Let's face it.
You simply can't keep everyone. Alright, so that axiom didn't apply last year when the team aggressively re-signed Andre Smith, Cedric Peerman, Wallace Gilberry, Robert Geathers, Rey Maualuga, Brandon Tate, Adam Jones and Terence Newman to multi-year contracts. On the other hand, they weren't free agents with significant demands from other teams, signing team-friendly deals for 2-3 years and returning, mostly, as a key role-players.
Not this year.
Michael Johnson, who played under the franchise tag last season, holds the cards of being a highly productive player at a position that pays extraordinarily well and figures to demand the most cash. Considering that he rejected a $40 million deal last September, the smart bet is that he leaves for free agency -- odds are the Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots (which means he'll probably sign with someone else).
Let him test the market. Though he has the one 11.5-sack season, his second-best season, in terms of sacks, was six in 2011... and last year, 3.5 sacks. Maybe something big will come his way as a defensive force that excels in the run and adds icing the proverbial cake as a pass rusher. Figure that will come from Minnesota. Otherwise, the market may not equal similar perspectives without much oversight. The number being floated is $10 million per season -- if so, bah-bye. The irony in this tale would be that the best offer that he received next month is similar to the one Cincinnati offered six months ago.
Anthony Collins, failing to have anyone bite two years ago as a free agent, returned with a two-year deal and stuck around as a backup tackle behind Andrew Whitworth. Yes. There were "flags" associated with his name at the time -- months earlier he was cleared after being present at Jerome Simpson's house when marijuana was shipped to the front door.
Beyond that, solid.
And another thing... if you believe Collins had a "break out" year, then that's simply a case of not paying attention. Between 2009 and 2010, when Collins started, the Bengals were 7-2 while averaging 110 yards rushing per game. More impressively, according to Pro Football Focus, Collins hasn't allowed a quarterback sack during the regular season since week four in 2009 -- over 713 straight pass blocks without a sack allowed.
In a way we agree with Paul Dehner's projection:
More than likely Cincinnati will shoot out an initial offer and allow Collins to test the market. If somebody is going to back the truck up to him, they will say congratulations and move in another direction. If the market value dips back and doesn't produce what Collins hoped for (see Smith, Andre) the team will be waiting with open arms.
But that's the smart play, isn't it? Let the market dictate everything. Cincinnati sits in a favorable position with their roster right now, successfully building with quality backup pieces accelerating their development for eventual graduation into the starting lineup. Holes will be plugged.
If Collins finds a team, within the first few days of free agency, who will "make it rain", Cincinnati is in a position to deal with the loss. Their entire starting offensive line from last year, prior to the injuries, is still in-tact. Whitworth can slide back to left tackle, which he prefers, and Clint Boling resumes his place as the team's left guard.
No, NOT BOLING!!
Settle. Breath. Or is it breathe? Exhale. That's better. Maybe Boling isn't the meddling road block that Whitworth is, but he's played well enough. During the first half in '12, Boling graded as one of the top offensive guards in the NFL per Pro Football Focus. He struggled down the stretch, but enough optimism remained for his continued development. And he started 2013 similarly, but struggled mightily against talented defensive lines in Detroit, Cleveland and New York (Jets).
And thus the caveat with Boling... the negative that defies such beautiful offseason optimism. Run blocking -- the kryptonite that breaks down this argument... especially in Hue Jackson's image of a body-bruising rushing offense -- is lacking. That's a significant point against him... and weighing your options between Whitworth and Boling, you'd pick Whitworth every time.
If Boling isn't the answer, keep Whitworth at left guard and find a suitable replacement at left tackle... maybe through the NFL draft. You can't keep everyone.
Collins, a former fourth-round pick in the 2008 NFL draft, isn't irreplaceable. Don't get me wrong, you want to keep a player with that talent-level but they have options. That's why they've developed the roster that they have; to deal with the losses and lose little momentum with a Super Bowl window that's still wide open. Based on the work of Duke Tobin, with Marvin Lewis, we're confident that this team will find the pieces that they need. They've earned a little trust. Did you just write that? I guess I did.