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This has to be the most difficult mailbag post I've made since starting the weekly series a few months back. Maintaining any semblance of professionalism amidst one of the most frustrating Bengals offseasons in recent memory is going to be trying, but I'll do my best to be civil while trying to answer some of the many questions that came my way this week.
First, I received a couple of tweets from a personal friend of mine, who happens to be a Raiders (and USC) fan, asking me about a couple of topics:
@CUIBengalsFan what r the bengals going to do with the Rb situation? Any looks at hillis or Tolbert?
Of course, as a Raiders fan, I understand his vested interest in Michael Bush. As of today, the only teams that have openly expressed interest in Bush are the Bears and the Bengals. The Bears are a bit of a surprising suitor for the running back, as they have franchise tagged Matt Forte, giving him a good chunk of change. Since Forte is a shifter back that is frequently used as a receiver, it's possible that they want a bigger back like Bush to supplement Forte. It could be tricky for the Bears to sign him though, as he may be looking for starter-type money. Even if Chicago offers him a contract, I fully expect Bush to give the Bengals a chance to counteroffer.
Cincinnati is far less of a surprise as a potential landing spot for the big guy. He's been linked numerous times to the Bengals throughout the offseason so far with the team needing a capable replacement for Cedric Benson. It appears that Bush can be that replacement they're seeking, as he's able to catch the ball and pick up the tough yards. He's also a couple of years younger than Benson. He's supposed to be visiting the team early next week.
Moreover, Bush played high school and college football in nearby Louisville. A homecoming would make a lot of sense here. Throw in the fact that the team wanted to draft him back in 2007 and allegedly inquired about trading for him a few years back and his arrival in Cincinnati makes a lot of sense--even it's a few years later than some (myself included) expected. Though I'm uncertain on who exactly the Bengals will pick up this offseason, I'm nearly positive that Bush is one player we'll see in stripes next season. Though with this being a very deep running back class in the draft, they could opt to wait until April to get their guy. They could also just get greedy and pick up Bush as well as draft a player in the middle rounds for positional depth.
As for the other two, Peyton Hillis recently signed a one-year deal with the Chiefs and I hadn't heard about any interest from the Bengals on the former Brown. Tolbert hasn't received much interest around the league either and a return to San Diego could be possible, but is definitely lessened with their recent signing of former Chiefs and Ravens hybrid halfback/fullback, La'Ron McClain. It's likely that teams will wait until Bush signs a contract to use as a framework to sign Tolbert, given the similarities of the two players' style. If Bush does end up signing with Chicago or any other team, it's possible that Cincinnati then sets its sights on Tolbert because of the similar skill sets that they bring to the table. For now, the only other back that the Bengals are also said to be interested in is former Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, AKA "The Law Firm", and he'll be visiting the team early next week.
The general disinterest around the NFL on Bush and the other running backs is really a league-wide trend. The position isn't nearly as valuable as it once was and with more teams (including the Bengals) going to a "running back by committee" approach, front offices are opting to find their guys in the draft. The shelf-life of an NFL running back is short, so teams are becoming more turned-off by bringing in a five-year veteran with some miles on the odometer as opposed to a player fresh out of college with less wear and tear. Thanks, Justin--let's have a cold one soon, bud.
I also was tweeted a question about the status of the defensive line:
@CUIBengalsFan what do they do about d-line
Pretty simple question and a relatively simple answer. Since the loss of their two key rotational lineman--Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker--the deepest group from the 2011 squad is suddenly pretty thin. The first order of business would be to replace the loss of Fanene and Rucker with the currently-visiting Kendall Langford. He's become a hot commodity of late, so the Bengals will need to pounce on him fast and give him a generous deal in order to push his visit here towards a contract signing. He's huge (6'6", 295 pounds) and is versatile, as he's played defensive end in Miami's 3-4 system. He could come in here and play the outside and kick inside on passing downs, giving depth at two line positions. He's one of the better defensive linemen left on the market, so they'd be wise to sign him.
The second order of business for the Bengals would be to re-sign defensive tackle, Pat Sims. The thought is that Sims is looking to land a true starting gig somewhere and the money that would come with it. However, the market has been surprisingly quiet on Sims, as we've had yet to hear any visits lined up for him. It's possible that his ankle injury from last year, coupled with the perception that he's a "two-down tackle" has hurt his stock. This year's draft is chock-full of talent at the position and a quality player could be had in the first few rounds and some teams could be choosing to go that route as well.
So, if Sims is overvalued, why bring him back? As I've said before--look at the last few games of last season. Teams were able to run all over the Bengals once Sims was out of the lineup with his injury. He was a key piece in the very effective defensive line rotation last season and was one of only three active true tackles on the roster. If they are able to meet somewhere in the middle between what the Bengals want to pay and what Sims thinks he's worth, then I think that would be a great move.
If you sign Langford and Sims, that would definitely open the draft to draft a few needs, but sprinkle in the best players available when appropriate. Drafting a pure pass-rushing defensive end in the first few rounds would also be a good idea, as teams can never have enough good players to rush the passer. We may also get to see the pass-rushing skills of a healthy Dontay Moch as well and that would be a welcomed addition.
Lastly, I want to talk about the Bengals proclaiming that they're going to go the way of the Patriots as a plan to address the offseason. Obviously, New England has made quite a name for themselves over the past decade or so for their dealings in the offseason. A lot has been made of the Patriots way of accumulating draft picks and stockpiling them to build their roster. There's a certain brilliance to it, mostly because it makes players have reasonable contracts and are more expendable that way. Where there is a misconception, however, is their supposed "inactivity" in free agency. It is this inactivity that the Bengals are apparently aiming to mimic (and are succeeding mightily, so far).
Set aside their draft philosophy because knowing Mike Brown and the way he operates, he'll never trade around picks the way that Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick do. However, if you look at the Patriots' dealings of 2011, you'll find that this inactivity simply is true. Last offseason, the Patriots spent considerable money in re-signing two key players: tackle Matt Light and guard Logan Mankins. The Bengals don't value guards the way that other teams do, so they wouldn't have made this move. The Patriots also re-signed their third-down running back mainstay, Kevin Faulk, showing their loyalty for the longtime player. The Bengals showed no such loyalty to longtime lineman, Jonathan Fanene by offering him a contract with zero signing bonus (don't think that that type of negative PR doesn't make its way around league circles, by the way). New England also traded for two big name players (who ended up being flops), in Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth.
Now the Patriots have lured away the productive Fanene--a guy that the Bengals said was a high priority to retain. While the Bengals are hoping to emulate New England and be able to plug in a new player to fill that roster hole with ease, they never have had the track record of doing so. I'm not sure why or by which examples that the Bengals feel that they are capable of acting like the Patriots all of a sudden. They have been drafting a bit better over the past couple of seasons--especially 2011. But, 2011 was more of a lucky situation than actual draft prowess, as they were fortunate to have Andy Dalton slip to them in the second and have both he and A.J. Green perform so well as rookies.
Furthermore, the Patriots rarely have $41 million in cap space. Why? Because they have a proven formula that works: keep and pay your current productive veterans well, draft wisely and plug in quality free agents where needed. The Bengals are lucky if they achieve one of those three parts of the formula in a given offseason. So far in 2012, they've achieved none. Like I said before, the Patriots rarely have the dispensable cap space that the 2012 Bengals have, and when they do, they spend it and spend it wisely.
Our attitudes towards the offseason could change in a mere days or weeks down the road. If they make quality moves, I'll stand corrected and praise them for it. However, I really feel that they've taken major steps backward in a crucial offseason to building any semblance of a dynasty. We'll just have to wait and see.