NFL free-agency turns fans into small children at a toy store. They walk around the imaginary aisles and drool over the big-named players that they recognize from television. Eventually, they want everything in the store and they have to pee.
Teams, on the other hand, are like the parents and are faced with a multitude of considerations when shopping for their team. Their impulse buying must be checked with a sense of shrewdness and cold common sense.
Not only do the basics like the roster and cap space come into play, but so do larger pictures like market-size, team philosophy and even attractive living situations. Unlike rookies, most free-agents come to a new team as well-established adults who often have family responsibilities and other more grown-up things to think about. After a team processes through all of these factors, their list of remaining candidates is small and often modest. Sometimes fans get angry with little to no activity and feel their team isn't trying to get better, but in the long run, this kind of practice is a more sturdy one than frivolous spending.
Today's free-agency is used more as a stop-gap than as a power move. There is discussion that this year's free-agent class could be fraught with cap casualties and that those bigger names fans enjoy so much will be floating around for the taking. But of all the free-agents from a year ago, only two or three players come to mind that seemed worth the cost.
One of those was Johnathan Joseph. The Bengals tried to keep him, but not well enough and the effects of his departure showed in both Cincinnati and Houston. Nate Clements was signed as the stop-gap and now, in 2012, the Bengals look to upgrade that position again. Replacing Joseph's talent level could take years to find, but such is life in the business-side of football.
Business also took away the team's secondary coach, Kevin Coyle, who became Miami's new defensive coordinator. Mark Carrier, a onetime no-nonsense safety for the Bears, takes over an area that has received a lot of scrutiny in the past few months. Many fans and analysts point to the defensive backfield as the first place to upgrade and Carrier comes into a somewhat pressurized situation for a position coach.
It's already been reported that former-Raider Stanford Routt is scheduled to visit Paul Brown Stadium, but that is exactly the type of filler the Bengals should avoid. Routt looked tired at the end of games last year and was a big part of that record-setting defense for penalties committed. He would not be an upgrade to Nate Clements and is simply "just another guy".
One intriguing corner who might be available, however, is Terence Newman of the Cowboys. If he is cut thanks to his big cap-number as some have speculated, he can fit into a Mike Zimmer system after having done so from 2003-06. After nine seasons, he isn't the blazer he used to be but his talents are better than those of Clements or Routt, and if he becomes available, Zim may ask for him.
For all the dangers and risks of plugging in free-agents on an especially young team like the Bengals, one position has historically been kind to the game when joining a new team, and that is the running back. Even last year Darren Sprowles and, ironically the guy he replaced, Reggie Bush, had tremendous impacts on their team's offensive production last year.
Like all backs with those kinds of numbers, those two fit their new scheme almost perfectly to gain that much production, but even a player like the aged Ricky Williams had a quality season being a normal second back for the Ravens. This year, a guy like the unrelated Micheal Bush could do the same with a new team. When Darren McFadden went down last year, Bush filled in superbly and showed not only a bruising straight-ahead style, but also shiftiness on screens and delays. Couple him with a sports-car back like Bernard Scott, or dare I say Trent Richardson, and suddenly the Cincinnati running game might have some teeth again.
Let's face it, Cedric Benson has become predictably average the past two seasons. His side-stepping nonsense will never be reliable enough to convert short-yardage pick-ups and his me-first attitude makes him that much less attractive. Yes, he stays healthy and doesn't wear down but his running style is not conducive to the Jay Gruden scheme. The mistake of keeping the wrong guy can sometimes be as costly as a bad signing and Benson could help the team most by leaving it.
I don't mind some filler signings because depth is so important. Second-tier free agents like Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson and Donald Lee saved the team at times when the ranks became thin with injury. I would like to keep Reggie Nelson and Jonathan Fanene, and some interior offensive line depth couldn't hurt either, but the heavy-hitters looking for the jackpot are not how small-market teams succeed for the long haul. This organization reacted in the 2011 offseason by not investing into marquee names like they had the previous years with Terrell Owens and Antonio Bryant. They should stick to that thinking and not just spend cap-room money because it's there. Landing a new every-down back, and improving depth in the weaker areas before the draft, will really open up possibilities with those two first-round picks, but there is no need to get carried away.
Unlike the NFC East who load up on known expensive veterans, the two most important players on each side of the ball for the Bengals were drafted in the last two years. Today's young players are more ready than ever to step onto a professional field and make an immediate difference. These are the types of players the Bengals must dump most of their resources into; that is the winning formula for a team like Cincinnati.
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