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We're one week away from the start of free agency and a handful of questions seem to be on the collective minds of Bengals fans. Aside from a few reports on possible interest in potential free agents and the fact that the team decided to franchise their kicker for the second time in three season, we don't really know the what their exact offseason plans are. Regardless, I've been asked about it recently and I thought it's always fun to speculate.
I received a couple of tweets from some followers asking about two different topics that will be addressed during free agency. The first:
This has been debated since the team announced its decision to tag Mike Nugent. Most fans believe that safety Reggie Nelson should have been the one to receive the tag, as he is viewed as their most prized free agent and it's possible that he could be lured to Miami or Houston. With the depth behind Nelson at the position being a question mark, it's a head-scratcher as to why Nugent was selected for the tag over Nelson--especially with the amount of cap space that the Bengals will have this offseason.
However, if you look a little closer, you might see some method to the team's madness here. Last season, Nugent had a borderline Pro Bowl season for the team and was a great comeback story for 2011 after bouncing back form a 2010 knee injury. Though his play slipped at the end of the season, he was clutch in many situations throughout 2011, sealing big wins against Buffalo and Cleveland with late field goals. One could argue that Nugent was near the top-five at his position in 2011, which would make the tag on him a seemingly wise decision. You'll also want to note that four other kickers besides Nugent received the franchise tag this year.
Nelson was a valuable piece to the team's strong defensive effort this past season, and had his best statistical year since his rookie year of 2007. He turned into the team's best player in the secondary once Leon Hall went down with an Achilles injury. In retaining him, if only for one more year, the Bengals would have one less roster hole to fill through the draft or free agency while keeping a starter. However, I think the team didn't see Nelson as a top-five safety in the NFL and that's why he wasn't tagged. While I don't think that many fans will disagree with that notion, I think that people are upset because the team has the cap room to spend money a little bit frivolously and unless they can strike a deal in the next few days with Nelson, he could bolt for another team.
While Nelson is a big priority to re-sign this offseason, I'd argue that a "little-known free agent" that is a rotational player here in Cincinnati might be even more important to bring back. Pat Sims is part of a formidable defensive front and is the team's go-to run-stopper. At over 330 pounds, Sims dominates the line of scrimmage and even though he isn't a true starter, his presence is constantly felt as he is in the backfield often. When Sims went down with an injury late in the year, the team really struggled down the stretch.
While the Bengals' late-season fizzling could be placed at the feet of Chris Crocker, Leon Hall's injury, or the overall youth on the team, I feel that it was Sims' injury that really killed them. They struggled against the run many times during the season, especially in the last two games of the season against Baltimore and the playoff debacle against Houston. With Sims, the Bengals were able to stop the run and then that allowed them to rush the passer with the effectiveness that they had for most of the season. Without one player, the defense wasn't the same--and that player was Pat Sims, not Reggie Nelson. That's who I think so be at the top of their priority list to re-sign right now.
Along those same lines, I was asked another free agency question on Twitter:
Great question. Most people are saying that "recent history" will tell us that the Bengals won't spend money even though they have mass quantities available to them. That's not particularly true, as they have spent money on players lately--it just hasn't worked out well for them. The Antwan Odom and Antonio Bryant fiascos cost the team a pretty penny, as did the one-year stint with Laveranues Coles. But, others can claim that those wide receiver signings were just PR attempts at washing away the bitter taste left by not giving T.J. Houshmandzadeh enough money to stick in Cincinnati. The same could be said with the Nate Clements situation after Johnathan Joseph departure.
By "average players" I'm assuming he meant "middle-tier", as that's usually the players that they target. For instance, last year they brought in a bunch of these above-average types of players shortly after the lockout ended. Some of these players overachieved and turned in pretty stellar seasons. Thomas Howard proved to be a very valuable pickup, replacing the injured Keith Rivers and playing at a level that makes sue wonder if Rivers will become expendable in 2012. Clements wasn't spectacular, but was solid for the most part, and really stepped up when Hall was injured. Still, none of the signings really blew anyone's hair back and many believe that the team still chases "bargain" players--those that were former first-round picks and have fell out of another team's favor, and/or those who are on their last leg in the league.
Still, they have been connected to other big-name free agents like Robert Gallery and have entered bidding wars before. With the number of roster holes that the team needs to fill this year, they would be wise to grab some pieces in free agency and then fill the rest in the draft. It's unclear exactly what they'll target in free agency, but our good friend Geoff Hobson believes that a position like wide receiver will be filled in the draft.
I expect them to land a guard in free agency, whether it's re-signing some of their own or grabbing an outside guy. Given their pursuit and/or acquisitions of four guards in 2011 alone, I'd guess that they'll grab one in the draft (Cordy Glenn or David DeCastro) and one in free agency. I believe the veteran they will target is 49ers guard, Chilo Rachal. He has multiple qualities that make him a fit with the Bengals: he's big, from USC, is a former second-round pick, will be relatively affordable and has had a few solid seasons as a pro. He'd likely step in and start right away for the team and would be another solid, but unspectacular signing. The makeup of the 2012 Bengals offensive line will hinge on what the coaches think Clint Boling can do next year. Last year's fourth-round pick out of Georgia was inserted into the starting lineup early in the year with Bobbie Williams serving his early-season suspension, but it's unclear as to how much he's progressed into his second year.
