As someone who spends more time than he should tracking the Bengals' salary cap and following the team on TV and as a season ticket holder, I felt I could provide a detailed overview of how I think this offseason will play out. I currently show the Bengals with $53.6M in cap room (assuming a league cap of $121.1M) with 50 players currently under contract. Note: before telling my how incorrect my math is, remember that the calculations are based on the Top 51 rule so if we sign a player not under contract for $1M it doesn't mean we lose $1M in cap space, instead it is $1M minus the cap value of the 51st player which will be close to $405k.
The plan will be presented in groups: UFAs to be resigned, EFA/RFA + draft picks, contract extensions/terminations and finally other team's UFAs we should consider.
UFAs to resign:
Michael Johnson's situation is eerily similar to that of Panthers' DE Charles Johnson. Both were 3rd round picks, had an average first three years and then exploded in their contract year. Charles Johnson turned that into a 6yr, $76M contract with $32M guaranteed (42%). The Panthers spent money like crazy that offseason and now find themselves over the cap in 2013 plus they were letting Julius Peppers leave via free agency so they had to do "something". Johnson has averaged 11 sacks since his new contract so one could argue it was reasonable. The question though is if Michael Johnson has the tools to continue to rush the passer like he did in 2012. I don't think he's that natural as a pass rusher but he a complete 3-down lineman, therefore I could see his new deal bringing him just outside the top 10 4-3 DE lineman deals, at least in terms of average.
Contract projection: 5 years, $43,750,000, 42% guaranteed. 2013 cap hit: $7,750,000.
Andre Smith's contract is more challenging. The left tackle bias isn't just something for Pro Bowl voters - it's also heavily reflected in NFL contracts. There are only two right tackles that average over $8M/season (David Diehl at $8.9M and Doug Free at $8M; note: Jason Smith was in that list but was released earlier this offseason) compared to nine left tackles: Jason Peters ($12.9M), Joe Thomas ($11.5M), Jake Long ($10.6), D'Brickashaw Ferguson ($10.0M), Trent Williams ($10.0M), Andrew Whitworth ($9.8M), Jordan Gross ($9.4M), Duane Brown ($8.9M) and Russell Okung ($8.1M). Further complicating matters are the others tackles on the market (Ryan Clady, Sebastian Vollmer, Jake Long, Branden Albert, Will Beatty, Jermon Bushrod, Phil Loadholt, Sam Baker) plus the high number of excellent rookie tackles projected to be picked in the 1st round this April (Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher, Lane Johnson, D.J. Fluker). This will be a buyer's market for offensive tackles this offseason. These are all reasons why I don't see the Bengals using the franchise tag on Smith, which would ultimately represent a severe overpay unless they simply don't trust him on a long-term deal.
Contract projection: 5 years, $39,750,000, 30% guaranteed. 2013 cap hit: $7,450,000.
The other contracts don't merit quite as much analysis, so here's a quick quip on each:
- CB Adam Jones $4.0M (he's played on under-market contracts for 3 years and has been a solid player for us; I think he truly views this team as "home")
- K Mike Nugent $2.7M (that average would rank him 12th amongst his peers)
- P Kevin Huber $2.6M (that average would rank him 6th amongst his peers)
- DE Wallace Gilberry $2.5M (takes the place of Jamaal Anderson and his contract)
- LB Thomas Howard $2M (using active roster bonus to protect team in case he doesn't come back healthy)
- LS Clark Harris $1M (somebody needs to snap the ball to Huber and Nugent)
These deals leave the team with $23.1M in cap room.
EFA/RFA + draft picks
I don't expect any of the RFA's to get tendered but it is very likely they could be resigned at the minimum salary of $630k. This includes Peerman, Quinn and Miles. Vincent Rey and Andrew Hawkins will come back to the team at a salary of $555k.
The team has picks 21, 37, 54, 85, 116, 147, 182 and 188 right now. They are expected to pick up two comp picks in the 7th round as well. The comp picks will also change the slots of their 4th-7th round picks, so these figures won't be exact but certainly close enough for this overview. The year 1 rookie cap total will be $5.5M.
These deals leave the team with $22.5M in cap room.
The most obvious candidates for extensions are Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap (A.J. Green and Andy Dalton aren't eligible since rookie contracts cannot be negotiated until after Year 3 meaning next offseason). The calculated extensions assume the signing bonus is paid this year but the new base salaries don't take effect until next season. You could argue for a different approach but with the cap carryover rules in the new CBA it doesn't really matter too much but it will effect the "new money average" versus overall average.
Atkins ranked 4th in QB pressure % last year (15.7%) and was the only DT in the top 20. He's turned himself into a three-down player and not simply a pass-rushing specialist that can't be on the field on first down. His run stop % is 4th in the league. That's a crazy combination and really sums up his value to the team. He'll only be 25 at the start of the season and he's been very consistent for the team so a six year deal is low risk. Eliminating the ridiculous contract given to Richard Seymour by the Raiders, the top DT's are Ndamukong Suh ($12.7M), Gerald McCoy ($11.0M), Ahtyba Rubin ($8.8M) and Vince Wilfork ($8M). Suh and McCoy have high averages since they benefited from the previous CBA's structures for rookie contracts.
Contract projection: 6 years, $60,000,000, 48% guaranteed. 2013 cap hit: $8,541,113; 2014 cap hit: $8,700,000.
Dunlap was also ranked in the top 20 in QB pressure (13.2%, 15th) but he hasn't been nearly as consistent as his peers. His potential is unreal but at some point "potential" needs to be realized. His participate rate increased from 40% in 2011 to 55% in 2012. Coaches have done a good job of not overusing him since I don't feel he can hold up as a full-time starter or at least not remain as effective as he has been. That somewhat lowers his value relative to other DE's but with aging starts Jared Allen and Justin Tuck as the only marquee free agent DE's in 2014, there's more pressure to lock up Dunlap now since the franchise tag amount will be north of $13M next year.
Contract projection: 5 years, $50,000,000, 44% guaranteed. 2013 cap hit: $6,887,000; 2014 cap hit: $8,700,000.
The only contract that needs to be terminated are DE Jamaal Anderson and CB Jason Allen. Wilberry's resigning effectively takes Anderson's roster spot and Allen would only be a 4th CB/swing safety which is too high a price for this kind of insurance. You could argue in favor of cutting Travell Wharton as well but with the low cap values of Zeitler and Boling, this really isn't required - plus he provides good depth and veteran leadership.
These deals leave the team with $14.5M in cap room. Practice Squad players and likely dead money from the final roster cutdown will lower that closer to $13M by opening day.
Other Team's UFAs
Quite honestly, I'm not sure the team really needs to look beyond its own players and the draft right now. You could argue in favor of a #2 WR or starting SS, but I think we can look in-house and/or the draft for both. LB is an area of need but we only average 2.5 LB's in terms of participate per down so spending a lot in this area wouldn't make a lot of sense.
Looking ahead to 2014
There would be 57 players under contract including the additions/subtractions mentioned above with no major free agents to speak of (Anthony Collins would be the highest rated player not under contract). Cap room would be close to $8M without the carryover factored in yet. The major to-do lists next offseason would be extending the contracts of A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. These contracts could likely average $12M and $10M, respectively. With Green already counting $6.3M against the 2014 cap, that's not a major difference. Dalton's deal though would be about 6x his current 2014 cap hit. Collectively though the team would still be in good shape to have multiple options next year.