Don't look now, but the Bengals have built themselves into a potential NFL powerhouse. Too bold? Maybe. But, three playoff appearances in the past four years, including consecutive appearances, with one of the youngest rosters in the league. They haven't been major players in free agency, but have added pieces here and there which round out the roster nicely. However, it's the draft where the Bengals have struck gold and made their hay.
Now, as with any successful team, they are looking at potentially losing some of their better players to free agency, especially because of their reluctance to dive head-first into free agency, as I mentioned before. As it currently stands, there are six key players that could look at departing the Bengals after 2014. Three are on the defensive line, which is currently the strongest group on the roster: defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Three more on offense with tight end Jermaine Gresham, quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green.
Green, Atkins, Gresham and Dalton have all been Pro Bowlers, be it by alternate status or outright nomination. Johnson had a borderline All-Star season in 2012 with his 12.5 sacks and has earned the franchise tag for 2013. The team has been attempting to reach long-term deals with both Atkins and Johnson recently, but are "miles apart" with their star tackle and the same appears to be the case with this year's franchise player.
So what to do now? All of a sudden, that pile of money that the Bengals have sat on in free agency and are rolling into next season doesn't seem so frustrating, does it?
The first plan of action should be to focus on the players whose contracts are expiring after this season. Unless some major headway is made in the next few weeks and months, that would be Atkins, Johnson and Dunlap. It's especially key that the team retains most, or all of these three because of the strength that lies within that defensive front. Pretty ironic that three defensive players' contracts are up one year and three offensive players are up the next, no?
To the Bengals credit, they have also drafted contingency plans in case they can't come to an agreement with some of these players. In the 2012 draft, the Bengals used a second and third round pick on defensive tackles (Devon Still and Brandon Thompson), as well as a fourth on a tight end (Orson Charles). In 2013, they used a first round pick on another tight end (Tyler Eifert) and a second round pick on a defensive end (Margus Hunt). It could be argued who they are pegged to replace, or if they were simply drafted to continue building depth. Either way, the selections show foresight and that's a refreshing change for this franchise.
The key to the formula with retaining as many of these players as possible, lies in the continuous usage of the franchise tag. In the newest Collective Bargaining Agreement, signed back in 2011, teams are allowed to use the franchise tag on the same player for two consecutive years, if they so choose. The issue with re-franchising the same player comes with an increase in the amount of money given to the player. So, if the Bengals decide to make Johnson their guy again, the value of his one-year designation skyrockets.
So, if they are to retain all six players, it should be with a two-year plan that utilizes the franchise tag. Extend two players long-term each year and use the franchise tag on another. They seem to have the money and cap space to be able to work this two-pronged plan.
Now, let's face facts: keeping six of your better and most expensive players in the next two years will be difficult. However, if you keep four long-term and keep the other two for at least another year, that is a pretty good plan with a nice bandage over a potentially large wound. During those one-year stints, the Bengals can continue to draft replacements for the two players that could be exiting.
There is a long road ahead for Cincinnati with these six key players, but if planned out correctly, they could retain most or all of these players--be it with short-term solutions or long ones.