Free agency and the Cincinnati Bengals have become somewhat of an oil-and-water type of relationship. Mike Brown and the rest of management prefers to keep a low profile during the first few frenzied days, then they pounce on "the leftovers"-- AKA second and third-tier free agents. Many are band-aids over long-term problems that haven't been filled and a good portion of the players brought in are former high-round draft picks tabbed as "past their prime".
And, for the most part, that's fine.
This year, though, the Bengals are in a bit of a different position as a franchise. They are coming off back-to-back playoff victories and have a boatload of cash to spend. They also have a number of quality in-house free agents that need to receive deals to continue the momentum they have built. Many off the players who fall into that category were free-agent reclamation projects themselves and now deserve an improved deal from the initial one that they received when joining the Bengals.
The sentiment we are hearing (even from those here at Cincy Jungle) is that the Bengals should almost solely focus inwardly during free agency, as they almost always do, and work to retain their own in-house guys. There's also the idea of thinking ahead in this year's free agency by scrimping some now in order to extend as many of their young stars to extensions next year. After that, they will likely look at the draft to fill other perceived voids on the roster.
These three approaches to this year's roster's retooling are wise ones, but if the team truly wants to improve greatly on an already solid roster, they will need to look outside of their own walls to sign a couple of key free agents.
The Bengals were the 11th-youngest team in 2012, in terms of average player age during the season. With a lot of their in-house free agents making up the older portion of their roster, and with the team not likely to sign all of them back, this team appears to be headed in a much younger direction if the "rely on the draft" strategy holds true. That's all well and good and will help the team long-term, but one thing that has hindered the Bengals taking "the next step" the past two years is their youth and inexperience--particularly at the wide receiver position.
A good chunk of the older portion of the team's average age lies in their impending free agents. Though I'm sure that they will sign a glut of them, I don't think that all, or even most, will be retained. That would support the idea that the team continues to get younger. If they solely rely on the draft to fill the holes on the roster, aren't they just getting younger and would still have to wait a few more years to see them in their primes? Will the team still be having to wait in order to take that next step because of their youth?
Now, I'm not necessarily suggesting that the team has to break the bank on "outside guys", by any means. While I do think that Reggie Bush, Greg Jennings, and/or Dannell Ellerbe would be great additions to the Bengals, it's not an absolute need that they go and spend a chunk of their available cash on those three. They've been able to find some effective players at affordable prices over the past few years and mold them into good contributors and I have confidence that they will do so again.
Still, the team can afford one or two of the big-name guys without jeopardizing their long-term plans while instantaneously improving major needs on their roster. Why wouldn't they at least explore the opportunity of greatly improving their roster with one, some or all three of the above-mentioned players--especially if it doesn't handcuff them for the future?
What the Bengals can't do is bargain-hunt and continue to scrape the bottom of the barrel in free agency. They need to get effective players that can make an immediate difference on both sides of the ball. Last year, the Washington Redskins made the decision to get two of the better (not best) free agent wide receivers on the market in Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. They knew that they were poised to take Robert Griffin III in the draft and wanted to surround him with as much veteran talent at the receiver position as possible. It was a wise strategy (salary cap penalties aside), as it helped RG3 have a wildly successful rookie year.
While the primary goals should be to retain the important in-house free agents and grabbing some talent in the draft, the Bengals can't employ the "same ol', same ol'" approach to free agency. The can't allow their past scars of Terrell Owens, Lavernues Coles, and/or Antonio Bryant to stop them from being proactive in their search to improve their roster with proven outside talents. The formula to a successful offseason and subsequent 2013 campaign lies in retaining key players and drafting well, along with the influx of new talent from the outside.