Over the past few seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals have done a wonderful job of keeping their nucleus of talent together with a string of long-term deals. Leon Hall, Kyle Cook, Andrew Whitworth, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Andre Smith and a myriad of others have all rightfully cashed in on big extensions.
The Bengals are set to lose some key players next season when their contracts expire. A couple of weeks ago, we reported that the Bengals have $8.5 million of cap space this year. They have rolled over some money into 2014, likely providing a cushion for some of the players whose contracts are expiring, as well as possible extensions for A.J. Green, Andy Dalton and maybe even Jermaine Gresham.
So, who are the impending free agents next season? The list can be found at Spotrac and the fortunate thing for the Bengals is that most of the players on the list are backups and/or role players. Still, it's that depth that has allowed Cincinnati to overcome some major injuries this year and still sit atop the AFC North at 7-4.
So, who are the top-five players whose contracts are set to expire next year (NOT Green and Dalton) that the Bengals need to retain? Here is my list:
No.5: Linebacker/Safety Taylor Mays (UFA): Yes, he disappointed at safety for two-plus years and yes, his 2013 season ended prematurely with a shoulder injury. Regardless, Mays found a nice home for himself this season playing a hybrid "rover"-like position. His assignments were limited and he was able to play without thinking too much, which paid off. He'll be cheap to re-sign and we all know that he has the physical build to do a lot of things for an NFL defense.
No.4: Wide Receiver Andrew Hawkins (RFA): Being that Hawkins is a restricted free agent, he shouldn't be that difficult to keep. You could tell during this summer's "Hard Knocks" series that the Bengals were looking for "Baby Hawk" to have a big role this season, but an unfortunate Training Camp injury wiped out half of his season. He would be higher on this list if he hadn't been injured and has only two catches this year. He has yet to play a full 16-game season (or more if you include the postseason), but we saw what he was capable of in 2012. If he's healthy, he can provide a nice spark that this offense has been missing this year.
No.3: Linebacker Vincent Rey (RFA): What a Godsend that Rey has been with the multitude of injuries to the linebacker corps. Since filling in for both Rey Maualuga and Michael Boley for three games, Rey has three sacks, 32 total tackles and an interception. He's a smart and capable player that Mike Zimmer has come to depend on and is a special teams ace. He should be reasonably easy to keep because of his RFA status, but could get a little bit of attention on the open market because of his recent play.
No.2: Offensive Tackle Anthony Collins (UFA): I still don't understand why this guy hasn't landed a starting gig somewhere, but maybe it's those orange and black glasses that I'm looking through. Collins has filled in at both tackle spots and has performed very well. You can never have too many good offensive linemen on your roster and Collins is a great sixth guy to have. Plus, with Andrew Whitworth's nagging injuries of late, Collins could be pressed into more service going forward. We'll see if he gets more attention on the open market than he did before the 2012 season, but he would be a player that I would love to see back in Cincinnati.
No.1: Defensive End Michael Johnson (UFA): The most obvious and expensive choice here atop the list. Johnson hasn't totally dominated this season, but has three sacks, two forced fumbles, one interception and eight passes defensed. He is key to what the Bengals defense does up front and won't be 27 years old until next February. Yes, the Bengals have Margus Hunt and Wallace Gilberry, but keeping Johnson would ensure that the Bengals line is one of the most dominant in the league for years to come--especially with Atkins and Dunlap in the fold for the next half-decade.