The truth is that Cincinnati doesn't really have a need to release players to create savings for the salary cap this year. Not right now, at least. And we don't think that they'll mortgage the house for the sake of keeping Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins; they're more likely to reinvest with the draft to keep their overall cap number as much to a minimum as possible for extensions among other players.
However, we've identified four players that could get the ax -- or at the very least, asked to the table to renegotiate -- due to their cap number this season. If the intention is to free money to keep their cap manageable, while re-signing Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins (two of Cincinnati's top-flight free agents), this would be a way to go about it. NOTE: We don't think that any will be released, but that doesn't prevent us from initiating the conversation this offseason.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB
When used correctly (ala, non-sweeps, pitches), Green-Ellis is a benefit and currently Cincinnati's best option in short-yardage situations. Compounded by Hue Jackson's proclamation that the Bengals will be more physical, it makes no sense to release Green-Ellis when there's no viable alternative on the team's roster.
There are salary cap considerations, however. Green-Ellis is scheduled to earn $2.3 million in base salary with a $3 million cap hit in 2014 -- the final year of a three-year agreement that began in 2012. If the Bengals release Green-Ellis, they'd save $2.5 million in cap savings while being on the hook for $500,000 in dead money (aka, a third of his $1.5 million signing bonus).
Considering that Cincinnati doesn't have a viable replacement (at this time) and no need to create savings against the salary cap, Green-Ellis should be safe.
Leon Hall, CB
As we pointed out the other day, one of our early offseason questions will be how Leon Hall returns from his second Achilles tear in three seasons. Along with durability concerns, Hall has little financial security (until the first week of the regular season when his base salary becomes guaranteed) which should set the table for re-negotiations at some point during the offseason. No, Cincinnati historically doesn't re-negotiate deals but it's a point worth examining nonetheless.
Hall enters the 2014 season with $6.8 million in base salary with a cap hit of $8.7 million. Both numbers increase by $900,000 in 2015, the final year of his contract. While we believe that re-negotiation is ideal, the Bengals could outright release Hall to save $5.1 million against the cap -- they will have dead money to carry over though.
Don't get your hopes up. A release is unlikely for several reasons: 1) the team would lose $3.6 million in dead money 2) Cincinnati isn't against the cap at this point and 3) the Bengals aren't in the habit of getting rid of their top players. That being said, our concerns about his durability is legitimate. He may come back healthy, like he did in 2012, but how long after that?
Domata Peko, DT
Let me preface this by saying, Peko is one of my favorites. First-class player, strong in family values, a positive presence in Cincinnati's locker room, and a leader among leaders. The Bengals would lose something if they released Peko. Plus if they continue developing him as a fullback, he carries the coveted label of versatility.
However, the Bengals save $4.165 million in cap savings by releasing Peko this offseason -- aka, his entire base salary. According to Pro Football Focus, he rated as Cincinnati's worst defender (-15.3 score) this year, grading equally as poorly against the run and as a pass rusher.
Theoretically speaking, Devon Still and Brandon Thompson were expected to phase Peko out at some point, due to his contract expiring after the 2014 season. That didn't really happen.
Like Hall, we wouldn't be surprised if the Bengals and Peko sit down and negotiate an extension that would improve his cap number. Peko's representatives reached out to Cincinnati last year about an extension, but they were too busy trying to recoup most of their free agents from last season.
Cincinnati won't be as busy this year, possibly leading to talks between Peko and the team. We're not talking about more money here; rather something more cap friendly with a signing bonus that's a little more player-friendly. On a personal note, I hope they do.
Kyle Cook, C
There is a point to be made about Kyle Cook, right now. Along with having the worst overall and run blocking score among all Bengals offensive linemen, Cook allowed five quarterback sacks in 2013 (which ranked second-to-last in Cincinnati). Pro Football Focus graded him as the 24th-best center in the NFL and 25th in 2011 (we didn't include '12 due to his injury).
If the Bengals release Cook, they'll save over $2 million in cap savings while dealing with $1.28 million in dead money.
The question is replacement and we're not certain that he's on the roster. Trevor Robinson is a fan-favorite, but in only 78 snaps, Robinson graded at -3.6 in 2013 -- Cook scored a -4.8 but on 1,071 offensive snaps. Robinson clearly outplayed Cook in 2012, but it's a flawed comparison because Cook never truly recovered from his high-ankle sprain that year.
Draft? Maybe. Free agency? Doubtful. Moving someone to center while keeping Andrew Whitworth at left guard would certainly help keep Anthony Collins if Cook's salary cap is freed -- but not so much as it would be all that was needed -- but it's a fantasy. Unless something dramatic happens from now until the regular season opener, Cook will likely start at center. This isn't a team that mixes things up when their status quo is comfortable.
[OvertheCap.com and Spotrac were used for this article]