One of the Bengals' low-profile signings so far has been the re-signing of kicker Mike Nugent to a 2-year, $4 million deal. Nugent, at 33-years-old, has been the Bengals' placekicker and kickoff specialist for five seasons now, including injury-shortened seasons in 2010 and 2012.
Nugent has been a serviceable, but below-league-average, placekicker for the Bengals. In four of his five seasons, he has been below 83% in FG conversion rate. 2014 was his worst season to date, in which he converted just 26 of 33 attempts for 78.8%. That may not sound bad at first, but it ranked 27th out of 31 qualifying placekickers.
Besides accuracy, another issue has been leg strength. In his Bengals career, he is just 6 of 13 from 50+ yards, in an age when many kickers do about as well on long FG as they do overall. In 2014, he had a touchback rate of 44.0% (37 of 84). That may not sound bad at first, but it ranked just 18th out of 27 qualifying KO specialists. Considering that Nugent is 33, it's likely that his leg strength won't get better.
None of this means that Nugent is a bad kicker. To his credit, he finished last season with a 16-for-17 stretch, capped by his 57-yarder in the playoffs against the Colts. He showed some true grit in spite of his difficult family situation. If he were cut by the Bengals, there would probably be a team or two willing to take a chance on him -- such as the Browns, whose current kicker (Garrett Hartley) is a recent street free agent who has a history of being wildly inaccurate at times.
However, in this day and age, kicker is a relatively easy position to replace with a rookie. Last season, four rookie kickers (all undrafted and league-minimum salary) made an active roster: Cody Parkey of the Eagles, Chandler Catanzaro of the Cardinals, Patrick Murray of the Buccaneers, and Cairo Santos of the Chiefs. All of them finished at least 4.5% better than Nugent in FG conversion rate.
Nugent's overall below-average performance means the Bengals ought to bring in real competition at kicker. "Real competition" would consist of re-signing Quinn Sharp, signing an undrafted kicker or two, and letting everyone truly battle it out during training camp and preseason. Nugent could still get the job, but he'd have to earn it.
But given how comfortable the team has been with Nugent over the past five seasons (even letting go of a superior kicker, Josh Brown, who went 47 of 52 for a 90.4 FG% in two seasons with the Giants since then), and recognizing the organization's status-quo mindset, it is all but guaranteed Nugent is Bengals' kicker for 2015.
It's reflected in his new contract, too. There was no reason to put any sort of guaranteed money into Nugent's deal. But they did, and it's too much for a kicker of Nugent's caliber. In fact, the dead money for cutting Nugent is greater than the cost for signing a new kicker. It's like they intentionally wrote the contract in order to convince themselves that Nugent isn't going anywhere, by placing a relatively significant (for a kicker) cap penalty on themselves if they cut him. Overall, Nugent got a raise compared to his last contract.
Barring a preseason injury, Mike Nugent is set as the Bengals' kicker. The Bengals might sign Sharp and a UDFA, but they would be nothing more than temporary roster fodder, no matter how well they do. Even though Nugent's below-average performance indicates that he would definitely have a realistic chance of being beaten by a newcomer, Cincinnati is actually a bad destination for a kicker looking to earn a job.
The Bengals aren't dropping $600K guaranteed and $4M overall on their incumbent kicker with the intention of putting his job on the line. Nugent's contract is a minor example of a major problem with Mike Brown's management over the years: being parsimonious toward outside free agents, overpaying to keep various below-average incumbent players in their roles, and then claiming poverty even though the cap numbers prove otherwise.