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There are a handful of big-name Bengals players that are hitting free agency soon and the team's ability to re-sign them will shape the team's plan for the draft.
You know a team is in good position when they go into the draft with the ability to select the best player available in any round, within reason. When teams can draft the best player available, it means they have the majority of holes in their roster already filled and they are just adding depth and talent to an already deep and talented roster. In reality, no team enters the draft without at least one or two needs and the Bengals aren't an exception. They have needs, but depending on their ability to re-sign a few key players, they can avoid depending on the draft to fill holes and just add depth and talent instead.
The two big names are obvious: left tackle Andre Smith and defensive end Michael Johnson. Smith became the team's best overall offensive lineman in 2012 and bringing him back would keep a young and talented offensive line in tact. Losing him could be devastating and would force the Bengals to replace him in the draft with a high pick (or pay to have a free agent that isn't quite as good to come to town).
Johnson waited until his contract year to have the biggest season of his four-year career. He was second on the team in sacks with 11.5 and proved that he can be a solid presence on the defensive line and can not only play against the run but pressure the quarterback. Keeping players that are able to pressure a quarterback is such a vital part of winning in today's NFL. Due to the fact that it's a passing league, applying pressure to a quarterback makes the secondary's job much easier as they don't have to cover talented wide receivers and tight ends for nearly as long.
To keep both of these players, the Bengals will likely have to use the franchise tag. Tagging Smith would be cheaper (not by much, though) than tagging Johnson, but they likely won't be able to sign both to long-term contracts in one offseason. Tagging Smith would give them another year to get things together and re-sign him to a long-term contract then or give them time to come up with a different option.
Smith and Johnson aren't the only two, though. Wallace Gilberry had a good season as a backup option at defensive end for the Bengals, racking up 6.5 sacks. Bringing him back would keep some depth at defensive end, even if the Bengals decide to let Robert Geathers, another free agent, leave after nine seasons with the team. Gilberry could keep the Bengals from taking a pass-rushing defensive end to keep depth behind Johnson and Carlos Dunlap early.
And then there are the linebackers. There's no question that something needs to be done at the position. Rey Maualuga, a free agent, was so inconsistent throughout the season, and so bad at times, that re-signing him seems almost ridiculous (though I could see it happening). Along with him, Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard are free agents as well as Dan Skuta and Vincent Rey. The only starter that's still under contract is Vontaze Burfict. Linebacker is tricky for the Bengals because there are so many options. The one that seems to make sense would be to move Burfict to MIKE and then re-sign Howard and Lawson for SAM and WILL, but that isn't necessarily going to happen. A linebacker taken high in the draft could be inevitable.
The secondary is right up there as well. Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick will remain Bengals in 2013, but Terence Newman, who had a solid season, as well as Adam Jones are set to hit free agency. They're joined by Chris Crocker, Jeromy Miles and Nate Clements. If the Bengals don't re-sign some of these guys they'll be forced to draft a couple cornerbacks and a strong safety. Drafting a strong safety is (hopefully) on the team's to-do list anyways, but they could save themselves from having to draft a cornerback in the first couple rounds by re-sign Jones and Newman.
When it comes to needs the Bengals have regardless of re-signing free agents, they could use a strong safety (they could have used one years ago), better options at linebacker, a game-changing running back and a cornerback capable of moving the Bengals into the next few seasons.
If I were in charge, I would be looking for a running back and a safety and then I would turn my attention to the linebackers, defensive linemen, centers, cornerbacks and wide receivers and not necessarily in that order. I would take the best player available at one of those positions. However, in order to do this, the Bengals would need to re-sign key free agents.
If they can do that, their draft options will open up drastically. If they decide to let the Johnathan Joseph saga replay itself in 2013, though, they'll be handcuffed to certain positions at certain times. Let's hope it's not the latter.