A week from now, on Tuesday, March 12, at 4 p.m., the league will be overwhelmed with free-agent activity.
You see, 4 p.m. is when the new league year begins. Legally, it's when the contracts expire for all players set to enter 2013 free agency. All clubs must be under the salary cap at this time. Teams must have already made offers to the restricted and exclusive rights free agents before 4 p.m.
Additionally, from Saturday, March 9, to Monday, March 11, clubs can legally begin talking to the league's Unrestricted Free Agents.
So, before that happens, let's take a look at where the holes are in the Bengals offensive roster and how it will affect their plan in free agency.
+ Offensive Line: With the decision to franchise tag Michael Johnson, the Bengals made the expensive decision to lock up one of their top two priorities in the short term. Now, all eyes are on Andre Smith, the other top priority.
Smith reportedly wants a whopping $9 million a year. His rookie deal averaged $7 million per year, but that is largely inflated due to the old rookie contract rules of the old CBA. In 2013, only two right tackles will make more than $5 million in base salary, Dallas' Doug Free and Tennessee's David Stewart. Even worse, Free's deal was signed when he was a left tackle, which are paid substantially more than right tackles on average.
At the same time though, Smith was arguably the best right tackle in the league last year. He gave the Bengals a display of elite run-blocking, while not sacrificing anything in the passing game. He cut down on the mental mistakes too, with only four penalties, but the question remains, is he going to keep performing like that, year-after-year? Is he worth $9 million? We've been asking this all week, because it's the most important question the Bengals face right now. Whatever happens, it will change the entire course of free agency and the draft. If Smith is re-signed, our own Jason Garrison thinks the Bengals may trade back in the first round. Or, if not re-signed, then stay in the first round and draft a right tackle, where the draft is loaded.
Elsewhere on the line, the team must decide whether or not to re-sign Dennis Roland, a long time backup at right tackle. Roland has been the team's swing tackle for a while, meaning they bring him on the field as the sixth lineman in power sets, mostly for run-blocking. With his 6'9", 322-pound frame, he can dominate defenders and push them far behind the line of scrimmage, but that's only if he can properly engage them first. He is a bit of a scapegoat, and has made some egregious mistakes in his past, but he is improving greatly and should be re-signed.
Andrew Whitworth will resume at the left tackle spot, while Trevor Robinson and Kyle Cook will battle it out for center. Kevin Zeitler is locked in at the right guard spot, and Anthony Collins will be on the team either as a backup or starting right tackle.
That leaves the left guard spot, where Clint Boling stepped in when Travelle Wharton went down in the first preseason game and played well early on. Wharton is due almost $4 million this year, and if the team is comfortable moving forward with Boling, they may choose to cut Wharton. That leaves an open spot at backup guard, which the team may choose to address in either free agency or late in the draft.
If Smith and Roland are re-signed, and if Wharton is not cut, then there would no turnover on the Bengals offensive line at all.
+ Tight End and Quarterback: Jermaine Gresham and Orson Charles are locked in as the top two tight ends, while Andy Dalton is locked in at starting quarterback. That leaves the QB2 spot and TE3 spot open. At both spots, the Bengals will choose to either roll with the same guys from last year, or move on in a new direction.
Bruce Gradkowski, now a free agent, is the man in question at the backup QB spot. Gradkowski is a long-time backup, known as a gamer and a great mentor to Dalton. It would probably be best to keep the duo going, but the ceiling of the Gradkowski is pretty low. The veteran was paid $4 million across two years last time, and something smaller or equivalent would keep him in town this time.
The overall free agent class of quarterbacks is absolutely putrid this year, so the Bengals will either roll with Gradkowski again, or draft his replacement in the middle to late rounds. Zac Robinson, a Bengals practice squad player for the past two years, and is in the mix as well.
Richard Quinn, a restricted free agent, was on the 53-man roster almost the entire year, yet didn't play a snap. He could be brought back easily and wouldn't skip a beat. The Bengals essentially chose Quinn over former backups Donald Lee and Colin Cochart last year, who were both good players. They'll probably bring Quinn back. If not, they'll find a lower tier free agent of draft a tight end late in the draft.
+ Running Back: Only BenJarvus-Green-Ellis and Boom Herron are under contract through this year. So, unlike offensive line, quarterback, and tight end, this position figures to see a bit of turnover.
Cedric Peerman, a restricted free agent, has done well in limited snaps on offense and has been a stud on special teams. He'll probably be brought back.
The future for Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard, though, looks foggier. Scott, a speed back, has struggled to find space and break big runs. Injuries have limited his opportunities to shine. Leonard has been the team's third-down back for a while, but he doesn't offer much of a high ceiling or game breaking ability, which is what the Bengals really want to compliment BenJarvus Green-Ellis. It appears both are on their way out, leaving a gaping hole in the depth chart.
This is where an early draft pick, or free agent, could step in. If the Bengals want a game-changing, explosive/speed guy, then they should look at Clemson's Andre Ellington or Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle, or even Oregon's Kenjon Barner in the later rounds.
In free agency, there's a decent class of running backs, but not a lot of speed guys. Former Dolphin Reggie Bush is the name that always jumps out. For a seven-year veteran, Bush doesn't have a lot of wear and tear, and he certainly has the explosiveness. Unfortunately, Bush will want a lot of money. For the Bengals, that usually means it won't happen. Ahmad Bradshaw, Rashard Mendenhall, and Felix Jones are other explosive guys, but they all come with major injury concerns. In the end, the Bengals probably won't look to free agency to find their counterpart to BJGE. They'll look in the draft.
+ Wide Receiver: Who's going to start opposite AJ Green? That's always the big question at this position. It could be Marvin Jones or Mohamed Sanu, who eached flashed capabilities in their rookie years.
Neither made a truly convincing case though. That's why the team may choose to bring in the solution through free agency or the draft. The Bengals aren't looking for a big-money receiver like Mike Wallace or even Greg Jennings (hello, cap problems), and they aren't looking for a slot receiver like Wes Welker or Danny Amendola, because the team is loaded with capable slot players already. It's quite hard to find a free agent receiver who fits what the Bengals need, if they are looking for a new No. 2.
The free-agent list is made up of expensive guys, slot guys, and then... bad guys. Maybe Brian Hartline or Brandon Gibson could step up as the Bengals No. 2, but neither are that appealing.
It seems the best scenario would be to let Jones and Sanu keep their spots, and sign or draft a wide receiver for depth. With Brandon Tate expected to leave, a hole exists as a backup wide receiver and return man.
In that case, Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs appears to be the perfect free agent signing, as suggested by the Enquirer's Joe Reedy, when he sat down with us during the NFL Scouting Combine. Every Bengals fan has seen Cribbs' return ability first hand, and his ability as a wide receiver almost doesn't matter. If the team signs Cribbs, then they can keep Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu atop the depth chart, and everybody is happy.