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Offering Caution To Bengals Fans Heading Into Free Agency

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As has been widely reported in recent weeks, the Cincinnati Bengals could have upwards to $60 million under the projected salary cap in 2012. Despite reports suggesting that the final salary cap number could be less than the projected $120 million, the Bengals have plenty of room to become heavy players in free agency when the new league year starts within the next two weeks. Let's sign Carl Nicks, Ben Grubbs. Why not sign Houston Texans running back Arian Foster to an offer sheet, or Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace. We don't really need two first-round picks, do we? We're Montgomery "effing" Burns, baby. Get my jet. I'm going to check the progress of my battle station orbiting Saturn.

That being said we're going to approach this topic with an intensely unpopular perspective. The Cincinnati Bengals aren't going to be huge players during free agency come March 13. And our prediction? It's going to generate very upset Bengals fans.

But we have money, we can spend it. It's ours. First of all not a single cent of that money is "ours", so let's get that idea flushed out of our collective minds. Secondly this isn't fantasy football, or a real-life version of Madden where simplicity rules. There's lasting consequences to real-world actions that we're simply unaware of, perhaps including serious salary cap implications down the road if the team suddenly becomes generous with guaranteed contracts. Do we desperately want the Bengals to sign someone like Carl Nicks? Without a doubt. It could be viewed as one of the biggest free agent signings in recent history by this organization. But this is still Cincinnati, a franchise that still struggles to entice top-tier free agents at their respective positions during the prime of their careers.

Despite the growing belief that Bengals president Mike Brown is slowly diminishing his day-to-day influence within the organization, Mike Brown remains the owner of this franchise. Yes we'll relay every update and possibility that the Bengals could have in signing someone like New Orleans offensive guard Carl Nicks. Yet history dictates that Brown won't offer the seven-year deal worth $56.7 million (that Jahri Evans received) on an offensive guard, while the team could be facing another serious gap at right tackle with Andre Smith entering the final year of his four-year deal (with a two-year option declined last year). And if Dalton and Green continue playing well, don't you have to factor contract extensions within a year or two? What about Bengals players facing free agency, like Frostee Rucker, Johnathan Fanene and Brandon Johnson this year, or Michael Johnson, Brian Leonard, Bernard Scott in 2013?

This isn't my suggestion. This is my impression observing and analyzing this team and the years of programming about what this organization has done, as opposed to a hopeful forecast of what this team can do.

Ultimately you have to apply trends, not recent press conferences or interviews from assistant coaches who has spent one year as an offensive coordinator. Cincinnati will build through the draft while filling gaps through free agency. And really, if you reflect on this team's decision-making, their history, they're more likely to draft an offensive guard in the first round rather than sign an expensive free agent, despite the fact that many will name Carl Nicks as the league's best guard. Even then the Bengals have never selected an offensive guard in the first round in their history. Now we're concerned because we could envision the team just as easily sticking with the status quo in Nate Livings and Bobbie Williams. Not popular we know, but possible? Can you say otherwise? That's our point, stick in the mud, floundering hope tempered by known historical realities that tends to bleed into the future.

Last year the team built the offense through the draft with quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green and to a radically hopeful degree, guard Clint Boling. Defensively Cincinnati filled gaps through free agency with linebackers Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson and cornerback Nate Clements. Yet those signings weren't based within an overall effort to improve the roster. They were reactions, designed to fill gaps in response to injuries with Roddrick Muckelroy and Keith Rivers and the sudden departure of Johnathan Joseph, who the team believed was sticking around if not for the 11th-hour Brinks arrival by the Houston Texans. That's not to diminish their production; Thomas Howard was easily the team's best linebacker and Manny Lawson played the run as well as any defender on this team. But it wasn't a gung-ho effort to bring free agents to Cincinnati with the intension of improving the team as so many are hoping for today. Granted they didn't have the cap space last year that they do now. But there's no hidden force, panicked anxiety, forcing Brown and the Bengals front office to address free agency through a Brewster's Millions mentality.

It's sad. We know. But we only offer caution with this team so far south of the projected 2012 salary cap, it doesn't necessarily mean that the team will spend anything; no matter how hopeful we are.