I have a very unscientific way of measuring what positions to address in free agency. Go around town and ask the locals for their initial reaction to a player. Just say the player's name. If a player is good, fans immediately use words when describing the player. However, a player that needs replacement will not illicit words.
Oh, eventually they will - usually the four letter type - but even before berating a player, a fan will react with noises, grunts, "uh's" and "um's." That leads us to Kyle Cook. As I go through the Bengals starting lineup - offense, defense, special teams - I am optimistic (or at least comfortable) with every position...except center. The name Kyle Cook does not bring words to my mouth. What it brings out is a groan, an "aaagh."
What happens is some sort of bitter beer face followed by angry grumblings exiting my mouth before my real feelings can make their way out. While Cook provided a welcomed upgrade over Eric Ghiaciuc in 2008, so did an orange highway barrel. Cook, at the detriment of his quarterback and running backs, has spent way too much time the past few years perfecting his offensive swim move and Sunday afternoon star gazing in the middle of NFL football fields during the hours of 1-4pm est.
Although Pro Football Focus referred to Cook as a "solid starter on most teams," they also deemed him the "weakest link" on the Bengals line, scoring him at -4.8 for the year. While Cook has 2 years left on his deal, and no one likes "dead money" less than Mike Brown, cutting Cook would save the Bengals $2.06M against their 2014 cap and free up a spot for a center that would not be the "weakest link" on the Bengals line.
Enter Alex Mack. Not often do two-time Pro Bowl centers hit the open market, but Mack likely will. Thanks to an odd rule with the franchise tag, all lineman are lumped into one grouping, meaning the franchise tag for any offensive lineman is based on the top OL salaries, regardless of position.
Therefore, the franchise tag for a center is the same as it would be for a tackle ($11.126M). With the highest paid center in the league checking in at just less than half of that number ($5.5M), using the tag on a center is costly. As good as Mack is and as much as the Browns would like to keep him, the franchise tag would make Mack the highest paid center in the NFL (by a lot) and therefore makes it unlikely that the Browns will tag him.
With Dalton's well documented inconsistencies and issues with pressure, the addition of a Pro-Bowl center could do wonders for Dalton - just ask Carson Palmer what the loss of Rich Braham meant to his career. If the Bengals were to cut Cook, they could essentially sign one of best centers in the NFL for $3M/year (figuring in the $2.06M savings for releasing Cook) and strengthen the line, regardless of whether or not they re-sign Anthony Collins.
While signing Mack would be very unlike the Bengals, the thought of a line consisting of Collins, Whit, Mack, Zeitler and Smith is something Hue Jackson and Andy Dalton would likely be very happy about.