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3 key free agency battles the Bengals could face in 2016

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The Bengals have a lot of free agents to consider for new contracts before March and some difficult decisions will be made.

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With the Bengals' season over, it's time to look ahead to 2016. There has been a lot of talk about the Bengals having 15 contracts set to expire at the end of the league year and just how important each player is to the team's continued success.

After posting a 12-4 record and ending the season as AFC North champions in 2015, it would be nice to bring back everyone in 2016 for another go. Unfortunately, some players are going to command much larger contracts, while others could end up getting the short end of the stick. The Bengals might be able to resign everyone without having to make any sacrifices, but it's unlikely. Here are some of the players the Bengals may need to choose between.

Marvin Jones vs. Mohamed Sanu

Here are a couple of figures for you: The Bengals have about $30 million in cap space. In 2015, the contracts of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu took up approximately $2.4 million in cap space. Based on those numbers, it makes total sense to bring both of them back, right?

Not so fast. Don't forget that both Jones and Sanu were on the tail end of their rookie contracts. Given the fact that they've both been effective and productive starters (at one point or another), they're likely to command more money on the open market than they did as rookies. Marvin Jones, as the more consistently productive of the two, is likely to command middle to higher-end WR2 money. For example, Emmanuel Sanders left Pittsburgh after his rookie contract was up for an offer in Denver. That offer was worth $15 million over three years, taking up $6 million in cap space this season. Jones' value will likely be around this number for teams looking for a really good No. 2 receiver, so let's use that number as a point of reference. A $6 million dollar cap hit from Jones would take up about 1/5 of the available salary cap, and you've still got 14 other free agents to sign.

Mohamed Sanu will probably command a salary in the high end No. 3 to low end No. 2 WR range. You could compare him to former Bengals receiver, Andre Caldwell. Caldwell also left for the Broncos after his rookie contract was up and is taking up about $1.5 million in cap space this season. Sanu is a bit better than Caldwell, so let's call it $2 million. Also, don't forget about when Andrew Hawkins left the Bengals for Cleveland and a $13.6 million contract. With Hue Jackson in Cleveland now, that could happen again. With $30 million to spend on their free agents, it would be a shock if the Bengals can keep both dynamic receivers. Should they go with the steady and reliable Marvin Jones or the multi-tooled yet occasionally ineffective (and also less expensive) Sanu?

Leon Hall vs. Adam Jones

There's a chance that neither of these players return in the offseason, but this one is still an interesting choice. This battle has less to do with money and more to do with perceived value.

Currently, Leon Hall takes up $9.6 million of the salary cap, among the top 4 players on the Bengals and Adam Jones takes up $2.5 million. Hall (31) is a year younger than Jones (32), so there is a slight advantage for him in terms of pure age difference. However, Jones is coming off one of of his best years as a pro and a Pro Bowl berth. Not to mention, he possesses the ability to return punts, rivaling anyone in the league.

Hall, on the other hand, hasn't been nearly as effective lately as Jones. A series of injuries from 2011-2014 only allowed him to play in 43 of the team's 64 games. In 2015, he was able to play 14 of the team's 16 games, but he was only effective enough to start in five. If you're looking for effectiveness on the field, Jones is the obvious choice.

The third factor in all of this is the concept of veteran presence. With Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard the heir apparents for Jones and Hall's jobs, it would be a good idea to keep one of the veterans around to continue to mold the young guys. Hall is one of the hardest working and most positive people you'll ever meet. That's not to say that Jones is a bad person or a negative influence, but... well... we all watched the 2015 playoff game against the Steelers.

Given that Hall has been so inconsistent since coming off his five year rookie contract, it would make sense that the Bengals wouldn't want to keep him around if he insists on continuing to take up $9.6 million of the salary cap. Adam Jones' $2.5 million is much more reasonable, even if it isn't restructured. Both of these players still have a good 3-5 years left in their NFL careers, so you'd want to resign both for the right price. If you can't sign both, who do you take?

Reggie Nelson vs. George Iloka

A classic proven veteran vs a talented youngster. Reggie Nelson is 32-years-old and George Iloka is 25, so that choice seems obvious. But, don't forget that Nelson led the league in interceptions this year. Nelson has held the Bengals' free safety spot down since the Jacksonville Jaguars shipped him to Cincinnati for CB David Jones in 2011. At 32, it is unlikely that he will get a gigantic contract with another team, but you could see him getting a contract reminiscent of what Mike Adams got with the Colts last offseason. That's $4.85 million for two years and a $3.1 million cap hit in 2015.

Iloka is probably looking at something more like what Husain Abdullah got with Kansas City last year ($2.2 million over two years). That's about a $1.1 million cap hit per year. If the Bengals could talk both players down, accepting a bit less money for the potential to finish what they started in 2015, it would make sense for the Bengals to resign both. But, Iloka will likely command considerable money and a lot more than he's previously making. He will undoubtedly be one of the best, young safeties on the open market.

So, who stays and who goes?

If the Bengals were to resign all six of the players mentioned in this post for the amounts projected, they would be taking about $24.3 million of the salary cap. That's about 80 percent of the available space for only 40 percent of the free agents - and that's not even including the draft picks they'll be signing and any outside free agents. Without a doubt, the Bengals are going to need to make some free agency sacrifices.

Who should stay and who should go?