Unlike with seemingly any other team in the NFL, people are limiting the Bengals' free agency foray in 2013 to in-house players. It's a decent strategy because the team has some quality players that are threatening to walk out of the door. Still, with over $50 million to spend, it's hard to believe that Cincinnati can't make some moves with outside players to help their roster.
But, I digress. That isn't the focus of this article. The real focus here is on the right tackle position, where Andre Smith is set to hit free agency after what many consider to be a great 2012 campaign. He's likely going to hit a big payday by a club out there on the market, be it the Bengals or somewhere else.
There are questions with Smith though. Yes, he was rated as 2012's top right tackle by ProFootballFocus. However, as Lucas pointed out earlier on Wednesday, Smith had some stats in the passing game that make you cringe. Traditionally, right tackles were more of a "power player", primarily charged with excelling in the running game (which Smith does) and while that still is an NFL truth today, there has been a shift in philosophy where right tackles must also be capable in pass protection because of diverse defensive fronts.
Then there's the off-field questions about big Andre as well. I won't dive too far into them, but there's a concerning track record. He had two injury-plagued seasons to begin his career, which prompted the Bengals to pull the back-end option from his rookie deal. It was after this that Smith decided that he needed to get in better shape and it led to better football the past two seasons, most notably in 2012. Did anyone else notice that Smith's best year as a pro was in a contract year? That has to raise a warning flag at some point, right? Then, when headed to free agency, Smith was charged with a gun possession issue that made Bengals fans everywhere figuratively or literally forehead-slap themselves.
What will happen to Smith if you give him a mega-deal? Is he to be trusted to stay out of trouble and in shape with a new deal, complete with a lot of guaranteed money (likely)?
After his rookie deal expired, Andre Smith had the fourth-highest contract among right tackles with a 2012 value of over $6.5 million last year. The only players ahead of him were David Diehl of the Giants, Jason Smith of the Jets, and Doug Free of the Cowboys. Dave Stewart of the Titans has the highest value of right tackles at six years and $39 million. It's quite possible that Andre Smith wants to be paid as one of the top right tackles in the game, (maybe even close to what a left tackle makes) and those contracts currently run at around $8 million per year for the top dogs.
If the Bengals were to sign Andre Smith to a long-term deal, his yearly salary would be in the $7-$8 million per year range. If CIncinnati chose to designate him as the franchise player and tag him for 2013, his salary and cap hit would be about $9.67 million. If No.71 received the rarely-used transition tag, that would drop the amount to $8.56 million.
Last year's No.21 pick in the draft was defensive end Chandler Jones, taken by the Patriots (ironically, New England had this pick because of a trade with the Bengals). The first year of Jones' rookie contract was just under $1.5 million for the year, as was the cap hit for the Patriots. His four-year deal maxes out at around $2.6 million in its final year. You can bank on the No.21 pick this year having a somewhat similar contract, thanks to the rookie wage scale that was implemented with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement signed back in 2011.
One of the deepest positions in the 2013 draft is offensive tackle. As it stands, it could be argued that around five players at the position could have first round grades, and we've seen teams scramble to pick up good players at the position in the first round. This year could be more of the same with that trend. Of those tackles, many are considered "plug-and-play" guys, particularly one of this year's top right tackles in Alabama's D.J. Fluker.
See where we're going yet?
In doing some rough math, if the Bengals decided to let Smith and his up-and-down four-year career walk and grab one of these first round tackles, they could potentially save themselves around $6-$7 million dollars. While some would rightfully claim that doing so would just open another hole in the roster and force the team to use a draft pick on a position that they wouldn't need to by retaining Smith, that $7 million could go a long way in helping the team grab some proven veterans in free agency.
The team needs major help at safety, cornerback, wide receiver, running back and linebacker as it currently stands. There are some good players set to hit the open market at most of those positions: Sean Smith and Reggie Bush of Miami, Greg Jennings of Green Bay, Dwayne Bowe of Kansas City and Dannell Ellerbe of Baltimore to name a few.
Obviously, the Bengals don't want to make a habit of drafting good players and letting them go after their rookie contracts expire--they've been guilty of that before. All past conditioning and off-field incidents aside, Smith proved to be a quality tackle last season and one could argue that he's the best lineman they had on the roster. But, if retaining Smith handcuffs the team's ability to fill other roster holes (plural), one would think that the team would have to look at the options and weigh what is truly best for the team. Particularly with the tackle depth in this year's class.