As the football world briefly naps before the Scouting Combine nudges it awake again, front offices everywhere are still up, quietly looking at big pictures. Not unlike Bilbo, they climb to the very tops of the trees around them and see out among the whole landscape. They look at their team, they look at their division, they look at the league. It's a time of collective introspective and self-assessment.
This line of thinking always leads to the money. The suits stand around a table, nod to each other and drag out the chopping block. Expensive veterans are sized up and the suits imagine a world without them. They pack their bags, and scramble for their replacements.
The salary cap makes this process interesting in the NFL. In baseball, mediocre players hit the lottery every season thanks to the limitless earning potential their sport has created for them. The big dogs just buy everybody all the time. It's super boring. Roger Goodell's syndicate, though, slaps the reigns on his horses and forces teams to strategically spend rather then go on mad shopping sprees. Rookies have limits, positions have limits, salary floors have limits, everything has limits.
Teams with cheap, young, effective quarterbacks are in the best shape. Russell Wilson won a Super Bowl playing for metaphorical peanuts. When you can save cash on the most expensive type of players, essentially exploiting them during their rookie contracts, you can load up elsewhere and build a power-house program, at least temporarily. Seattle, San Francisco, Indianapolis, and yes, Cincinnati.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," you say. "Powerhouse? Cincinnati?"
Yes, I admit the claim is diminished thanks to multiple futile postseason attempts, and the approval rating of the entire franchise has dipped severely since January, but I think a lot of NFL executives would like to be in the position that the Bengals are in this offseason. Their roster is rock solid, they have lots of cap space, and, at least from a regular-season standpoint, they're proven winners.
Thanks to developing young players into Pro-Bowlers and locking up the most promising of the bunch, they've positioned themselves to the point of not even worrying about losing a marquee player like Michael Johnson in free agency this year. They have so much depth and versatility that Anthony Collins returning isn't all that vital. Andrew Hawkins may be the most important free agent to resign this spring and he certainly won't break the bank.
So in a macro sense, the Bengals are doing well, but in a micro one, I think more money and investment will go toward the secondary, particularly at cornerback.
Dre Kirkpatrick showed some promise last year and raised his perceived value when pressed into action. He still showed his youth when trying to cover double moves, but he made plays and showed toughness. After him, however, the position is ripened with age. Adam Jones and Terence Newman are thirty-something corners, a rarity of the species. They served well under Mike Zimmer and wrung out every drop of their remaining potential for him but one has to wonder about their proverbial tanks. Leon Hall, the most decorated of the bunch, is closing in on thirty himself and has not one but two ruptured Achilles in the recent past. There is no middle ground at the position in terms of age and the depth there has become mildly worrisome.
This conversation, though, began with the quarterback. Andy Dalton, despite his playoff letdowns and occasionally shaky play, is playing well below his worth under his current contract. The Bengals can begin negotiations this year to drag him into the long-term picture at a likely reasonable rate, but if they decide to wait until his contract officially runs out and he continues to statistically improve, they might have to pay a lot more for his services. Or they could let him walk either way, but I think they will make a strong attempt to keep him, like it or not.
As for numbers, it's hard to say. Kansas City claims they would like to extend Alex Smith's contract and while many of you may consider Smith to be a better player than Dalton, I think Dalton's agent will look to those numbers if the Chiefs do sign Smith for two more years. Without claiming any expertise in football economics, I would put those numbers in the 9-12 million a year range.
Obviously A.J. Green's approaching turn for the big bucks will force the eye of the franchise to make great accommodations for the young mega-star and that contract might hinder the team's long-term plans in a purely economical sense. It is nice to have elite players, but those players eventually gobble up huge chunks of cap space that can send a team's books off balance. Nonetheless, Green is an exceptional talent that must be retained at nearly all costs.
The fun part about all of this equation is that the Bengals will still have play-money in free agency even after resigning their guys. The bummer about it, though, is that they will let big name after big name pass under nose without even a sniff come March. They keep drafting (or signing undrafted) players and developing them into surefire keepers. What about when Vontaze Burfict and Gio Bernard need to get paid? Will Cincinnati still have the loot? What about Kevin Zeitler and Tyler Eifert? These guys matter, probably more than the flashy veterans that find themselves on the market.
So while the league largely ignores the Bengals as still not-good-enough, they carry on with their organizational philosophy in hopes that things will be better next time. They will continue to pay their own guys first and go for quality depth over splashy new starters. They will stick with their homegrown program and assume their trust in Marvin Lewis for another go around. It may not make for a riveting spring, but it seems to work from September to December.
Mojokong-a sorry substitute for bacon.