When it comes to re-signing their own players during free agency, the two biggest names for the Bengals are undoubtedly Michael Johnson and Andre Smith. Both were drafted by the Bengals in 2009, Johnson in the third round and Smith in the first. Both are coming off the final year of their four-year rookie contracts. And both had their best statistical years last season, as Smith finally played a full 16-game stretch and Johnson put together an 11.5 sack effort.
There is no doubt that the Bengals would like to have both of them back in stripes, but the nagging doubt remains that one of them might get away. With only one franchise tag to apply between two players, there is no gaurantee that the team can re-sign both. This paranoia that either Smith or Johnson will receiver a better payday somewhere else has led to heated debates over which player should be the higher priority for the Bengals. And as March 12 draws ever nearer, there is still no clear winner.
Until either of them actually re-signs with the Bengals, this debate will likely continue to rage on. Theoretically, the Bengals have a greater chance of re-signing Michael Johnson, as the defensive end has stated that he wants to return to Cincinnati. He likes it here, and while money will be the ultimate factor in whether he leaves or stays, we can't underestimate the power of the camaraderie found on the Bengals' d-line. Andre Smith, on the other hand, could prove to be much more difficult to re-sign. Frankly, Smith has a history of holding out for more money, as we all witnessed first hand on Hard Knocks four years ago. If Smith is still the same person as that rookie who was more excited to be a millionaire than a football player, then the Bengals might find themselves in a stalemate at the negotiating table.
If, however, Smith is amenable to reasonable negotiations, then the only question that remains is, is Andre Smith really worth a large free agent contract?
On the surface, the answer is a resounding "yes." After struggling with injuries during his first three seasons, Smith finally put together a complete 16-game stretch, with an additional playoff game. His afflictions of yesteryear appeared behind him, and he proved to be an anchor on the right side of the offensive line. The folks over at Pro Football Focus, who grade each player on every snap they participate in, agree with that sentiment, giving Smith an overall grade of +26.9, good enough for fourth-best among all tackles last year. Breaking that grade down further, Smith scored a grade of +10.6 as a run blocker and +11.7 as a pass blocker. Billed as a mauler in the run game, it is no surprise that Smith had high marks in that category. Out of his 16 games in 2012, he only had five with negative marks in the run blocking category, and two of those were against the Ravens and Steelers.
Smith's pass blocking grade, however, is a bit of a head scratcher. Although he posted an +11.7 (a full point above his run blocking grade), Smith had some alarming miscues in the passing game. He was responsible for seven sacks last season, which led the entire offensive line in that regard. Those seven sacks tie him for tenth among all tackles, putting him in the bottom-third of the league. Moreover, Smith also surrendered a total of 33 quarterback pressures, compared to only 16 by Andrew Whitworth. You can argue that comparing Smith to Whitworth is misleading, as Whitworth was graded as the best pass blocking tackle in the league last season, but Smith still gave up enough pressures to exclude him from being in the top third of all tackles in that category for 2012.
So, is Andre Smith still worth a large free agent contract? The mistakes in the passing game are a little alarming, but it would be foolish to discredit his talent entirely. There is no doubt that Smith is quickly becoming one of the better tackles in the league, but the price would have to be right for the Bengals. No player is perfect and no team should pay a player as if he was perfect, but it would be a mistake to let Andre Smith walk after grooming him the past couple of seasons. As previously mentioned, a deal with the Bengals is only possible if Smith has matured from his Hard Knocks days. The Bengals would also have to be comfortable that he can improve upon his performance in the passing game. That may seem like a lot of unknowns right now, but the only other option is allowing Smith to pull a Jonathan Joseph, which set the team behind in 2011 and forced them to spend an early round pick on a cornerback. Signing Smith to a new deal eliminates a position of need in the first round and allows the team to build upon the success of the o-line in 2013.
Regardless of the concerns facing Andre Smith, the possible benefits of giving him a new deal vastly outweigh the potential risks.