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While it may have ended in heartbreaking fashion, 2015 was still a memorable year for the Cincinnati Bengals.
They won 12 games for just the third time in the 48-year history of the franchise and made it to the playoffs for a franchise record fifth-straight time. This was due in large part to several players having career years that may also net them big paydays this offseason.
Whether that's with the Bengals or another NFL team remains to be seen, but there's no question several players from this year's squad will be handsomely paid in the coming months. Several of them will be hitting free agency for the first time as their rookie deals expire, meaning just about any deal they get this offseason will be a big upgrade over what they've been paid to this point.
ESPN's Mike Sando took a look at several of the top players from around the NFL who had career seasons in what happened to be contract years while also being fairly young. Making his list was Bengals receiver Marvin Jones:
Jones, 25, set career highs with 65 receptions for 816 yards and four touchdowns after missing the 2014 season with foot and ankle injuries.
Also on his list was Bengals safety George Iloka, who didn't have his best seasons due to multiple injuries, but did just enough following his breakout 2014 season that he's still in for a big payday this offseason.
Fellow Bengals safety Reggie Nelson can also become a free agent, but the 25-year-old Iloka is seven years younger. Mark Barron, Rashad Johnson and Walter Thurmond were other safeties under consideration here.
You'll notice that a couple of Bengals who had bigger years that are free agents didn't make this list. That's because guys like cornerback Adam Jones (32-years-old), safety Reggie Nelson (32) and cornerback Leon Hall (31) are a little long in the tooth for most teams to want to commit a lot of money and/or years to them this offseason.
That's why it won't be surprising if a lesser-proven but higher upside guy like Marvin Jones gets a bigger deal this offseason than a guy like Adam Jones or Nelson. A good example of this last year was safety Mike Adams, who had a Pro Bowl season in 2014 and was one of the best safeties in football, but ultimately signed just a two-year, $4.85-million contract with the Indianapolis Colts mainly because he was 33-years-old (now 34).
Teams just don't want to invest a lot in players in their 30s who could in theory drop off significantly in their level of play as they age. The good news is that could play into the Bengals' hand as they look to re-sign all of their key free agents this offseason. If no one else is throwing money at Nelson and Adam Jones, perhaps the Bengals can get them re-signed to manageable deals that allow the team to also re-sign guys like Iloka and Marvin Jones.
At this point, the Bengals' biggest offseason goal should be to get their own guys re-signed and keep the bulk of this 12-4 team intact to make another run at the Super Bowl next season.