Now that the Superbowl is over the conversation and debate for all Bengals fans will revolve around free agency and the draft, which is eleven weeks away. Only because of chronology, the draft comes after free agency, much of the conversation will be focused on the free agency signing period which begins March 13. What moves the Bengals make will directly affect their approach to the draft, so it is important to analyze who the Bengals will re-sign, release, and sign as a free agent.
ESPN AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley has written a short article on the Bengals outlook regarding their own free agents. The Bengals re-signing of their own players does not affect their perspective on the draft as much as NFL-wide free agency, but it is the foundation by which the Bengals front office can understand what their needs are going in to NFL free agency and the draft.
First, Hensley notes the long list of unrestricted free agents (20) as well as their, much fewer, restricted free agents (3). Going through this list, it is much easier to see who should not be re-signed rather than who should be re-signed, but let's go through this list of unrestricted free agents and examine who could be re-signed due to the Bengals needs.
Unrestricted (20): RB Cedric Benson, WR Andre Caldwell, WR Jerome Simpson, TE Donald Lee, TE Bo Scaife, OT Anthony Collins, OL Nate Livings, OL Mike McGlynn, OT Dennis Roland, OG Bobbie Williams, DE Jonathan Fanene, DE Frostee Rucker, DT Pat Sims, LB Brandon Johnson, LB Manny Lawson, CB Kelly Jennings, CB Adam Jones, S Reggie Nelson, S Gibril Wilson, K Mike Nugent.
Above every other name on this list, Cedric Benson is the first player who the Bengals need to cut ties with and move on. Benson was expected to be more of a force since TO, Chad, and Carson were all moved out of Cincinnati in the off-season, but he came up exceptionally short. Benson wanted the ball more but with rising stars Andy Dalton and A.J. Green playing so well, Benson was a back-up plan for Jay Gruden and the offensive scheme. Since 2010, Benson's frustration with the offensive game-plan has been noticeable, so a change of scenery for both the Bengals and Benson might be the best thing for both parties.
Another unanimous decision is an upgrade at the No. 2 wide receiver for the Bengals. Dalton and Green need a more consistent player to draw attention from Green in an offense where Jermaine Gresham has basically been the No. 2 wide receiver. Caldwell and SImpson have had their moments, but too bad for Bengals fans that most of them have been negative. Caldwell has had issues with dropping passes and Simpson's play, with the exception of his amazing front-flip touchdown against Arizona, has been completely forgettable. Due to these factors, Free agency is likely where the Bengals will pick up a solid No. 2 wide receiver to compliment Green
it is a common note in many mock drafts and free agency write-ups that the Bengals need to upgrade on the offensive line. Andre Smith came into camp light and looked to be in-shape and his play throughout the year proved to a lot of fans that he wanted to have a starting role in Cincinnati. It is still unknown if the Bengals will resign him, but, if they do, he certainly earned it this year. The starting guard situation is a bit more up in the air. With Bobbie Williams aging and coming off of a broken ankle he suffered against the Texans on Dec. 11, it is unlikely that the Bengals will re-sign him and even if they do, it will only be for a one or two year contract for him to groom whomever they draft at the guard position. Jason Garrison, in a recent article, comments that WIlliams is a player that they should re-sign because of the weak play of McGlynn and Livings, who will likely, if not certainly, not be re-signed. If they Bengals do not re-sign WIlliams, as Jason notes, they will have to pick up another OG in free agency because the only other player they have left is Clint Boling, who is in his second year (although Boling showed promise, he also showed that he needs a bit more work before he becomes a starter in the NFL).
With reference to the two TE's that are free agents, Lee and Scaife, both of them had decent years but Lee stood out as a possible weapon who would fit well in a two TE package with Gresham, a la Gronkowski and Hernandez. Lee is a 10 year veteran, but has the size and quickness that would compliment Gresham, and the Bengals offensive system, very well.
