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Cincinnati Bengals Defense Could Be Approaching Massive Changes

The Cincinnati Bengals will have 20 unrestricted free agents hitting free agency on March 13, with notable defensive names like Reggie Nelson, Jonathan Fanene, Frostee Rucker, Pat Sims, Brandon Johnson and Adam Jones, among others. Now one could easily argue that the team could work the NFL Draft to rebuild the defense, sprinkling offensive genius in the process. But the reality is Cincinnati's defense is approaching a cross-roads that can't be resolved with just the draft.

Though Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was unable to secure a head coaching job during the offseason, he's entering the final year of a three-year contract in 2012. Should Cincinnati fail to bring him back after this season, for one reason or another, the team will be faced with finding his replacement by this time next year -- head coach Marvin Lewis is also entering the final year of a two-year contract. Defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle has already departed for the Miami Dolphins as the team's newest defensive coordinator. Published reports hint that linebackers coach Jeff Fitzgerald's contract won't be renewed, leaving two defensive coaching positions unfilled. Jay Hayes, Paul Guenther and David Lippincott could be the only defensive-minded coaches remaining from the 2011 squad by this time next year.

Then you have players with expiring contracts. Three key members on the defensive line will be free agents this year (Pat Sims, Frostee Rucker, Jonathan Fanene), along with two highly productive linebackers in Manny Lawson and Brandon Johnson. Two starters in the secondary, Adam Jones and Reggie Nelson, will also be entering free agency next month. All of whom were contributors on a seventh-ranked defense that qualified for the 2011 NFL playoffs.

Looking further down the road and this potential exodus could threaten Cincinnati's proud defense -- a defense that could be argued as the main reason Cincinnati made the postseason in 2011. Rey Maualuga, Thomas Howard, Michael Johnson, Robert Geathers and possibly Keith Rivers will enter free agency in 2013. The one trend with those players? All are starters, or at the very least significant contributors.

Though many will shrug their shoulders with names like Robert Geathers and Keith Rivers, someone like Rey Maualuga presents a quandary. Along with two incidents against the law during his time in Cincinnati, Maualuga's three-seasons could be categorized as average. We can assume that Chris Crocker, Nate Clements and Robert Geathers will be playing their final seasons in a Bengals uniform, but is Cincinnati's front office developing enough foresight to address those positions today?

Players entering their final season under contract (per Spotrac).

Player Base Salary Cap Hit
Robert Geathers $4,200,000 $4,200,000
Nate Clements $2,500,000 $5,500,000
Bruce Gradkowski **** $1,800,000
Chris Crocker $1,750,000 $2,125,000
Keith Rivers * $1,660,000 $2,197,499
Rey Maualuga $565,000 $1,092,500
Michael Johnson $565,000 $995,000
Brandon Tate $565,000 $761,870
Kevin Huber $565,000 $613,750
Bernard Scott $565,000 $584,375
Thomas Howard **
Brian Leonard ***

* Club Option: If the Bengals exercise the option for 2013, Rivers will be due $2 million in base salary.
** Thomas Howard signed a two-year deal worth $6.5 million.
*** Brian Leonard signed a two-year deal worth $2 million with another $500,000 through incentives.
**** Bruce Gradkowski is scheduled to make $1.8 million in 2013