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Bengals offseason mailbag: Cornerback status, conspiracy theories and free agency priorities

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The status of the Bengals' cornerbacks, what's ahead in free agency and conspiracy theories are among the topics in this week's mailbag.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately for Cincinnati Bengals fans, the offseason is once again upon the team far sooner than most anticipated. The postseason came crashing down with a resounding thud on Who Dey Nation, leaving many asking what could have been.

What if Andy Dalton had started that playoff game and not AJ McCarron? What if Giovani Bernard hadn't taken a cheap helmet-to-helmet shot to get knocked out of the game? The questions are endless. And, that actually plays into one of our reader questions this week. Send us your Bengals questions every week on Twitter to be featured in our mailbag posts!

*****

@CincyJungle do you think the will resign the trash can #27 or let his horrible skill set ruin another teams secondary?

— Matt Cramp (@CrampMatt) January 13, 2016

Well, Matt, I wouldn't call Dre Kirkpatrick a "trash can", personally, but it wasn't the type of season we expected from an athletic first round draft pick in his fourth season. It's such an odd anomaly, though, in extremely limited playing time through his first three seasons (2012-2014), Kirkpatrick was a corner who made many big plays for the Bengals in such limited snaps. Then, in his first season as a full-time starter, he didn't log a single interception in 17 games played.

What he brings is length, solid speed and good athleticism for the position. He knocked away 16 passes this year and did have a handful of really nice games on defense. Kirkpatrick was also an integral part of clamping down on Antonio Brown in the Bengals two regular season matchups with the Steelers, as the Pro Bowl wideout had some of his lower production numbers per game in those two contests.

Still, the instincts seem to be sub-par at times for the position, as evidenced by some of the early-season communication issues with the safeties that led to big plays. And, no matter how you slice it, zero interceptions from a cornerback that started every game for your unit isn't going to cut it. For all of the respect Vance Joseph has earned from his time with this team, Kirkpatrick's lack of progress in 2015 might be the lone mar on his resume.

In terms of keeping him, the Bengals are already committed to Kirkpatrick in 2016 because of their exercising of the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. The cringe-inducing part of the deal is a $7.5 million cap hit next year on this deal. Given the multitude of free agents the Bengals have potentially hitting the market this year (more on that in a bit), they might even give him an extension to quell the forthcoming cap hit.

Regardless, the Bengals will once again need to address the cornerback position this offseason. Adam Jones is set to be a free agent, Darqueze Dennard still has yet to see extensive playing time and suffered a season-ending injury, while Leon Hall is entering the final stretch of years in the NFL while also hitting free agency this offseason. There are also some things to sort through with Josh Shaw and Chris Lewis-Harris, who had spurts of playing time this year.

All of that being said, expect Kirkpatrick to be here and starting for at least 2016 and hope for a nice bounce-back campaign in his second year as a starter.

@CincyJungle why dose the NFL hate the Cincinnati Bengals?

— Jon (@Greeneyedblackg) January 13, 2016

At first blush, this is a silly question. The NFL is a league built on parity, with every team seeming to have a good chance at a championship every year. To think someone, be it the owners, Roger Goodell or The Big Man Upstairs have anything to do with the Bengals losing in heartbreaking fashion seems totally bonkers.

But, let's put on the tinfoil hats for a second and cue the X-Files theme. In truth, I've contemplated a variation of the same question provided here by Jon since Saturday's collapse. Take a look at the eight remaining teams left in the postseason after the Wild Card--Pittsburgh, New England, Carolina, Green Bay, Kansas City, Seattle, Denver and Arizona remain to play. With the exception of the Cardinals and the Chiefs, the rest of the teams have incredibly profitable players and/or brands for the league.

The Steelers have one of, if not the largest fan base in the NFL, while legendary league names, despite their tenure as pros, like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson all are on these teams. One could also argue Kansas City and Arizona as profitable brands as well, with the Chiefs winning early AFL Championships and Super Bowls, while the Cardinals are one of the oldest franchises in professional football.

