Without a doubt, the two biggest free agent pieces that the Bengals would like to retain are defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins. The issue that the Bengals face with these two, aside from them being young and productive, is that their positions are prized commodities in today's NFL. Translation: they could be quite pricey to keep around.
Collins provides an interesting situation, though. He's relatively young and has low tread on the tires from playing behind others, but has been extremely effective when placed in the lineup--particularly at left tackle. When Andrew Whitworth kicked inside to left guard to replace the injured Clint Boling and Collins flanked him outside, the difference in offensive output was noticeable. Now, Whitworth publicly stated that he prefers playing tackle, but with Boling being a potential candidate for the PUP List, Collins seems like a must-have.
It's this sentiment that Collins will likely try and ride into a big and somewhat well-deserved payday this offseason. But, like many other impending free agents must ask themselves, is Collins going to overvalue himself? There are a handful of reasons that might be pointing to yes.
The Lack Of Starting Experience:
Collins is entering his seventh season and is 28 years old. He has played both tackle spots, making his value higher because of that versatility. Still, in those six accrued seasons, Collins only has 25 starts for an average of just over four per season. What's more only 14 of those 25 starts have come at left tackle, which is what he will likely be labeling himself as on the open market, and he hasn't had more than seven starts in a season.
Though he has been effective in those 25 starts, teams will likely have to ask themselves if they feel that Collins is a capable starting left tackle for 16 or more games. Though he has been relatively durable in his career, there is no sample size that big on his resume. That's a big roll of the dice to any franchise who might be looking to pay him top left tackle money.
The Depth Of The Free Agent Tackle Market:
A version of this hurt Andre Smith's stock as a free agent last season, though it was the depth in the draft that did him in, not in veterans. There are some major offensive tackle names hitting the market this season and that could push Collins' name to the bottom of the pile.
The Ravens' Michael Oher, the Chiefs' Branden Albert and the Saints' Charles Brown are all names that tackle-hungry teams will fawn over. Though Collins has less wear and tear than the aforementioned names, he is only younger than Albert. Going into his seventh season, it's quite possible that the next long-term contract that Collins signs will be his last, so a team had better be sure when they invest in a guy with limited starting experience and one entering the later years of his career like Collins.
The Andre Smith Effect:
Speaking of Smith, it's a fair assessment to say that Bengals fans had the value of offensive tackle overblown (except myself, which I'm patting myself on the back for). Most believed that, based on two good seasons out of four, Smith earned a $8-$9 million per year contract. After he felt insulted by the Bengals' initial offer, Smith decided to make the rounds with other teams. The only problem was that no other teams returned his call.
Smith had his own problems that made teams shy away from him, be it conditioning and/or injury history issues. Collins doesn't have that same rap, but with limited starts and not a former high draft pick status to fall back on (Smith was a No.6 overall pick, Collins was a fourth round selection), No.73 might become an afterthought to some clubs--especially while playing in a smaller market. This reason is more about fan perception of Collins' worth more than NFL insider opinion. In short, take the orange and black glasses off and try and look at his value objectively.
Collins' Last Foray Into Free Agency:
After the 2011 season, the last time that Collins was a free agent, many believed that he wouldn't return because he would land a big payday elsewhere. For as much credit that I like to give myself about the Andre Smith situation, I will eat some crow on this line of thinking, as I figured a team would definitely look at bringing him in to compete as a starter. He came back to the Bengals as a backup signing a two-year, $2.5 million contract.
In hindsight, it worked out great for the Bengals. The 2013 season was Collins' best as a pro and Cincinnati milked every penny that they conceivably could out of the deal for who they considered a backup player. Still, the limited starts and other big names who were available hurt him two years ago. Now, he's that much older and will likely be asking for more money than he did before the 2012 season, which may cause some front offices that looked at him before to scratch their heads.
The Parity In The NFL With Right And Left Tackles:
Though left tackles are still viewed as a cornerstone position, the evolution of the NFL has also had a re-emphasis on right tackles. Traditionally speaking, right tackles have always been road grader linemen that have had lower values than a pass-protecting left tackle. With the implementation of the "pistol offense" and the versatility that offenses show today, there is less of a disparity between the two positions.
You can go back as early as 2009 when the Bengals took Smith at No.6 overall with every intention of him becoming their starting right tackle. Another reason why is because NFL defenses have found a way to rush a capable defender from anywhere on the field. Right tackles are simply asked to do more nowadays and that may could drop the value of a player whose strength is the left side.
The Devaluation Of Free Agency Because Of The New CBA:
When the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed in 2011, a rookie wage scale was put in place. WIth this, rookies aren't paid the ridiculous contracts that they once were given without stepping foot on an NFL field. At the onset, some veterans may have like the idea, but not anymore.
Risk is greatly lessened in the draft because of it and teams are more inclined to take a flyer on a younger talent than a pricey, proven guy. Though this year's offensive line class may not be as strong as last year's crop, teams might wait to see what tackle could fall to them before shelling out major cash to a veteran. If nobody of their liking falls their way, then a team may inclined to re-examine available free agents. If/when this happens, a veteran's worth drops dramatically. This could conceivably happen with Collins and other guys that could still be floating out there post-draft.
Collins likely will and deserves to be paid a large sum of money this season, though should not be paid as an elite NFL tackle at this point. The Bengals would be wise to make a solid initial offer and if Collins balks at it, allow him to test the market and come back with a counteroffer based on some other dealings. If No.73 wants elite tackle money, the Bengals may want to think hard about that one. Though he has played in limited spurts, giving Collins a big contract and a starting gig isn't necessarily a sure thing.
Do the Bengals present themselves with the best offensive line formation with Collins at left tackle and Whitworth at guard? Probably, especially given the state of Boling. However, let's trust in management to provide the right kind of mix of business-savvy hardball and a concession that Collins is valuable to the Bengals. It has worked out before in recent deals and could again with the big offensive lineman out of Kansas. If Collins and his representation decide to ignore some of the points that I mentioned above, I hesitantly say that the Bengals might want to look in another direction.