Though Bengals players and coaches are spending time with their families, hitting the golf course and catching up with acquaintances, their fans are restless. We received a number of good questions this week, allowing us to make the mailbag feature a two-parter. The first of the week focused on Ohio State prospects in this year's draft, as well as other options at No. 24 in the first round.
The next installment focuses on one of the few positions some feel could use an immediate upgrade, as well as the ever-present question of if 2016 will be the year the Bengals get a little more aggressive in free agency.
@CincyJungle Mailbag ?: Surely a kicker who leaves no doubt about attempting a 50-55yd fg is a must have these days? Anybody you like?— andy kulina (@kulinauk) February 9, 2016
There are few players on the current Bengals' roster who are as polarizing as Mike Nugent. The thought of displeasure, for those who have a distaste for the veteran kicker, might fall to the back of the mind because of the position he plays, but talk of his overall play since he came to the Bengals in 2010. There have been some huge kicks to win games, but also some others that have made faithful fans restless.
Leg strength on both kickoffs and longer field goal attempts have come into question and when a roster is stacked with many quality starters, the perceived weaker positions, even if stronger than those on many other teams in the NFL, get pointed out quickly. For a lot of the good things Nugent has done in his six seasons with Cincinnati, he has been a bit of a scapegoat.
Some of the bigger kicks he made include the eventual game-winner in 2013 at Detroit against the Lions, and the two he made to seal the win against Seattle this year, but ones like the miss against Carolina in 2014 and in Denver on Monday Night Football this year, stay at the forefront. Heck, even the overtime game-winner against the Seahawks this past season caromed off the left upright. But, somewhat as a microcosm as to how the team has operated in free agency and starting veterans over rookies, the Bengals have preferred to stick with the devil they know over the one they don't.
Nugent is entering the final year of his deal and is due to hit Cincinnati with a $1.55 million salary cap figure in 2016. Kickers aren't looked at in the same vein as other position players because the physical toll on their body is far less, so the 23-year career of Gary Anderson, 25-year career from Morten Andersen or even the 15-year resume from former Bengals kicker Shayne Graham allow these players to have extensive careers. It isn't Nugent's age giving pause to Cincinnati faithful, it's simply his track record with inabilities to overcome certain hurdles that come with the position.
While Nugent had the third-highest field goal percentage of his six-year stint with the Bengals (82.1%) and was very reliable on extra points, hitting 48 of 49 attempts with the increased difficulty in the duty, a dissatisfaction looms for a variety of reasons. Whether it's poor weather, an attempt on the road or one from big distance, Bengals fans fidget on their respective couches when a tough Nugent is confronted with a tough kick.
Last offseason, Nugent received a little preseason competition from tiny Concordia St. Paul's Tom Obarski, but not nearly enough for the coaching staff to question the status of the position. It's unclear if the team wants to move in a different direction in 2016, or, similar to what they are likely doing with Marvin Lewis once again, if the year is another rental/prove-it deal for a veteran. His last replacement, Josh Brown, hit 30-of-32 field goals in 2015 for the Giants, good for a 93.8 percent rate.
One such player from the outside CJ's own Cody Tewmey likes is Florida State star, Roberto Aguayo. Tewmey calls Aguayo a "generational talent" at the position and is one of those guys who can constantly force touchbacks and nail kicks from 55-plus yards out with regularity. In his three seasons as a Seminole, Aguayo was 5-of-8 on kicks of 50-plus yards and 18-of-24 on kicks from 40-49 yards. His long of his collegiate career was 53 yards, while he was 69-of-78 on field goal attempts (89%), and 198-of-198 on extra point attempts. Aguayo made every single attempt from 1-39 yards in his collegiate career.
Tewmey has openly said he would like to see the Bengals use a pick on Aguayo in the fourth round, while some other draft outlets have Aguayo as a possible second or third round pick. One of the great things about having a stacked roster is the ability to use relatively high picks on some not-so-premium positions in the effort to further bolster the team. UCLA's Ka'imi Fairbairn and Georgia's Marshall Morgan are other intriguing prospects.
Look, Nugent has been a relatively stable performer in a Bengals resurgence since 2011. Like Russell Bodine, fans tend to hone in on a couple of whipping boys to partially blame for the team's 0-7 playoff record under Lewis. As it often goes with NFL kickers, some of the criticism is warranted and some isn't.
Lewis and the Bengals are at another set of interesting crossroads in 2016. Should they keep everything in place, hope for fortune on the injury front and keep the band together for one last hoorah, or make some key moves at some starting positions to go all in with Lewis facing the last year of his contract. A drafting of Aguayo would likely spell doom for Nugent, but more college free agents should spell security for the veteran.
@CincyJungle is this the year they'll go after a notable free agent(s) after seeing what Denver did with there acquisitions? That defense..— Dustin Bailen (@DustinB2012) February 9, 2016
Though this is a dividing topic, the majority seems to sit on the side of the Bengals continuing to address free agency as they have done in recent years. For better or worse, the Bengals just don't go after tier one players on the open market. Part of what makes the plan unfathomable is their continuous excess of salary cap space (projected to be near $31 million in 2016), as well as their inability to get through the playoffs under Lewis.
There are two staunch camps in the Bengals free agency argument: those who want the status quo and those who say "just go for it--what else does this franchise have to lose?". Either way, the Bengals will need to make some moves to continue their trek to the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
A few weeks ago, I noted Denver's path to a Super Bowl and their willingness to get there via significant does in free agency. Safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and, yes, quarterback Peyton Manning, were all outside free agent acquisitions.
I know what you and most football fans are thinking: it's Manning who has been behind it all. Well, not so much. While he was the catalyst behind the team's Super Bowl appearance a couple of years ago, Talib, Ward and Ware, all major contributors to the teams Super Bowl 50 win, didn't come on board until the 2014 season. What that tells me is John Elway recognizing both his own path to two Super Bowl wins with enough supporting talent, and his noting of the current Broncos' roster deficiencies and doing something about it while he was in position to do so.
The Bengals don't necessarily need to be so drastic as the Broncos were a couple of years ago, but when is the time they push their chips to the middle of the table? If five straight playoff losses in the first round, seven under Lewis and a poor record in primetime games in general isn't enough, what is?
That being said, the Bengals getting splashy in free agency just isn't in their DNA. Even when they have signed some bigger names like Antonio Bryant, Terrell Owens and Sam Adams, they were well past their prime, affordable for a variety of reasons and/or were brought in by the team as an attempt to remedy the loss of other solid internal players they let slip through their fingers.
You might think 2016 is the year to go against their usual trends because of expiring contracts and the potential tiring of the early exits, but with so many impending internal free agents, I just don't see it happening. Cincinnati has surprised some years in its activity, especially in 2011, 2012 and 2015, but 2014 was one of the most frustrating and uninspiring offseasons in team history.
As I have been asking over the past few years, why not make a splashy move or two? Obviously, irresponsibility must be considered and not flirted with, but what do the Bengals have left to lose at this point? Another Wild Card round playoff game?
Even so, I figure the Bengals focusing their funds on a handful of internal free agents, while also keeping an eye on other teams' cuts before the onset of free agency and/or after June 1st. The cheesy cliche used for the Bengals in recent years is their "changing of their stripes", but it's mostly revolved around their possible playoff victories. Maybe "changing their stripes" in 2016 to get that playoff win should come with a different approach at the beginning of the league calendar year.