Let's also take a look at how things played out for the Bengals to host the Steelers in that first round, if you're one of the fans that cringed at the matchup. After shooting out to an 8-0 start, Cincinnati hosted the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football. After the Hue Jackson-led offense had been rolling through teams, the Bengals inexplicably laid an egg by scoring only two field goals in the game and losing 10-6.

A month later, Cincinnati hosted the Steelers for a big-time showdown at Paul Brown Stadium. Before things could really even get going, the Bengals lost their starting quarterback for what eventually became the rest of their season. Even so, the team rallied behind AJ McCarron and played an inspired game against the Broncos on Monday Night Football in Mile High. After shooting out to a 14-point lead, the Bengals let things slip away and eventually lost the game in overtime because a botched shotgun snap that hit McCarron right in the hands.

And, if all of that wasn't enough, the Jets (whose fan base probably feels eerily similar to Who Dey Nation) couldn't pull out a win against the struggling Bills to get into the postseason. The loss paved the way for the Steelers to get into the playoffs after they had the gigantic task of getting a win against a three-win Browns team in Week 17.

I mean...what?

Then we all saw the unbelievable things unfold in the Wild Card loss, which could only be painted as something so Bengals-like. If you're pointing to the NFL as having something to do with it, perhaps it's because of owner Mike Brown's antagonistic nature among the other owners and certainly not being the most progressive thinker in the league. After all, Brown was one of just two owner votes who went against the Inglewood proposal.

On the flip side of the argument (AKA being a bit more rational), the team still can't beat the better teams in the league with any consistency and they struggle in primetime. The Bengals had a whopping five games in primetime this year including the playoffs (Browns, Texans, Cardinals, Broncos, Steelers) and went 1-4 in the contests. That has to do with issues regarding the Bengals culture and coaching, which is a huge topic to be discussed in itself.

Here's food for thought, though: what if it's Carson Palmer and the Cardinals against the Steelers in Super Bowl 50 this year? How would that one sit with conspiracy theorists?

Earlier this week, our own Jason Marcum laid out exactly who the Bengals are facing to lose in free agency this year.

PLAYER

POS.

AGE

FROM

TO

2015 CAP HIT

STATUS

Leon Hall CB 31 CIN TBD $9,600,000 UFA
Andre Smith RT 28 CIN TBD $6,362,500 UFA
Reggie Nelson FS 32 CIN TBD $4,775,000 UFA
Vincent Rey ILB 28 CIN TBD $3,100,000 UFA
Adam Jones CB 32 CIN TBD $2,550,000 UFA
Emmanuel Lamur OLB 26 CIN TBD $2,356,000 UFA
Wallace Gilberry DE 31 CIN TBD $2,050,000 UFA
Mohamed Sanu WR 26 CIN TBD $1,682,813 UFA
George Iloka SS 25 CIN TBD $1,582,075 UFA
Eric Winston RT 32 CIN TBD $950,000 UFA
Brandon Thompson DT 26 CIN TBD $795,300 UFA
Marvin Jones WR 25 CIN TBD $700,700 UFA
Brandon Tate WR 28 CIN TBD $665,000 UFA
Pat Sims DT 30 CIN TBD $665,000 UFA
T.J. Johnson C 25 CIN TBD $510,000 ERFA

We also relayed the thoughts of Mike Sando from ESPN, who noted some of the top impending free agents at their respective positions around the NFL and, predictably, George Iloka and Marvin Jones made the list. Regardless of your personal take on who might be the most important for the Bengals to sign from the above list of 14 unrestricted free agents, the Bengals have some big work to do if they want to keep their annual playoff trips coming.

This impending free agent class for the Bengals unfortunately points to missed opportunities. They completely re-built the club back in 2011 with the hopes of forming a dynasty, of sorts. While they have been a regular season juggernaut, racking up 52 regular season wins in the past five seasons, the 0-5 postseason record is what they will largely be remembered for. It's why some of us at CJ and on the Inside the Jungle podcast talked about "windows of success", and how the 2015 season was critical for the team to take advantage of it, given the impending free agents and aging of some of the veterans they have relied on the past five years.

But, I digress.

