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In Free Agency This Year, The Waitin' Is The Hardest Thing...On The Bengals

When you lay out a plan that forces you to put all of your eggs in one basket, there's a chance for things to backfire. Because of one major free-agent contract squabble, the Bengals may have backed themselves into a corner, of sorts.

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Back in late February, I asked the question if the Bengals should let Andre Smith walk out of their lives in order to use that money for other roster needs. My question circled around the weight, injury and off-field issues that surround Smith, as well as the stigma of inconsistent play.

The Bengals could then focus on the draft for a tackle and fill some of the other roster holes that exist via free agency with that cache of money that they had saved for Smith. The thought process behind this was to open up the draft for Cincinnati. It wasn't a popular opinion to have at the time, but keep in mind that this was before the designation of Michael Johnson as their franchise player and it was well before the extensive contract war that we are seeing today. Regardless, the Bengals didn't share my thoughts on the answer to the question I posed and stored money away solely for the purpose of signing Smith. How much? We're not sure, but they've undoubtedly done it.

So, here the Bengals sit, currently with their cap-figure hovering around $25 million and Smith remains unsigned. Now, roughly $10 million of that $25 million will be rolled into next year which means another $5 million is there to dedicate to the incoming rookies this season. So, Cincinnati has about $10 million to play with at this point, which is likely earmarked for Smith and a couple of other pre-Training Camp signings.

We're not sure what exactly the figure is that Smith seeks, but we know that it isn't what the Bengals are currently offering, as Joe Reedy recently proclaimed the sides are "far apart" and there haven't been any positive updates to speak of at this point. The broken-down negotiations have the feel of four years ago when Smith was a rookie holdout.

We don't mean to keep piling on Smith here, but let's face it: his contract situation is dominating the Bengals' headlines. Here's the thing, though: whether it is the team playing the waiting game with Smith, or another big in-house free agent, they've crippled themselves going forward. How? I'll explain.

First, the money that the Bengals have piggy-banked for Smith is now sitting stagnant. It has almost no use for a very prominent free agent signing(s) to help fill other roster holes because so many have already been taken. Most of the players that currently remain on the open market are ones that wouldn't have that big of an impact asides from a backup/special teams or stopgap role, though there are some exceptions. Still, with this playoff team wanting to take another step in 2013 by making postseason noise, there are a number of positions that could have been addressed to improve the roster and open up the draft. As it stands now, the money is just sitting there being unused.

That brings us to another issue that could potentially hamstring the Bengals because of the stalled out Smith negotiations--the uncertainty with the draft. Being in limbo with Smith doesn't allow the Bengals to commit one way or the other about drafting a tackle--especially early. The common thought process is that both parties want Smith back in Cincinnati and that he will eventually be re-signed, but it's not a forgone conclusion. With the draft three weeks away and the negotiations having hit a wall, movement needs to be made one way or another on the issue.

Most of us agree that the leverage in the Smith negotiations weigh heavily in the Bengals' favor for the moment. Teams aren't showing any interest in Smith, and both the free agent and rookie tackle class are deep this year. Still, there is one element that could sway some leverage back towards Smith should he not be signed before the draft. Usually, in the months following the draft, there is another surge of activity in free agency. This is due to teams not getting some of the players/positions that they targeted in the draft. Should a tackle-hungry team not be able to grab a big boy in the draft, the interest level in Smith could significantly rise and the Bengals could then truly be in a bidding war for his services.

As I mentioned in my previous article that relates to this one, you would have to think that the Bengals knew that these negotiations weren't going to go well once the decision was made to franchise tag Johnson. However, I don't know that they knew it would get this bad. I'd like to think that the Bengals have a contingency plan for not keeping Smith and a plan for this year's draft, but they certainly aren't showing their cards in either hand.

The sooner that a decision is made with Smith, the better off the Bengals will be. Then they can actually execute a plan besides the current "we'll see" that they have employed.