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Cincinnati Bengals free agency: Who must stay and who should go

The Cincinnati Bengals now have to deal with the harsh realities of a huge free agency list and the salary cap. Not everyone can stay, but there are a few players that need to be kept, and some that might be better off leaving.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It's time to exhale, move past the devastation we all experienced, and look ahead.

The Cincinnati Bengals' loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers brought an outstanding 12-4 season to an abrupt halt. Now that the dust has settled and it has truly sunk in that Cincinnati's offseason is sadly here, it is time to focus on how the Bengals will handle the 15 players who could be free agents in March.

Among these 15 players approaching free agency are names like Reggie Nelson, Adam Jones, Leon Hall, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and George Iloka. Some of the most important players on last season's team could be finding new homes if the Bengals do not manage to re-sign them. While there are a ton of names on the free agent list, there is one thing that works in favor of the Bengals: they should have more than $30 million in cap space. So, with a lot of money, and a lot of players unsigned, where should the Bengals invest?

Getting the most obvious one out of the way first, the Bengals absolutely have to bring back Reggie Nelson. Nelson played the most snaps out of any other potential free agent on the roster, and he did more with those snaps than any other defender on the team. Nelson was tied with Marcus Peters for the most interceptions in the league this year, as he picked off the opposition eight times this season. Add on his two fumble recoveries, and it is clear that he was a turnover-forcing machine in the Cincinnati secondary this season. Nelson plays the free safety position like a centerfielder in baseball, and given the number of interceptions he had he clearly catches like one too. For the Bengals to not pay Nelson and keep him in Cincinnati would be a huge mistake, and their defense would really be hurting next season without him.

The next player that Cincinnati needs to keep is another member of the secondary, cornerback Adam Jones. Jones let his emotions get the best of him in the Wild Card game, contributing to Cincinnati's downfall and loss. However, that one moment does not take away from everything that he has done for the Bengals this season. Looking back in that same game, his incredible punt return set the Bengals up in Pittsburgh territory for what should have been the final drive of the game. At the age of 32, well past his physical prime, Jones is still able to make exceptionally athletic plays like that. And on top of that, there is not anyone in the Cincinnati locker room who will watch more film than Jones, or find more room for self-improvement. Jones had three interceptions this season as well as one forced fumble and 62 total tackles. He has re-vitalized his career in Cincinnati, and the Bengals would be wise to take the good with the bad and hold onto him for the foreseeable future.

The third player that the Bengals absolutely need to keep is their second-best wide receiver, Marvin Jones. Sure, having A.J. Green as a wide receiver is outstanding, but he cannot be your only reliable target if the Bengals intend to have a successful passing game. Jones provides a great backup option down the field if Green isn't open, and he showed that by having the second-most yards and catches among Bengals receivers this year, coming in behind Green in both categories, with 65 catches for 816 yards. When Andy Dalton comes back healthy next year, there is no doubt that fielding as many good receivers as possible only helps the Bengals' chances for success. Jones provides an in-between option for Dalton; if he can't find Green down the field, he can look to #82 before setting his sights on the big man Tyler Eifert. Keeping Marvin Jones will help maintain the explosiveness that the offense showed in 2015.

There is no doubt that some Bengals players will find themselves in free agency this year, which is unfortunate, but there are some names that the Bengals should consider not even trying to sign in order to have money for bigger and better names. It's unfortunate to just let some players walk, but in the end it could be for the best.

The first player who the Bengals would likely be better off not signing is offensive tackle Andre Smith. Cincinnati essentially drafted Smith's replacement last season, and holding too much money up in offensive tackles would not be the best idea when there are so many skill position players in need of a contract extension this season.

The other player that the Bengals would be smart to not re-sign is wide receiver Brandon Tate. Tate had just nine snaps at wide receiver all season, as he'sbplayed more of a return man role for Cincinnati than receiver. Even on special teams, he put on a rather underwhelming performance over the course of the season. Tate had 27 punt returns for a total of 171 yards, placing him 23rd in the league in the yardage category. His teammate, the aging Adam Jones, had eight more yards than Tate on eleven fewer attempts. Tate's yard-per-return average was 6.3 yards, which ranked 22nd in the league this season. He was better in the kickoff department, as he racked up 413 yards on kickoff returns, placing him at 17th in the NFL. However, keeping a wide receiver on the roster to play just nine snaps from scrimmage and have average at best returns is not worth the investment. Cincinnati would benefit from putting Tate's contract money elsewhere.

When it comes to free agency in any sport, it hurts to know that familiar faces will end up in opposing uniforms. It also hurts to think that some guys could go without a job next season. However, when facing issues like crafting a roster and the salary cap, tough decisions have to be made. Cincinnati can benefit greatly from holding onto players like Nelson, Jones, and Jones and letting go of players like Smith and Tate; it will allow the Bengals to invest in players who were key to last season's success, or it might even give them enough money to snatch up a game-changer on the open market. Whatever happens, hopefully it is for the better of the 2016 Cincinnati Bengals team.