Every year about this time, football writers are forced to speculate and write about possibilities that are not very likely to come true. Free agency in the NFL is a crapshoot and is only a bit more accurate than forecasting earthquakes. Sure, we can look at salary-cap numbers and highlight what we consider team needs. We can put two and two together and dress it up to look like a near certainty, but the truth is, only the button-pushers in the front offices across the league knows what will transpire.
The old adage concerning the Bengals in free agency is: don't hold your breath. Some call Mike Brown a cowardly miser, while others describe him as fiscally responsible (I have written both in the past), but either way you slice it, the man does not break the bank. He prefers second-tier free agents that merely compliment the core of players he has collected through the draft.
Like every year, there are some intriguing names on the market. Almost as soon as Hue Jackson took over the offensive coordinator position, running back Darren McFadden was linked to potentially land in Cincinnati. Since then, however, anonymous player agents have attempted to squash that possibility, pointing out that McFadden could get more carries and more money elsewhere. If it is a big payday he seeks, he will likely skip over the Bengals as a possibility and settle with a lesser team that can give him what he wants. The idea of a true everydown running back, though, is becoming a rarity in today's pro game and he is likely to share a good portion of the load no matter where he lands.
If he were tempted by Jackson calling plays and the idea were to hearken him back to the days when he posted career numbers, coupled with the fact that Cincinnati is expected to field another strong roster, he may forfeit some cash for a chance to win in the playoffs-a feat that has proven to be elusive for both the Bengals and McFadden. At the end of the day, the chances are slim for Run-DMC to wind up in stripes, but I feel he would be remiss to immediately discount that the possibility could still be a nice fit.
Elsewhere, other names leap off the page and ignite a forest fire of football fantasy. Linebacker Brandon Spikes can do everything Rey Maualuga can do, but probably do it better. Two players from last year return from injury in Sean Porter and Emmanuel Lamur, and the team enjoyed nice years from both Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison, but the linebacker ranks still feel rather thin and putting Maualuga in the back seat in favor of Spikes, I see as an upgrade and could provide a stiff dose of depth for the position.
Another exciting, yet remote possible pick up is that of Henry Melton. Many may think there is no reason to add another defensive tackle when the team already has four players with starts under their belts, including one of the best in the game. This is exactly the reason Mike Brown is not likely to entertain this scenario, but that does not preclude me from dreaming. Melton is a step behind Geno Atkins but they are similar players in style. Both are tenacious pass-rushers from the middle of the line and both bring a sense of energy and hustle on seemingly every play. Like Atkins, Melton also missed most of the season a year ago with a knee injury. This likely lowered his value on the market, but not enough to call him a second-tier free agent. His price tag should be too high for Cincinnati, but having more sack potential on the line-especially from the defensive tackle position-could be a niche quality that helps this defense maintain its high-rank in the immediate future.
There are a lot of hard-hitting veteran safeties that I like in this market as well. While George Iloka performed serviceably well in 2013, and Shawn Williams had minor but clear contributions when on the field, a tougher, more grizzled safety could give this defense an even harder edge. While bigger names will be floated out there, my pick of the litter would be the bone-crushing James Ihedigbo. With the Ravens, he at times played out of position and was beaten in space, but his tackling ability and fearlessness make him attractive. It's been a long time since the Bengals have had a true enforcer in its secondary and unlike Jairus Byrd or even T.J. Ward, Ihedigbo should come at a reasonable cost.
Lastly, on the wish list is another veteran corner to add adequate depth to an increasingly important position. Alterraun Verner seems tops on the list but his cap number will be significant. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie revived his career nicely in Denver last year, but it's hard to imagine the Broncos letting him walk. The other Bronco corner, however, future hall-of-famer Champ Bailey, should not be written off as a pipe dream.
Bailey has lost a step; there's little doubt about that. He's long in the tooth and only managed to play in three regular-season games a year ago. He's intimated that he would be willing to try out playing safety which only strengthens his chances of sniffing around at Cincinnati, because if it's one thing the Bengals value more than anything else in a player, it's versatility. Marvin Lewis was in Washington with Bailey, so there's some familiarity there. Also, the team has gone after veteran corners a number of times in the past-most recently bringing in Terence Newman and Nate Clements. The previous scheme of Mike Zimmer didn't require speed burner corner backs, but rather preferred the steady hand of sound tacklers and mechanic tacticians at the position. While former first-rounder Dre Kirpatrick should someday be given more responsibility, having a plethora of decent corners makes perfect sense considering how important they have become in today's passing league and how easily they seem to get injured.
Other players I like but either come in too pricey or simply don't make much sense in the Bengals' scheme include guard Jon Asamoah, cornerback Charles Tillman, and defensive end Lamarr Houston. I am a fan of all three of these players but can't come up with a scenario to justify their purchase.
If the team works out or schedules a visit for any of the names listed here, I would be happy. The team is in the enviable position of not needing to sign any outsiders and continue to build and develop from within, but a bit of a veteran increase can't be too bad of a thing. In recent years, Cincinnati has proven to be guided by sound decisions, both in fiscal and in football terms. The front office has earned my trust and whatever they decide to do, they will not incur my wrath or disapproval. These decisions are likely not to reflect what I have written here, but a guy can dream, can't he?