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Farewell Performance? Chad Ochocinco, Cedric Benson, Johnathan Joseph All Eye 2011 Free Agency

Once again, it's May, and once again, the NFL doldrums are upon us. Though the Cincinnati Bengals are doing their best to make sure their fans have something to talk about during the league's annual dead zone (see: Jones comma Adam comma "Pacman") the fact is that fans and writers are both just killing time until training camps open up. So I'm going to take a step back and look a little further down the road than the upcoming season. My question: what's the plan?

The Bengals have a number of important players whose future in stripes beyond 2010 is in doubt. On the defensive side, the big name is CB Johnathan Joseph. The conventional wisdom is that the Bengals won't be able to afford both Joseph and CB Leon Hall (whose rookie deal expires after the 2011 season), but after those two players, there's no other starting corner on the roster. And before someone chimes in, Pacman hasn't done bupkis at corner since 2006. If that changes this year, I'll be happy to feast on roast crow, but I'm not counting on it, and the Bengals shouldn't, either. 

On the other side of the ball, there's RB Cedric Benson, who in his short time in Cincinnati has become second only to QB Carson Palmer in importance to the offense. While the team has some talented situational backs behind him on the roster, including Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard, there's no "bell-cow" in sight. With relatively little tread on his tires for a 28-year-old (in 2011) back, Benson seems a good candidate to re-sign, but for the same reason he may also draw competing offers in free agency. Certainly, if he puts up another 1,000+ yard season this year, he'll garner more interest next March than he did in 2009.

And, of course, there's WR Chad Ochocinco. Chad will be a free agent in 2011 unless the Bengals exercise a $6 million option which would extend his deal for one more year. That has disaster written all over it. Players chafe at playing under one-year franchise deals. Anyone want to take a guess at how Chad will react to playing under a one-yer deal that's roughly 60% of the franchise money for wide receivers?

Yeah. Exactly. 2008 redux. And again, there's no clear successor on the roster. Would-be replacement WR Jerome Simpson appears to be a flop, and free agent WR Antonio Bryant, who in theory could take over as the No. 1 wideout, has yet to take a snap as a Bengal.

In short, the Bengals are looking at the No. 1 wide receiver, No. 1 running back and (arguably) No. 1 cornerback all being free agents in 2011, with no real alternatives in sight. That suggests that the plan is, pay the men, but handing out three sizable new deals isn't the Bengals' style. Look at 2006: once Levi Jones and Willie Anderson signed, the till was declared empty for Eric Steinbach. So figure at least one of the "big three" moves on.

Who? If I had to bet, I'd say J-Jo. I can actually see the Bengals giving Chad a new deal, something like the front-loaded pile Laveranues Coles got last year. It will be a three- or four-year contract giving Chad about $10 million in the first year -- but only amounting to about $4 million more than they would have had to pay him anyhow. Benson, too, I think they get back. Top dollar for RBs isn't anywhere near what it is for WRs and CBs, so he's the easy signing.

That leaves Cincinnati with Joseph, the prospect of Hall hitting he market the following year, and what looks to be a reasonably good draft for defensive backs coming up next April. Obvously, a lot of things could change between now and March 2011, and equally obviously, the NFL and the players have to reach a new labor deal, which will probably include some version of the franchise tag. In that case, it's easy to construct a scenario in which the Bengals sign Benson, exercise their option on Chad and tag Joseph, but again, that doesn't seem to me to make for a couple of happy, highly paid stars. More importantly, it's not a plan; it's just kicking the can down the road.

Oh, you want my plan? Well, if I'm Mike Brown (and I'm not, though I do drive a crappy car and wear cheap suits), Joseph is the one guy I don't let get away. Moreover, I pay Hall, too. It doesn't do a lot of good to draft and develop talent only to let it go at first opportunity. Over the past few years, the Bengals have built a damned good defense, and I don't want to see that given up without a fight. In the Chad vs. Cedric battle, I give Chad the slightest edge simply because it's proven so difficult for the Bengals to find a No. 1 wideout, either through the draft or free agency, to replace him. On the other hand, they seem to do a good job with running backs, and the run-oriented offensive line ought to be a boon to anyone they bring in. If Bryant shows something this season, I might be persuaded to revise my opinion. But Benson, as much as I like him (I think they ought to have extended him this year) ends up as my odd man out, for now.