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Bengals Mailbag: Dealing with coaching changes and free agency

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We address some of the burning questions on the minds of our loyal readers when it comes to the Bengals. Send us your questions to have them answered in this weekly feature!

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals are moving and shaking in hopes to improve on an impressive 2015 campaign with more savvy moves this offseason. There have been some comings and goings with the coaching staff and that is one of the topics on the minds of our readers in this week's mailbag.

Free agency is also right around the corner, and fans are concerned about who the team will keep from their slew of impending players set to hit the open market. Send us your questions on Twitter to have them answered in this weekly feature.

This is the "question du jour", isn't it? Marvin Lewis has stated that he wants to push to keep as many players possible, while also expressing optimism they will be able to achieve that goal. There are a handful of big names on the list, including George Iloka, Marvin Jones, Reggie Nelson and Andre Smith, to go along with a number of role players who have rounded out the roster in recent years like Emmanuel Lamur and Vincent Rey.

There is little doubt they will do what they can to keep Iloka and Jones, but they will be sought after for sure. Some believe Hue Jackson, who just left to take the head coaching position in Cleveland, will attempt to poach some of the names on the Bengals' free agency list because of his familiarity with the team and his likely following of a franchise-building blueprint Marvin Lewis made him privy to while in Cincinnati.

Even with some tempting offers that might be given to some of these players they want back, I believe the Bengals will have the first right of refusal with most, if not all of the 15 players due to hit free agency. The camaraderie for a  Cincinnati locker room seems to be at an all-time high and some of these guys might opt to take slightly less money for a franchise that is continuing to win and has provided an atmosphere breeding friendships off the field.

You also need to look at some of their bigger name free agents of late. Before the 2012 season, Nelson was sought after in the open market, with his decision coming down to the Bengals and the Jets with comparable offers. He opted to stay in Cincinnati for the next four years. Offensive guard Clint Boling was also pursued by teams last offseason, but took Cincinnati's solid contract offer to stay with the team, while Michael Johnson simply couldn't stay away from The Queen City after a one-year hiatus with Tampa Bay.

Another sign pointing to the Bengals' favor is their ability to re-sign their top players long-term before they become free agents. Their desire to stay with a team that had such a bad reputation for so long seems to signal at least some sense of change in organizational culture. Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Carlos Dunlap, Vontaze Burfict, Geno Atkins and a slew of other contributors got fair contract offers and stayed with a team that has won 52 regular season games.

In short, guys are starting to like it in Cincinnati.

The one question we should start to explore this offseason is the use of either tag designations on any of their players. Here is a recent chart showing the estimated franchise tag figures by position for 2016:

Projected franchise tag numbers, 2016
Position Current Salary cap percentage Projected Change
Cornerback $13,075,000 8.985% $13,838,000 5.83%
Defensive End $14,813,000 10.061% $15,494,000 4.6%
Defensive Tackle $11,193,000 8.68% $13,368,000 19.43%
Linebacker $13,195,000 9.176% $14,131,000 7.09%
Offensive Line $12,943,000 8.882% $13,678,000 5.68%
Punter/Kicker $4,126,000 2.944% $4,534,000 9.89%
Quarterback $18,544,000 12.823% $19,748,000 6.49%
Running Back $10,951,000 7.708% $11,871,000 8.4%
Safety $9,618,000 6.959% $10,717,000 11.43%
Tight End $8,347,000 5.879% $9,053,000 8.46%
Wide Receiver $12,823,000 9.434% $14,527,000 13.29%

Keeping in mind that the salary cap next year is looking like it will be set around $154 million and the Bengals having roughly $30.3 million in projected space, using a tag seems feasible, even at these numbers. The two players seeming to be most likely eligible for a tag would be Jones or Iloka.

At $12.8 million for a tagging of Jones, that comes in a shade lower than A.J. Green's $13 million cap hit next year, and simply put, it just doesn't make financial sense for the Bengals to invest almost $26 million on their top two wide receivers. Obviously, if they opted to go this route they could still re-negotiate for a long-term, more team-friendly cap hit, but it seems unlikely and illogical.

On the other hand, if the Bengals keep Nelson at a price near the yearly average of his last deal (about $4 million) and franchise Iloka, it has about $14 million invested in two starters, which is very high for the position, but obviously much more manageable than the aforementioned $26 million in wide receivers. The transition tag is another option for the Bengals that uses the average salaries of the top ten players at a respective position instead of the top five for the franchise tag.

While it doesn't make much financial sense to tag either Iloka or Jones, it does give them an insurance policy, if they leave. With a franchise tag, the Bengals would receive two first round picks as compensation for a player leaving, but none coming from a transition tag player. So, it's something to keep an eye on.

