According to reports, the Bengals are projected to have anywhere from $26-30 million to spend this off season. However, if you are looking for the Bengals to make some big free agency signings this off season, you are going to be sorely disappointed for a multitude of reasons:
1) Big FA signings are not the Bengals way of doing Business ...and that is a good thing!
It is not often I agree with the way Bengals management does business - their philosophy on free agency is one of the few situations where management and I are in agreement. The Bengals prefer to build through the draft, re-sign their own players, sign value free agents that can upgrade the team but not cost a lot of money and as we all know, they stay away from paying big money for past performance.
Think back throughout the years. Who are the biggest Bengals free agency signings? Kevin Hardy? Tory James? Antwan Odom? Not exactly names that conjured up warm fuzzy feelings before, during or after their signings. However, in the NFL it has been proven time and time again, building through free agency and "winning the off season" does not work.
Remember the 2011 Eagles deemed by Vince Young as the "Dream Team?" How'd that turn out? Remember when the Lombardi trophy was awarded to the Washington Redskins in March of 2009 after signing Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall? Dan Snyder is still awaiting the delivery of said trophy. How about the 2013 Dolphins? With Wallace, Ellerbe, Keller, etc, they were supposed to unseat the Patriots in the AFC East...until their big contracts didn't bring wins.
The fact of the matter is, big free agent signings are exciting, sell tickets and create great fodder for media and fans alike - but rarely do teams find success through the signing of big free agents.
2) The Bengals should (and will) sign their own first
Outside of Collins and Johnson, the Bengals don't have a lot of big free agents in 2014, but they do have some important contributors hitting the market: Hawkins, Rey, Pollak, Mays and Ghee. The Bengals are likely to only sign either Collins or Johnson, but unlikely to sign both. However, despite the names and the roles not being as big, the other free agents may be just as important
These signings will illicit mockery and complaints from Bengals fans everywhere, but Hawkins is a wild card weapon that causes matchup problems for the defense, Rey is a potential starter/key backup, Pollak played very well in Zietler's absence, Mays can provide versatility as a cover line backer or strong safety and Ghee (if healthy) can be a very good 3rd corner.
Sure, there is nothing exciting or sexy about re-signing their own players, but it is smart. In no other league does scheme and fit matter more than in the NFL and these players fit the Bengals scheme. NFL teams - the good ones at least - draft players that fit their systems. If they draft well, the player excels. However, take the player out of the system and he struggles.
Case in point, TJ Houshmanzadeh. Smart fans, coaches and player personnel knew Houshmanzadeh wasn't a #1 receiver, was best suited for the slot and needed a top receiver to draw attention away from him. Houshmanzadeh didn't believe it and Seattle didn't realize it. What resulted was one of the all-time free agency fails - Houshmanzadeh has even admitted he made a mistake and should have stayed with the Bengals.
There is truth in the idea that the "devil you know is better than the devil you don't." Teams know the strengths and weaknesses of their own players and teams don't let good players go. So, when a "good/great" player isn't re-signed by their team, I look at it with a skeptical eye. If the player was as good as is believed, the team would not let them go (see Mike Wallace).
3) 2015 FA class
While the Bengals don't have a lot of big name/starters hitting the market in 2014, the story is drastically different in 2015. The 2015 free agent class will include: Andy Dalton, Vontaze Burfict, AJ Green (technically - team option for 2015), Jermaine Gresham, Domato Peko, Clint Boling, Terrance Newman, Emmanuel Lamur, Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis and James Harrison. That is 8-9 starters, and while some will not be re-signed due to age or fit, there are some big decisions around the corner.
Part of the 2014 off season will likely be tied up in signing some of these players to extensions. All indications are the Bengals will have Dalton play out his contract, but extensions for Burfict, Green, Boling, or Lamur would not be surprising and in fact, would be smart moves.