The past three years have been fun, haven't they?
Rising from the ashes left by veteran, disengaged arsonists that fled The Queen City, the Cincinnati Bengals made an immediate comeback to play uber-competitive football. Setting franchise records all over the place since 2011, the team didn't bat an eye when they heard the pundits saying that they would be the worst team in the league. They instead put a pointed index finger to their lips to shush the naysayers as they marched to the postseason three straight times and kept those same critics in their peripheral.
Still, the Phoenix-like story behind the Bengals the past three autumns hasn't been enough. They've arrived, but haven't rang the doorbell yet. Most thought that, after three consecutive winters of heartbreak, the team would be splashy this offseason. They were not and it has left a very loyal fanbase hypersensitive to every move the Bengals do or don't make.
It shouldn't really come as a surprise to fans, though. The club was forthright about their plans this spring and killed any sense of huge optimism for a big move. Not that many were necessarily needed, but most concede that the team is a few short pieces away from battling with the powerhouses from the Northwest. It also shouldn't have surprised fans for another simple reason: these are the Mike Brown-owned Cincinnati Bengals.
Now, a decade or two ago, that would immediately be seen as a slight to Mr. Brown and an insult to the team. However, with 30 wins in three seasons, that perception has been changed a bit. Regardless, Brown runs the team as he sees fit, even if he potentially gave some power to Marvin Lewis, Duke Tobin and the Blackburns, and that family crest is stamped on the 2014 offseason.
Inactive Free Agency:
The Bengals re-signed some of their own and brought in outsiders to be back-ups offering little more than being Training Camp bodies. Aside from that, very little of note occurred. We won't beat this horse to death again, but everyone knew that the team was staking its claim on the 2014 season with their draft class. After seeing a slew of players re-signed and some other nice additions from the outside in 2013, one could have been led to believe that it was a beginning of a trend. Instead, it was an anomaly.
Perhaps the most irritating signs with this year's free agency period are the ones that are hidden behind the weeds. Fans were told that the team was stockpiling money to shell out big contracts to key players. Here we sit at Memorial Day weekend, almost three months after the onset of free agency, and no major extensions to the big three (Vontaze Burfict, Andy Dalton, A.J. Green) have been given.
When looking at the NFLPA Salary Cap report (put out twice a day), the Bengals sit with almost $24.5 million in their pocket. At just over $117 million, the Bengals have the third-lowest cap hit number in the entire NFL at the moment, behind only the Colts and Jets.. Aside from that, the team is tied for the third-lowest amount of active contracts signed with 80. Some believe that to be an eyebrow-raiser, while others may shrug it off.
Playing Hardball With Contract Negotiations:
The Bengals have always been perceived as a tough team to deal with on contracts. We saw it up close and personal on "Hard Knocks" and the Andre Smith saga of 2009, as well as with other rumblings of low and/or differently-structured offers to players that went elsewhere. It looks as if this is the case again in 2014.
They are definitely playing hardball with Burfict, Dalton and Green, otherwise a significant portion of that $24.5 million would be eaten up by their deals by now. It isn't just in that aspect, though.
The Bengals always seem to be lagging with their deals to rookies, in comparison to other teams. With the rookie wage scale in place, signing rookies in today's NFL should be a no-brainer, yet the front office still prefers to react to other deals before getting their new class inked. They signed their first two guys on Wednesday in Marquis Flowers and James Wright, but those seemed to have come after the deals for the picks sandwiched around those players were completed.
Staying Put In The Draft:
Yes, the Bengals decided to trade up this year and snag a player. The staff loved Russell Bodine so much that they moved up in the fourth round, only sacrificing a sixth round selection, to take the Combine's bench press king. That would seem to render this point incorrect, wouldn't it?
Yes, but it also plays into another facet: that was only the third time ever that the Bengals traded up in the draft in their 46 years of existence. I'll repeat: three times. For perspective, I asked some fellow editors around SB Nation the amount of times the team that they cover has moved up in the draft. Aside from laughs, I received some interesting information.
Kevin Nogle of "The Phinsider" noted that the Miami Dolphins have traded up in the draft eight times from 2010-2014 alone. The Dolphins also have the designation of having most snaps played by drafted players in the NFL, and though that is a positive-sounding statistic, it can also be a bit deceiving. Still, you get the idea and where the Bengals rank in this area.
The Draft Is Their Bread And Butter:
Not all trends with the Bengals this offseason are negative. With the aforementioned free agency inactivity, most understood that the draft was the basket in which the Bengals were placing most of their eggs this season. With an already loaded roster, it was tough to see many glaring needs.
The consensus opinion on the 2014 crop seems to be in the "B" grade range, though there are some polarizing opinions. Resident Cincy Jungle draft expert, Joe Goodberry, seemed to dislike the class if you had read his Twitter timeline, while Elliott Harrison of NFL.com proclaimed the Bengals as "winners" of the weekend.
From where I sit, there were five positions that needed help in this year's draft and all five were addressed with their first quintuple of picks. One can debate all that they would like on the specific players and in which rounds they chose to address those positions, but the Bengals handled their business for the sixth year in a row.
Sticking To Comfortable Schools In Draft:
it's no coincidence that the Bengals' turnaround with the draft since 2009 has come with their penchant for taking players from big-time programs. The Jerome Simpson small-school projects are few and far between nowadays and the result oftentimes is getting players ready to contribute on day one. It also ensures little drop-off if starters succumb to injury.
Mike Brown and Co. also showed that time doesn't heal all wounds. Much like how they have shied away from big free agents after the 2010 debacles with wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens, ownership hasn't forgotten where some of their biggest busts have come from. Case in point: Ohio State.
No NFL team gets a closer look at the Buckeyes than the Cincinnati Bengals. With running back on their mind in the second round, the Bengals had a chance to grab Carlos Hyde out of OSU, a player that most draftniks had at the top of their board for the position. The team eschewed Hyde for the similarly talented Jeremy Hill out of LSU. Why? Because of his similar production in a more difficult conference while operating in a pro-style offense, Hill won the day with the Bengals.
It's also likely that the team didn't want another Big Ten running back in a list of fizzled out players. They were burned by Archie Griffin, a two-time Heisman Trophy winner, as well as let down to some degree by another Buckeye, Pete Johnson. Though he is towards the top of the team's career rushing list and made a Pro Bowl, Johnson only cracked the four-yard-per-carry mark three times in his seven seasons in the Queen City. Long-time fans will remember him getting stuffed at the goal line in the team's first Super Bowl appearance.
Let's also not forget Ki-Jana Carter, the Penn State running back that set the team back a number of years because of the trade up to get him and the enormous bust he became afterward. With Hill, the Bengals feel that they went with the safer, more ready pick than Hyde, who also had more touches in college.
With Brown and the Bengals, time just doesn't heal all wounds.