By "snag", I'm thinking you meant an outside free agent from another team, which just hasn't been in the DNA of the Bengals recently. They made a big splash last year for Johnson, but he's a guy they knew well and it didn't really feel like an outside signing, no matter how the team pitched it to the masses.

Still, a couple of intriguing names are out there. Linebacker Danny Trevathan of the Broncos isn't necessarily a household name, but he is a very productive player that likely wouldn't break the bank. The Bengals need some athleticism and depth at linebacker because of a variety of issues, including age, suspensions and impending free agents.

Before their full-court press pursuit of Johnson last year, the Bengals flirted with signing former first round defensive tackle, Nick Fairley. He likely would have been a starter or heavy rotational player for the Bengals in 2015, but bolted for a weird, one-year deal to be a backup with the Rams. He is set to hit free agency again, so we'll see if they go after him in 2016.

I've been a big proponent for outside moves by the Bengals for a number of reasons, but one tops the list. The team uses the Draft as its bread and butter, so using free agency wisely opens their options up there. However, every year the Bengals seem to have more than enough cap space to make a splash move and they don't. I'm not sure the trend bucks much this year, but we'll see.

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I've already addressed the free agency question above and we're beginning to beat that into the ground, so I'll leave the latter part of the question alone for the most part. The coaching issue is an interesting one though, especially with such high turnover this offseason. I count five coaches leaving this year in Jackson, defensive backs coaches Mark Carrier and Vance Joseph, defensive line coach Jay Hayes and linebackers coach Matt Burke.

A number of moves have been made since, most notably Ken Zampese's promotion to offensive coordinator, Kevin Coyle re-joining the club as the secondary coach, Jim Haslett manning the linebacker group and a handful of others in various assistant roles.

Did the Bengals get better or worse with the major coaching overhaul? Conventional wisdom probably says a bit of both. Really, if we're catching the gist of what Lewis is saying, only two or three of the coaching departures seem to be ones they didn't want to occur (Jackson, Joseph and possibly Hayes). The others seem to be an amicable parting, likely as a way for Lewis to bring in new accountability and messages to each position group.

Coyle and Haslett seem like good hires because both have had NFL defensive coordinator experience, with Haslett also having some head coach experience. One has to think that resonates well in a room of young players. A lot of people also seem to like Zampese's successor at quarterbacks coach, Bill Lazor, so there might be less issues than expected on offense with their second coordinator change in three years.

On the other hand, how will the players adjust to the massive turnover in staff? Will a new accountability be brought to position groups with a renewed sense of development for players who have disappointed? It's difficult not to imagine some form of growing pains with so many new staff members.

In terms of the rest of the division getting better, that's always an issue with the tough AFC North. People readily arm themselves with "Cleveland's gonna Cleveland", but at some point they have to get it right after so many failures--even if they luck themselves into a situation. They may have done so by bringing Jackson over as head coach.

His innovative style will likely mesh well with the new analytic-based approach the Browns appear to be moving to, and he's already begun making a stamp on the team at the expense of the Bengals. He grabbed promising running back and last year's NFLPA Bowl MVP, Terrell Watson, and now a critical Cincinnati scout, Greg Seamon has joined him too. I'm not going to say they're for real yet, but the Browns and Jackson aren't going to fade away quietly--especially with high draft picks this year.

The rivalry has hit a new level with Pittsburgh and it's fun to hate the Black and Yellow, but the fact remains that the Bengals have had an incredibly tough time beating the Steelers. Personally, I thought Pittsburgh would take a step back in 2015, but they fought through injuries, won 10 regular season games to go with that devastating postseason win against the Bengals. If "Cleveland's gonna Cleveland", you know "Pittsburgh's gonna Pittsburgh" and always be in the mix in the AFC.

Baltimore is interesting because while I predicted a backslide for them in 2015, I didn't think it would be as huge as we saw. It's directly attributed to injuries and the attrition of offensive weaponry around Joe Flacco, but John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome won't be down for long. They'll likely come back angry in 2016 with their key injured players back on the field and be the formidable foe the rest of the NFL has become accustomed to.

This is why a very active free agency period and the drafting of immediate impact players by the Bengals is critical this year. We've often talked about their championship window and how long they can keep it open, so keeping the key guys who are set to hit free agency is huge, as is going after some of those upper/mid-tier outside free agents to bolster the roster. If they find the right formula during free agency and draft players that immediately make their team better this year, that window can stay open a little longer.

My fear is they sit on their hands in March once again, while watching other conference and division foes continue to get better with activity and immediately productive draft classes. I hope they prove me wrong, but history dictates otherwise.