During our latest Google Hangout chat, we talked about free agency for the Cincinnati Bengals when approaching the question if the Bengals can sign Andre Smith and Michael Johnson, both of whom will enter March as unrestricted free agents, to long-term deals. For my money Johnson, who likes Cincinnati, likes his teammates and coaches, will be far less difficult to re-sign compared to Smith. That being the case, along with possible extensions with someone like Geno Atkins, the Bengals may use the franchise tag on Smith in 2013, which could be his last season in Cincinnati.
The Bengals rarely sign someone to a long-term deal after using the franchise tag.
The last was Rudi Johnson, who was franchised with a $6.3 million tag. Yet Johnson didn't play under the franchise tag because within a month, the team signed the running back to a five-year deal worth $26 million and $12 million guaranteed. Before that it was wide receiver Carl Pickens in 1999, who vowed never to play of the Bengals if he was franchised. After signing the one-year tender and playing in 1999, the Bengals signed Pickens to a five-year deal worth $23 million in 2000. Unfortunately the Bengals were forced to terminate the contract after an agreement with the NFLPA was struck -- who had filed suit against the Bengals, Packers and Cardinals for improper use of the franchise. [Note the Bengals weren't allowed to use the franchise tag in 2001]
In 2007 Cincinnati tagged Justin Smith, who signed a six-year deal worth $45 million with $20 million guaranteed with the San Francisco 49ers in 2008. The following year Cincinnati tagged offensive lineman Stacy Andrews, who left for the Philadelphia Eagles on a six-year deal worth $38.9 million. Shayne Graham was franchised in 2010, but was replaced by Mike Nugent the following year after Graham missed a handful of easy field goal attempts (35 and 28 yards) against the New York Jets during the postseason.
Now there's logic behind not re-signing franchise players. Stacy Andrews wasn't that good, allowing 10 quarterback sacks the year he was franchised. Graham missed critical kicks in 2009 and it's entirely possible that the same scenario plays out with Mike Nugent, franchised in 2012, and Josh Brown in 2013. On the other hand, Smith was one that got away while the application of the franchise tag was further questioned in 2011 when Cincinnati elected not to use the tag the year Johnathan Joseph signed with the Houston Texans.
Even if Cincinnati uses the franchise tag on Andre Smith in the next month, one could simply preach faith that a long-term deal will be reached. That's entirely possible. This isn't the same Bengals, one could thump into the minds of conditioned Bengals fans. But after this year the Bengals will be facing expiring contracts for Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and will have their first opportunities to extend A.J. Green and Andy Dalton to long-term deals. Money is hardly infinite and would have been less so if the same Bengals fans demanding endless free agent acquisitions were capitulated last year.
Therefore it wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility that Cincinnati targets an offensive tackle during the first three rounds of the 2013 NFL draft. Call it foresight, preparation for an eventual Andre Smith departure. You hate to hear that, believing that these changed Bengals will keep their core players. Maybe the supposed mindset change within the front office applies another twist to the traditional story written in Cincinnati. We'll see.
Let's also face facts. Smith might not be obtainable this year or next, applying the franchise tag for one more season in 2013. Andrew Whitworth, who turns 32 years old this year, has been struggling with a painful knee injury for two years and plans to have a procedure this offseason. At some point Cincinnati needs to think about revamping the position for eventual overhaul. Maybe it doesn't happen this year, but a franchise tag on Smith and Whitworth's rehabilitation could accelerate the need. On the other hand, a long-term deal with Smith keeps the position stable through 2015, when Whitworth's current contract expires.
Either way the team needs to keep an eye on how the position evolves.