For much of the past decade, the Bengals have annually had one of the NFL's best defenses thanks in large part to their secondaries.
Since 2009, the Bengals have finished in the top nine in scoring defense in all but two seasons. Over that same span, Cincinnati has finished 12th or better in opponent total yardage in all but two seasons. Few players currently on the defense have overseen most of that success, but Leon Hall has.
The former 18th-overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft out of Michigan, Hall joined a Bengals defense in disarray under the Chuck Bresnahan regime. Even during his rookie season which saw Cincinnati finish near the bottom of every major defensive category, Hall still managed to pick off five passes and showed flashes of the lockdown corner he would soon become.
Over his first four seasons from 2007-10, Hall would pick off 18 passes and deflect another 71 as he and Johnathan Joseph became the NFL's best cornerback tandem. The future looked bright for Hall as he was on pace to give Ken Riley's franchise mark of 65 career picks a run, not to mention signing a lucrative contract before the 2011 season began.
In fact, it's that very contract that's set to expire this offseason, but unfortunately, Hall won't be getting another one like it. Since signing that four-year, $39-million contract extension, Hall has suffered two torn Achilles tendons and intercepted just eight passes during the last five seasons.
Hall appeared to be regaining his Pro Bowl form in 2012 and into the 2013 season, but the second tear midway through that season ended his season prematurely for the second time in three seasons.
That second tear has also led to a sharp decline in Hall's play since then. He's had his moments in both of the past two seasons, but has often given up his fair share of big plays that a guy making $9+ million per season should not be surrendering.
That's not Hall's fault though. The Bengals have been great about honoring the contract they gave Hall and have not asked him to take a pay cut or restructure his deal. Part of that was Hall has been one of the team's best leaders and a great locker-room presence.
Those aspects don't get enough value placed upon them in this league, but Hall is still someone who doesn't need to be paid like a team's No. 1 corner going forward. He is coming off a year in which he was a quality slot man and helped the Bengals finish second in passing scores allowed (18) and fifth in opponent passer rating.
Hall also finished as Pro Football Focus' 33rd-ranked corner, but that's a bit deceiving since opponents tended to go after Dre Kirkpatrick on the boundary more. Most teams' top two pass-catchers don't line up in the slot where Hall primarily defended, and Hall had the benefit of covering the second or third option, which quarterbacks had a tough time getting to with Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins breathing down their necks.
Despite all of this, the Bengals would be best served in at least trying to get Hall re-signed, but only if it's a cap friendly deal that's not going to affect the team's ability to re-sign their other key free agents. The Bengals should also focus more on re-signing Adam Jones and then hope Hall is still unsigned and is willing to sign a 1-2 year deal paying him around $2-3 million.
Is Hall willing to accept that kind of deal? He's certainly worth more than that, but seeing as how the Bengals stayed loyal to him and paid him like an elite corner when injuries and age had him playing more like a team's third-best corner, maybe Hall returns the favor and plays under a deal worth less than what he should be making.
There's also the possibility of the Bengals losing one or both of their starting safeties, paving the way for Hall to re-sign and move to safety next season. He worked at safety in training camp and occasionally got snaps there, but not enough so to know if this is a smart or realistic option.
Hall's free agency outlook is really hard to project, maybe the hardest of any impending Bengals free agent. I don't think there will be much interest in him, and he probably is at least willing to wait a little bit for Cincinnati to try and re-sign other free agents.
Then it comes down to whether the Bengals are offering a team-friendly and smaller deal, as mentioned above, and if Hall is willing to take it, or chase more money and a more prominent role in a defense elsewhere.