In terms of the free agents, Marvin Lewis has expressed optimism that the core will stay together and that some of the guys set to hit the open market have expressed their desire to return to Cincinnati. If you're sour about the playoff losses, at least note that particular change in Bengals culture, which was largely on display last year with Michael Johnson's return to The Queen City. And, as unpopular as he might currently be with some fans right now, Adam Jones has explicitly said he wants to return.

Another piece of good news is in the team's salary cap situation going forward. Per Spotrac, the Bengals are sitting at No. 10 in the NFL in space with $30,235,255 at their disposal in a cap set at $154 million for each team. It's the most space of any team in the division, and while Bengals ownership has frustrated its fan base by not being more proactive in free agency with outside players, they have wisely rolled over space to accommodate the next year for big extensions for internal players, as well as the latching on of more of their own.

However, in 2016, the Bengals won't have many big extensions to make as an excuse to not resign players. Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Andy Dalton, Vontaze Burfict and A.J. Green, the glut of their best players with years ahead of them in the league, are all locked up long-term. While there are some potentially expensive contracts to deal out to players on that list (both Jones', Iloka, Andre Smith, Reggie Nelson), they should have more than enough space to sign who they want on there, as well as foraying into the outside world for more help.

If you're asking me, it's a bit of a tiered system of player preferences. Those top three in my book have to be Marvin Jones, Iloka and Nelson. Take a look at the offense's spark in 2015 with Jones back, and even though he was a secondary or tertiary option in the passing game at times, Jones set personal bests in receptions (65) and receiving yards (816). Potentially complicating his return is Hue Jackson's promotion as the Browns' new head coach, and he might be looking to pick off some of these critical pieces for the Bengals.

Iloka is a no-brainer, given his size and athleticism combination (6'4", 225 pounds), but his numbers dipped a little from a breakout 2014 campaign. He grabbed just one interception this year and missed four games due to injury, so the price tag might be just a smidgen lower than some expect, but he'll still get paid well. He and Nelson have teamed up to be one of the best safety tandems in the NFL, which is saying a lot for the Bengals, as they haven't traditionally valued the position. I get the argument about Reggie's age, but the guy just had eight interceptions this season and has been a leader on the defense. Pay him.

Though he didn't light up the stat sheet in 2015, Mohamed Sanu should also be a relatively high priority. Not as high as Jones, mind you, but he's part of a very productive trio and is able to do things neither Green or Jones can do as a wide receiver. Sanu is a chameleon in the Bengals offense, acting as a receiver, quarterback, running back and even tight end-ish at any given point. He should be relatively affordable and the receiving corps seems tightly-knit, so I expect him back.

As for the tackles Smith and Eric Winston, I'm indifferent. Smith would be somewhat tough to lose, but the Bengals just used two of their top picks last year on tackles in a windfall effort to ease the potential leaving of Smith and eventual retirement of Andrew Whitworth (signed through this year). The coaches really like Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, so I don't think Smith comes back at the price he'll ask for. Smith has played well in the majority of his career, but the big right tackle has also given the team headaches with injuries and an off-field run-in.

The three I really struggle with are Adam Jones, Leon Hall and Wallace Gilberry. Corners are expensive, regardless of their age, and give the fluid state of the position group right now, you would hate to lose your two most seasoned veterans. Still, Jones appears to have the speed and shiftiness to contribute on defense and as a return man and could be cheap because of the baggage that comes with him. Hall has lost a step and had an inexplicably had a $9.6 million hit against the cap in 2015. I think the Bengals can get these two on team friendly deals while drafting another corner in the draft to develop.

31-year old pass-rushers just aren't that high in demand and Gilberry had just two sacks last season. Still, he's an integral part of the rotation they employ up front and it's obvious the all-hands-on-deck approach worked this season to the tune of 42 sacks on the season as a team. Do you go with this guy and potentially slow down the development of DeShawn Williams and/or Marcus Hardison?

Any way you slice it, the Bengals should be able to keep who they want from the list and still add pieces to round out the roster. They'll need to get younger and more athletic in certain positions (linebacker, cornerback) and if they don't pinch pennies, they should be able to maneuver through the free agent system with ease.