Josh touched on this topic a little bit in his article on the projected 2015 salary cap, but the issue is so serious that it begs further explanation. The future of the Bengals hinges entirely on how they handle their own massive free agent class after this season. It's not just a few players - over half of the projected started offense and defense are entering contract years.
For this discussion, let's assume that the Bengals' primary offensive formation in 2015 will be a three-receiver set and their primary defensive formation will be their nickel defense. Then, a whopping 12 out of a projected 22 starters are entering contract years. That's an insanely high number of starters entering free agency at one time.
Compare that number to this offseason, when only five starters are entering free agency (Clint Boling, Rey Maualuga, Emmanuel Lamur, Jermaine Gresham, and Terence Newman), and the team likely doesn't even want Gresham or Newman back as starters.
Who are these 12 players? First, let's look at the list on offense: WR A.J. Green, WR Marvin Jones, WR Mohamed Sanu, LT Andrew Whitworth, RT Andre Smith, and RG Kevin Zeitler.
All three of these receivers are tall, talented, and experienced. Similarly, all three of the linemen are Pro-Bowl caliber players. Even with the 2015 salary cap expanding to an estimated $140-143 million, according to Adam Schefter, the Bengals simply can't keep all of these talented players. In anticipation of this problem, the team is reportedly looking to draft an offensive tackle very early and a wide receiver in the middle rounds, as reported by the team's official site.
Let's try to keep it simple by hashing it out one position at a time.
The front office has stated several times that they'd like to keep A.J. Green in stripes. It would have to be a massive contract extension that puts Green among the top three highest paid receivers in the league (behind Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald). That means anywhere from about $16-$20 million per year. Green has the unprecedented production to back up such an enormous contract. In his first three seasons, he recorded 260 receptions, the most in NFL history for a player in his first three seasons. In 2014, he led the league in yards per route run. So, let's say the front office rewards Green with a massive contract extension this summer. Now that we've laid the foundation for our 2016 offseason plan, we can act accordingly.
With such a massive contract given to Green, the team will probably have to decide between Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu as Green's partner in crime. Jones has shown that he can win more consistently on the outside than Sanu, but Jones has injury issues and barely practiced at all in 2014. Sanu flashed some major playmaking ability in the first half of 2014 when Green was out, but faded down the stretch. Sanu is much better suited as a slot receiver, where he can settle in zones and win one-on-one match ups against safeties and linebackers. Frankly, Sanu just doesn't get open often enough against cornerbacks in man coverage and he even led the league in drops in 2014.
If Marvin Jones proves his health in 2015, the team could keep Marvin Jones on the outside and let Sanu go in free agency. In preparation for Sanu's departure, the team should draft a speedy receiver in the middle rounds of this draft. This rookie would spend a season learning behind the starters and take over Sanu's role as a slot receiver in 2016. Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com has mentioned that the team is looking for a receiver with speed, but maybe not until at least the third round. This draft is very deep at wide receiver, so a player like Kansas State's Tyler Lockett, USC's Nelson Agholor, or ECU's Justin Hardy could end up slipping in the draft to the Bengals in the third round.
Obviously, Andrew Whitworth is a huge leader on the team and one of the Bengals' best players. However, he would be turning 35 during the 2016 season. Andre Smith, on the other hand, might be just as talented as Whitworth, but he doesn't provide any of Whitworth's elite consistency. Smith also doesn't bring much as a leader and even requires a weight clause in his contract.
The team values Whitworth so highly that if they are forced to choose between the two, they’ll probably ride out Whitworth a couple more years until he retires.
Line coach Paul Alexander recently commented that it’s hard to find a left tackle after 21, but you can find right tackles later. If LSU's La'el Collins falls to the 21st pick, the Bengals would probably sprint to the podium because Collins would be their left tackle of the future. Then, either Collins or Whitworth could kick inside to left guard for the time being, if perhaps another team chooses to overpay Clint Boling in what is an extremely weak FA class and draft class of guards.
Another possibility would be drafting an offensive tackle late in the first round and letting him him sit for a year. In this scenario, they would have re-signed Boling. This new offensive tackle could then fill Smith’s place on the right side if they let Smith walk after the 2015 season.
In reality, the offensive line situation is very murky and it's hard to read the crystal ball until Clint Boling is signed somewhere. The team has expressed interest in re-signing him, but he might be the best guard available on the market right now and it's very conceivable that he gets overpaid and the Bengals don't match it. The team recently decided to release backup interior lineman Mike Pollak, so they are very thin at the guard position. They must either re-sign Boling or find his replacement in the draft. Second-year guard Trey Hopkins out of Texas is a player to keep an eye on as well.
The last important offensive player entering a contract year is Kevin Zeitler. He’s the type of player that the team usually extends, making him a Bengal for life. He’s an elite player at the position and requires little-to-no maintenance. Fortunately, Zeitler, as a first round draft pick, is eligible for a fifth-year option which the team will probably use. This helps push one of the 14 contributors back to 2017.
The point is, if the team wants to re-sign Zeitler, Whitworth, Green, and Jones, they can save a lot of cap space by drafting the replacements for Andre Smith and Mohamed Sanu in this year's draft.
Now, let’s flip over to the defensive side of things, where the free agent situation is even worse. Another six projected starters are entering contract years. There’s Wallace Gilberry and the entire secondary. Yes. All five nickel secondary players: Leon Hall, Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Reggie Nelson and George Iloka. Additionally, backup defensive tackle Brandon Thompson and 2014 tackle leader Vinny Rey are also entering contract years.
