothing could stop that dude -- but I had forgotten about the tenuous nature of the human body. In the game against Houston, in which he blocked a field goal, Odom blew out his Achilles, missing the rest of the season. It was a real bummer, since Odom was the NFL co-leader in sacks at the time. And then 2010 happened, and it was ugly. Dealing with a wrist injury and a four game drug suspension, Odom played in only four games and did basically nothing. And then to make the storyline even more melodramatic, Odom's Cincinnati home burnt down several months ago. Sheesh.
So what's to be done with him? He's still under contract for two more seasons, scheduled to make $4.5 million this year and $5.3 the next. If the team decides to release him, they'd save $2.9 million in cap room. They could allocate that money toward signing a more premier edge rusher, like Charles Johnson or Jason Babin say, or they can see what they have currently on the roster. What seems like the sexiest option is to stop tinkering with Michael Johnson at outside linebacker and keep him on the line opposite Dunlap, a scenario I personally favor. While there's some question as to whether he has the motor to be a consistent pass rusher, he's so freakishly long [Editor's Note: that's what she said] that even if he can't get to the quarterback, he can at least throw up his gangly arms and bat down the ball (he already has nine passes defended in his two year career).
The team still has Robert Geathers under contract as well, set to make a base salary of $3.95 million this year. But Geathers hasn't really been the guy the team hoped for when they signed him to a six year deal in 2007. As Josh pointed out recently, via Pro Football Focus, Geathers is one of the least productive pass rusher in the league. The team could just get rid of both Geathers and Odom and save millions against the cap.
Interestingly, a guy that graded the highest on the team last year as a pass rusher was Frostee Rucker, who's still signed for one more season. Maybe, provided he also stays healthy, he could get more snaps. And then there's Jonathan Fanene, who was the surprise of 2009 when he stepped in for the injured Odom and racked up six sacks. Unfortunately, he basically missed the entire 2010 season with a nagging hamstring injury he suffered in the preseason and is now an unrestricted free agent. But Fanene is a versatile guy and could help spell Johnson or whoever if needed across the defensive line (I also don't think you can separate him from Peko. It's too perfect to have both of their majestic manes on the team).
On the other hand, with the new stipulations about a salary cap floor, Odom's $4.5 million may not be such a hard pill to swallow this year, especially if the team doesn't believe they can't get anyone better in free agency. Maybe he's finally healthy and can return to form, sacking the quarterback five times a game again like he did against Green Bay in 2009.
So, should he stay or should he go now?