The latter three players, Fanene, Jones, and Wilson, have contributed to the production of the defense but, with the exception of Jones who stepped in for Leon Hall after his Achilles injury, it has been a very small role. DE Jonathan Fanene has the highest probability of being re-signed of the three because of his ability to play both defensive end and tackle. Adam Jones played well last year in a back-up role before being injured against the Falcons, but in the starting role for the last seven weeks of this season showed the coaches that he is easily beaten over the top and is at a severe disadvantage because of his height. The Bengals have been projected to draft a CB in nearly every first-round mock draft and this is because everyone is assuming that Jones will not return to the Bengals, even if Leon Hall is not fully recovered from his injury. Gibril Wilson has had a rough time in Cincinnati since being signed when, on his first play as a Bengal, he tore his ACL. He started only one game last season, but played in all 16, and had 1 forced fumble and 12 tackles. Since the Bengals will be looking to (significantly) upgrade in the draft, or possibly free agency because of the weak S class, we should see Wilson looking for another team in the off-season.
Sticking with the defense, aside from Fanene, Jones, and Wilson, there are a significant number of free agents that need to/should be re-signed. If Mike Zimmer wants to keep the depth of his front seven that was so highly praised because of their depth, the Bengals will need to resign Sims, Rucker, B. Johnson, Lawson, and Nelson. Although the Bengals are predicted to draft a DL in the later rounds of the draft, some have them picking up Poe in the first, the Bengals will need to re-sign either Sims or Rucker, if not both. Rucker is the more likely choice to be re-signed because of his play in 2011 and taking away the starting job from a fading Michael Johnson, but Sims was a significant force in the run-stopping game and has always been able to block up the middle and free up space for the linebackers.
As for the linebackers, Lawson and Johnson, Jason makes it clear that the Bengals should re-sign both because,
...there are enough holes on the roster that they don't need to worry about who their starting linebacker will be.
By signing both Johnson and Lawson, who both played well last year and more than earned a contract extension, it frees up their time and money to concentrate on more pressing matters that the Bengals need to address as well as allowing them to grow in Zimmer's system and not have to worry about finding another LB to fill the void.
Finally, the two players on this list that should be re-signed as soon as possible are Mike Nugent and Reggie Nelson. Nugent has been the most reliable kicker the Bengals have seen since the 2007 version of Shayne Graham (91.2 percent FG and 100 percent PAT) missing one PAT (97.3 percent) and only missing five FG's (86.8 percent). Nugent is continuing to get better with the Bengals and, barring injury, could be a fixture for quite a few more years on the Bengals special teams squad. Reggie Nelson led the defense in interceptions (4 INT, 115 yd, 1 TD) and came in second in tackles with 85 (64 solo and 2 sacks). Nelson has been a solid player since coming to Cincinnati in 2010 in a safety duo that has struggled mightily. With the pre-season trade for Taylor Mays, possible release of Chris Crocker, and drafting a young safety, the Bengals secondary will have a much needed upgrade to compliment the rising Reggie Nelson.
Moving on to the restricted free agents:
The only RFA's out of this group worth re-signing would be Chris Pressley and Clark Harris. Dan Skuta has been a quality LB for the Bengals, but if the Bengals re-sign Lawson and Johnson, then Skuta will be expendable and conceivably looking for another team next year. Chris Pressley is one of the most important pieces to the Bengals running game and should be re-signed quickly. It is the first year since Jermaine Gresham was drafted in 2009 that the Bengals have had a true fullback and do not force Gresham to play both tight end and fullback. Pressley is a welcome foundation to a running game that is rebuilding from the bottom up and will serve as a good lead blocker to whomever the Bengals decide to pick up/draft this off-season. Clark Harris is a solid long-snapper and re-signing him leaves the Bengals front office with one less roster hole to fill.
When it comes to the Bengals, it is impossible to say for certain who Mike Brown will decide to keep and who he will let go. Whatever he decides to do with the team, there are plenty of positions that can be filled internally by re-signing free agents, but there are also plenty of positions that need to be filled by signing players from the free agent market. Who are some of your top choices to be signed by the Bengals in this years free agency who will fill a position void for the Bengals?