I can also see them making a play at Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey. As we reported on Monday, we found out that the team is interested in Mincey and will look to pursue him once free agency begins. He could be a solid player to a really active defensive front. Though not a dominating pass rusher, he appears to be a well-rounded defensive end who can rush the passer pretty well and guard against the run. He can stay on the field for all three downs and could really be effective with the surrounding talent in Cincinnati.
A lot of people are linking Raiders running back, Michael Bush to the Bengals as well, and I think that that's a very realistic possibility. I've noticed that a lot of people here at Cincy Jungle aren't fond of that idea, butI don't think his role would be drastically different than what he's done in Oakland. If they bring in Bush, I still think that he will be paired with a back smaller than him in the draft like Isaiah Pead, Chris Polk, Lamar Miller or Doug Martin. Another player that could be a cheaper, but equally effective option to Bush is San Diego's Mike Tolbert. He's been extremely productive in his time with the Chargers, even though he's split duties. With Jay Gruden's new "running back by committee" approach and Cedric Benson on his way out, I expect either Bush or Tolbert to land in Cincinnati.
Other than that, I think they focus on retaining a lot of their own free agents. Reggie Nelson and Pat Sims will likely be their top priorities, followed by Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker. It's possible that they could be aggressive for some of the big-name free agent guards (Carl Nicks or Ben Grubbs), but I just don't think they will land one of those big fish. Tennessee's Courtland Finnegan could be pursued as well, but it would be hard to imagine the team shelling out the money for him when they didn't do it last year for Joseph. I could see them getting a wide receiver like Mario Manningham, Robert Meachem, or Marques Colston, as they could want a veteran starting opposite of A.J. Green, but Hobson's disclaimer about that position makes me wonder.
We've seen a lot of changes in how the team operates over the last couple of offseasons, so it will be interesting to see if the team takes a different approach to free agency this year. While that different approach is possible, I'm hard-pressed to predict that the team will do anything drastically different than what they've historically done. It pains me to say that I think their overall free agency philosophy will be similar where they are frustratingly quiet in the first couple of days, then they'll go diving in after the second-tier players to build depth and plug some holes. If they re-sign Sims, Nelson, either Rucker or Fanene, and Brandon Johnson; and then grab Mincey, either Bush or Tolbert, Rachal, and either a wide receiver or Finnegan, I think they'd have helped themselves out quite a bit. Though that would be a pretty penny to grab that haul of players, they have the dough and then they can fill the rest of the holes in the draft.
Two positions that I'll have my eye on this offseason is that of safety and wide receiver. In chatting with one of our Facebook followers last week, he asked me if I thought that Chris Crocker would be a starter, or even on the team in 2012. I don't feel that Crocker will be the starter in 2012, though I do think that he'll stick around as backup or a participant in a "safety by committee". He's a great locker room guy, and both Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer seem to like what he brings. The truth is that he's lost a step due to injuries and age and just isn't feared starter around the league. He hasn't had an interception since 2009 and had a deplorable playoff game against Houston. So, if he won't be the guy, who will?
I believe that the team will place their hopes in Taylor Mays. Some may shudder at this thought because of his inability to get on the field since he's entered the league, but all of the physical attributes are there. He was a dominant player at USC and had he entered the draft after his Junior season (2009), he likely would have been a top-ten pick. He's always been a physical player, not a mental one and it has driven his coaches crazy. But, I'm putting some of the pieces together that I've seen over the past couple of years.
First, the Bengals wanted Mays in the second round of the 2010 draft and Zimmer was displeased that the team didn't trade up to get him (he ended up with Carlos Dunlap, so that had to have helped a little). Then the team made a potentially lucrative trade to bring him over from San Francisco, getting him for a lot less than what ever thought possible. Finally, we started to see Mays get some playing time during the final few games of the 2011 season in a limited fashion. Mays is also being coached by both a coordinator who has a knack of getting the most out of his players and a position coach who was a former great NFL player. My opinion may change about Mays as a starter if the club re-signs Nelson as I don't think that Lewis and Zimmer will want two freelancers in the back part of the defense. But, if Mays ever gets it together upstairs, his career could rival those of Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed. That's a big "if", though.
As for wide receiver, I'm curious to know what fans want out of their future No.2 wide receiver. In A.J. Green, they have a guy who is a dual-threat player as a possession-type and a deep threat. While Jerome Simpson had great speed and athleticism, he didn't always get open and struggled with drops throughout 2011. So, do fans want a big, possession-type receiver to help move the chains, or do they want a smaller, faster player who is more of a deep threat?
Whether it be through free agency or the draft, the Bengals will have their choice of either mold of player. Veterans like Robert Meachem, Mario Manningham, or Pierre Garcon; or rookies like Arkansas' Joe Adams or Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles could be the smaller, shiftier player that Gruden is looking for and does well after the catch. However, it would seem that they already have similar players to that mold on the roster in Jordan Shipley and Andrew Hawkins.
On the other hand, they could opt to make their offensive makeup similar to the San Diego Chargers with two massive receivers. With Colston, Vincent Jackson or the recently-visited rookie Stephen Hill, the team could have two huge targets that would be difficult for any opposing defense to cover. But, Hill is raw, Colston could be a product of his system (as could Meachem), and Jackson has had numerous run-ins with the law in his career.
Personally, I'd prefer a player like Colston opposite Green--a sure-handed, big target that will make tough catches. Garcon would be a close second in my preference, but I believe that Colston will be far more affordable and having a 6'5" and a 6'4" receiver across from each other is intriguing. What would Bengals fans prefer?