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Resetting Free Agency; Bengals so far have been "blah", but we shouldn't judge yet

We can be highly critical of many things that the Cincinnati Bengals do. Well, we are critical. In fact, it's almost taboo if you break the ranks and support something that they do. I guess that's part of being a modern Bengals fan; if you're not angry with the team, then you're not really a fan because of a misunderstanding of one's victimization. Furthermore, there's a trend where if the Bengals do one thing, then it's wrong; therefore the alternative, or opposite, must be the correct path.

In truth, no one has any reason to believe differently.

For the past few weeks, the Bengals were slammed for their use of the franchise tag. Specifically, people were angry that the Bengals tagged a place kicker, rather than T.J. Houshmandzadeh; a critical offensive component. The Bengals didn't think he should get the money he's asking for when negotiation a long-term deal; reportedly in the $10 million neighborhood. The irony is that no team jumped on Houshmandzadeh's supposed asking price, allowing him only a confirmed visit with Seattle, an unconfirmed visit with Minnesota, and a pissed off Philadelphia franchise, prompting this writer to suggest that the Bengals might have a better chance to sign him. Also, ESPN Radio, 1050 in New York reported that Houshmandzadeh will be visiting the Giants -- not sure when.

What am I getting at? The Bengals refused to give Houshmandzadeh a $9.88 million franchise tag, allowing him to hit the free agency market. If they tagged him, and then tried to negotiate a long-term deal next season, the Bengals would be competing with other teams during a negotiation period in which the league would have no salary cap. This year would be the final year in which the Bengals could sign him to a long-term deal. So our guess is that the Bengals prevented the one-year contract attributed to the franchise tag, by allowing Houshmandzadeh to go, find out his market, and then compete once he was brought back to Earth so they're not negotiating during an uncapped season.

I'm totally speculating here. There's no known truths that this is their plan. Is this their strategy? Are they smart enough to manipulate events like this? It could come into reality if the Bengals actually do sign him.

Much of the issue that people are having is that the Bengals haven't appeared to address the offensive line in free agency. It's been 36 hours as of this writing, and we're pissed, right? While it is true, the Bengals haven't been front runners for any known free agents on the line, it's been pretty clear that the Bengals have locked up the idea of upgrading the unit through the draft; which in our opinion, is the appropriate course.

This became evident when the Bengals were mostly quiet with available free agent centers (a big need to address), starting with Jeff Saturday re-signing with the Colts. Many wanted Jason Brown, who wanted to milk the market to get the Ravens to match. The St. Louis Rams gave Brown a five-year deal worth $37.5 million with $20 million in guarantees. Matt Birk is available. Pete Prisco says to beware of Birk:

"If you doubt me, take a look at the Vikings-Eagles playoff game. Both Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson dominated Birk. He never blocked them. Birk no longer has the power to get people moved. He will be 33 this summer, which is also a risk. He's still a smart, heady player, but don't get caught up in the name here. This isn't the same Matt (Birk) that went to Pro Bowls."

Pat Kirwin breaks down centers, ranking them and listing Eric Ghiaciuc as the fifth best center. Seriously. Fifth best. Jake Grove is a high priority with the Raiders, however Melvin Fowler isn't expected to re-sign with Buffalo, who were also targeting Brown. What's odd about Kirwin's list is that Brown didn't break the top-five; yes, again, Ghiaciuc ahead of Brown. Therefore, we suggest that the likely plan with Cincinnati is to address center in the second round of the NFL Draft, for a price tag that's fractions of fractions compared to Brown's deal.

Why didn't they go after a tackle or guard? Pittsburgh Guard Chris Kemoeatu re-signed with the Steelers -- the deal is five years, worth up to $20 million and a $3.885 signing bonus. Seems reasonable, doesn't it? Mike Goff is still available, which should also tell you something. You could make a point that the Bengals could have at least entertained guys like Khalif Barnes, Mark Tauscher, Jonathan Stinchcomb, Derrick Dockery, however, I never believed that they were looking for starting linemen through free agency. The quick fix would make sense of course, but the Bengals view rebuilding the offensive line should be designed for long-term visions. Dating back to 2006, we've lost three starting linemen (Steinbach, Anderson, Braham) with a fourth on the way out (Jones). Patching the offensive line through free agency would cost too much. Devising a foundation of linemen through the draft enables the Bengals to develop a cohesive unit for several seasons without bankrupting Brown's accounts -- which you have to consider heavily if analyzing the Bengals.

In our view, the Bengals are right to let offensive line development fall back onto the NFL draft, while looking to fill gaps with veteran players, such as wide receivers, backup quarterbacks if not a running back or two. How their handling of the Houshmandzadeh sweepstakes is confusing, but if the above suggestion that they are manipulating events for him to return at a much lower cost than the tag, then it makes more sense; of course, he actually has to sign.

During the past week, the Bengals got their own without introducing a new player from free agency. Brandon Johnson and Rashad Jeanty are tendered as restricted free agents. They have until April 17 to sign their deals, waiting for other teams to potentially sign them away. Shayne Graham is franchised and returning no matter what. Darryl Blackstock verbally agreed to stick with Cincinnati for one more year and Chris Crocker signed a four-year deal on Friday (the only player signed this off-season to be here past 2009). We've lost Stacy Andrews and Ryan Fitzpatrick while the Bengals figure to be the front runners for running back Derrick Ward. Losing Andrews and Fitzpatrick hasn't broken any hearts and signing Ward would help solidify our running back position, assuming that Benson had no intention of returning.

In my conclusion, the Bengals first 36 hours during free agency has been "blah". But, it's been 36 hours, not days, nor weeks. Free agency will last for a long time, and there's the NFL Draft to still consider. It's too early to view the Bengals free agency period as a success or failure. However, we didn't expect them to go crazy during the first day, did we?