Free agency is one of the most unique and difficult parts of compiling roster talent in order to make a push for the Super Bowl. Spending too little or spending too much almost never works. The Bengals, along with the Packers, are one of football's lowest spenders in free agency. Cincinnati rarely, if ever, makes big moves in free agency, and when it signs free agents, the players signed are never big names.
In 2015, the Bengals signed Michael Johnson, A.J. Hawk and Pat Sims, bringing back two former players and inviting a veteran Ohio native to join the action. Nabbing Johnson in free agency was a steal, but the signings of Hawk and Sims brought little impact to Cincinnati's defense. The Bengals made one semi-big splash in free agency, but the team still couldn't turn that move into a playoff victory.
Cincinnati has benefited from one of the most consistent, level headed owners in football. Keeping Marvin Lewis on the staff, showing confidence in Andy Dalton and electing to draft and develop were all things many fans opposed. Fans have been clamoring for Lewis to get canned for years, booed Dalton and begged for AJ McCarron to get the starting nod. They've also wanted to see the Bengals make big splashes in free agency over the years. And while normally, I'd disagree, citing the Bengals wouldn't be a perennial playoff contender without the ownership's stability and level headedness, something needs to change. Lewis isn't the problem, ownership isn't the problem, and Dalton isn't the problem. In fact, it's hard to find a problem in what Cincinnati is doing. So what changes need to be made?
In recent years, spending in free agency has pushed several teams over the edge, particularly, the NFL's three most recent Super Bowl champions. And, if the Bengals want to succeed and make a Super Bowl appearance soon, they too need to spend more in free agency.
Prior to 2013, the eventual Super Bowl champion Seahawks made two of the biggest free agency steals of the 21st century. The Seahawks brought in former Lions defensive end Cliff Avril on a two year, $13 million deal with $6 million guaranteed. That's a fantastic bargain for Avril, who recorded 29 sacks in his three final years in Detroit and who, at the time, was only 26-years-old. The Avril deal was remarkable, but that wasn't even it for Seattle. Former Buccaneers defensive end Michael Bennett signed a one year, $4.8 million deal with only $1.5 million guaranteed. Bennett, 27 at the time, recorded nine sacks, three forced fumbles and 11 run stuffs in his final year with the Buccaneers. To top it off, the Seahawks inked veteran corner Antoine Winfield to a one year, $2 million deal. Seattle's 2013 free agency haul was incredible, and no team has been able to pull such a great free agency class since then.
In 2014, the Patriots were the ones to score in free agency. New England scored Seahawks corner Brandon Browner on a three year, $12.35 million deal, somehow managing to only guarantee him $1 million of that deal. The Browner signing was amazing, but New England wasn't done yet. In addition to re-signing Julian Edelman, the Patriots added another receiver, giving former Panther Brandon LaFell a three year, $9 million deal. The Patriots also brought back safety Patrick Chung, who played in Philadelphia between stints in New England, on a one year deal worth $1.1 million with only $60,000 guaranteed. I don't know what it is about New England's staff, but its ability to sign players with such little guaranteed money is incredible. Finally, the Patriots signed high ticket free agent corner Darrelle Revis on a one year deal with $11.5 million guaranteed. Ultimately, the accumulation of bargain free agents and Revis led to a Super Bowl title.
And in 2015, the Denver Broncos made splashes in free agency en route to a Super Bowl title. Denver signed Owen Daniels to a three year deal worth $12.25 million, with only $3 million guaranteed. The Broncos also brought in Darian Stewart, Vance Walker, Evan Mathis and Antonio Smith on deals with less than $3 million in guarantees. Denver also benefitted from a nice 2014 free agency haul that included signings of Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders. Denver spent a lot of money to lock up these players, but ultimately, it was worth it, as the team won the Super Bowl.
Recent history has shown that splashes in free agency make a difference. While winning 10-12 games per year is always fun to watch, this team needs a spark to get over the edge. That spark should come in the form of a high ticket free agent signing. It will be imperative for the Bengals to bring back George Iloka, Adam Jones and Reggie Nelson, and re-signing Marvin Jones would be nice, too. But the Bengals need some players with experience outside of Cincinnati.
At middle linebacker, guys like Danny Trevathan, Derrick Johnson, Jerrell Freeman and Rolando McClain could provide either veteran leadership or youthful energy that this team desperately needs. Tamba Hali, Bruce Irvin, Courtney Upshaw, Zach Brown, Tahir Whitehead and Mark Barron could all be huge difference-makers at outside linebacker. At corner, a Janoris Jenkins, Prince Amukamara, Casey Heyward or Sean Smith could be a perfect replacement for Adam Jones or addition to the position group, regardless of whether the veteran stays. Defensive tackles Terrance Knighton, Nick Fairley and Damon Harrison could be immediate contributors, and at safety, Eric Weddle and Tashaun Gipson could be potential upgrades over Reggie Nelson, who Cincinnati could possibly re-sign for the right price. Even signing Ravens kicker Justin Tucker would be a fantastic move for a team that hasn't gotten enough out of Mike Nugent in recent years. And at receiver, Anquan Boldin and Percy Harvin could both sign for reasonable deals if Cincinnati is able to negotiate well. Finally, Alex Mack would be a fantastic upgrade at center, while an absolute longshot.
The bottom line is this: Cincinnati needs to sign at least one high ticket free agent. Of the 19 aforementioned players, at least five will sign for bargain deals. It's now on the Bengals to find those players who can be convinced, sell them on the hopes and chances of a potential Super Bowl, and enter the 2016 season with a bang.