Cincinnati faces an uphill battle in the offseason, with 15 players hitting free agency and several holes to be filled on both sides of the ball. Imagine for a minute that all 15 free agents are no longer members of the Cincinnati Bengals. If this were so, the team would need to replace the rolls of two starting receivers, a starting linebacker (at least for the three games Vontaze Burfict will miss), two starting corners and two starting safeties. The team would also need to find a player to serve as its return specialist, as Mario Alford wasn't given the chance in 2015 to show whether he can be trusted with those duties.
The biggest issue facing the Bengals is whether or not the team should sign safety George Iloka to a long-term deal. Signing George Iloka would all but guarantee Marvin Jones' departure and would likely be the more expensive re-signing, at least when comparing positional salaries around the league. But Cincinnati didn't draft Iloka for a few good seasons. They selected him knowing that if they could help him develop, he could become an elite safety. And an elite safety is exactly what Iloka has become. While signing him to a long-term contract will come at the sacrifice of depth, it's the smart move to make. Just take a look at the three most recent Super Bowl champions. The Broncos, Patriots and Seahawks all employ the same strategy: lock up the elite members of the team and find serviceable starters at less-important positions. If Iloka were to re-sign, the Bengals wouldn't need to worry as much about corner play, as Iloka is one of the best coverage safeties in football and has been a security blanket against the deep pass.
If the Bengals don't lock up Iloka before March 9, he's bound to see plenty of huge offers come his way. Iloka won't come cheap, but he'll be worth every penny. After all, a 6'4" safety who can play the pass and the run, virtually never gives up touchdowns and can make punishing hits doesn't come around all that often.
Let's assume that the Bengals spend $7 million per year locking up Iloka, making him the league's third or fourth highest paid strong safety. For perspective, four of the top 10 highest-paid strong safeties played on playoff teams. The Bengals can make it work, even if Iloka would be getting a bit more than he's worth.
Assuming Iloka gets the money, I believe Jones will be gone. Considering the way Mike Brown saves money, Cincinnati would have about $22 million more to spend, whether in free agency or through rookie contracts. About $7 million will be spent on rookies, leaving $15 million to be spent to lock up remaining free agents. That $15 million could become almost $27 million by cutting Rey Maualuga, Domata Peko, Mike Nugent, A.J. Hawk and Margus Hunt, but the Bengals almost certainly won't make those types of moves.
Cutting Hawk and Hunt, however, would save about $2.5 million, leaving Cincinnati with $17.5 million more to spend on its free agents. From there, the team could lock up Reggie Nelson ($4 million/year), Adam Jones ($2.5 million/year), Vincent Rey ($2 million/year) and Pat Sims ($1 million/year). The Bengals could also sign young defenders Emmanuel Lamur and Brandon Thompson at very reasonable rates, given the players' injuries.
Let's say that the Bengals have $6.5 million to spend after re-signing the players mentioned. The team would draft a wide receiver early to compensate for the loss of Marvin Jones, but it could also bring in a receiver on a prove-it contract. Guys to consider would be Rishard Matthews, Rueben Randle, Brian Quick and Rod Streater, who could make big money next offseason with a good year in Cincinnati. At that point, the rookie receiver (potentially someone like Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson, Will Fuller or Braxton Miller) will be polished enough to take over on the outside.
The final move would be signing Mohamed Sanu. With the moves made above, Cincinnati's odds of bringing back the slot receiver would be about 50-50. Bringing back Sanu would be huge for Andy Dalton and the passing game, but giving Mario Alford the nod at slot and focusing more on an established run game could also benefit the Bengals. Letting Sanu walk would also free up cap room to sign Tyler Eifert to an extension.
What do you think about these moves? What does your ideal offseason look like?