Just like the offense, the team is probably going to have to pick and choose who they want back. With two early draft picks waiting in the wings (Hunt and Clarke), and another defensive end probably on the way through either free agency or the draft, perhaps the team can live with Gilberry walking in 2016. It really depends on who is brought in and the development of Hunt and Clarke.
This group must be improved immediately if the defense is going to return to its top 10 form. If they bring in a pass rusher, a defensive tackle, and a linebacker, that would be a great first step. Head coach Marvin Lewis has recently commented that the draft is full of hybrid player that typically don't fit their 4-3 scheme, so it seems more likely that the team will use free agency to bring in an established pass rusher. In the draft, the defensive tackle position is considered to be top-heavy. According to scouting analyst Mike Mayock, only "eight defensive tackles are high level players". They can take one of these eight players in the first or second round to help improve the rotation of arguably the worst position group in the 2014 season. The team can't afford to let Brandon Thompson go, especially with the age of Domata Peko and the uncertainty in Geno Atkins' future production.
At linebacker, the future is very murky. It appears the team will bring back middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and restricted free agent Emmanuel Lamur. The team's official site reported that they might be looking for a little more of a physical run stopper at the strong side linebacker spot, where Lamur started in 2014. Perhaps Lamur would be best suited in a reduced role as the team's nickel linebacker alongside a healthy Vontaze Burfict.
With all the re-signings, free agent signings and uncertainty about Burfict's future, it's hard to project Vinny Rey's future with the team at this point. He has great value as a backup linebacker at all three positions and is also a strong special teams player. There are too many moving parts to project where this position group will be after the 2015 season.
The secondary, which has been an area of recent depth and stability, is also approaching a big fork in the road. It appears the team is interested in retaining the younger players, while letting the older ones enter free agency, according to Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson. In the following quote, Hobson answers a question about Leon Hall, Reggie Nelson, and Adam Jones.
All of them are going to be back in 2015, the last year of their deals. After that, none of them may be back, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jones sign a one- or two-year extension before this season.
It will be interesting to see how Hall bounces back. Has he lost that much speed or will he be better two seasons removed from Achilles surgery? But he’ll be 31 when his deal is up and Nelson will be 32. Unless you’re Terence Newman or a returner like Jones, how many DBs here get extended into their 30s?
Essentially, Hobson is suggesting that the team might let Hall and Nelson walk, due to their age and high cap numbers. Unless Hall is willing to return at a significant discount compared to his $9.6 million cap hit (tied for second-highest on the team), he might end up playing for a different team in 2016. This will be a huge prove-it year for Hall. After Achilles surgery on both legs, he hasn’t been playing at a high level. It has been a combination of poor technique and simply being too slow. At one point in his career, he was known for his excellent technique, so perhaps Hall will be able to bounce back in this area.
Unless Hall is willing to take a massive pay cut on his next contract, the Bengals corners in 2016 will likely be Dre Kirkpatrick, Adam Jones, and Darqueze Dennard covering the slot. Jones will turn 33 at the start of the 2016 season, but he’s the type of elite athlete who will probably be able to play in his mid-thirties, like Terence Newman. As Hobson suggested above, the Bengals will probably bring back Jones on a short deal. At that point, the team probably exercise the fifth-year option on Dre Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick earned the injury-prone bust label after his first two years in the league, but had a revival in year three when replaced Terence Newman on the outside at the end of the year. To the delight of many Bengals fans, these young first round corners should start seeing more playing time.
Now, let's move on to the safeties. The Bengals are probably going to re-sign Iloka, but they may let Nelson walk, as Hobson suggests again.
I think Nelson has had a great run here after they traded for him just before the 2010 season and they gave him a nice four-year, $18 million deal before the 2012 season. He turns 33 in 2016, so it would be hard for me to see the Bengals coming up with another big deal for him. No doubt they could get a more manageable deal for Iloka, who turns 25 in June.
A lot depends if they can find a replacement for Nelson. Shawn Williams always seems to play OK when they put him in there, but they don’t do it often. If ’15 comes and goes and no one else emerges, then they’d have to go free agency for a younger guy or re-up Nelson on a short deal where they wouldn’t want to give him a prime number.
Hobson, mentions Shawn Williams as a possible candidate to replace Nelson, but Wiliiams has only played in garbage time and in the goal line formation. The 2013 third round pick is known for being a physical, big hitter. He has mostly played on special teams, where he gets chippy and feisty with the opposing team. He fits the profile for a typical strong safety, but his coverage skills may not be up to par. Regardless, knowledge of the defense is the key trait in determining who will start for the Bengals at safety (just look back to Chris Crocker playing ahead of George Iloka). Because of this, it seems that Williams could easily be the Bengals starting strong safety in 2016.
Like Zeitler, Iloka is the type of player that the team will want to make a Bengal for life. He’ll probably earn a lucrative contract for the prime of his career. Iloka allowed the lowest passer rating in the league last year among safeties. As he continues to develop, Iloka is on track to becoming a Pro Bowl safety.
In summary, on defense, the team will probably re-sign Jones, Iloka, Thompson, and Kirkpatrick. The future of Hall and Nelson seems much more murky, and it's too early to tell what will happen to Gilberry and Vinny Rey. Having this many starters enter free agency at the same time is unusual, but with some strong drafts and appropriate signings in free agency, the Bengals should be able to get through this dilemma without a large drop off in 2016.