"How are we getting better?". It's a question every NFL team should be asking itself in the offseason, and should especially be on the Bengals' minds after five straight one-and-done efforts in the postseason. It's always a difficult thing to nail down, especially for a successful team looking at 14 impending unrestricted free agents.
The Bengals have been fortunate to get quality play from the wide receiver and cornerback position groups, especially with the injury bug hitting both frequently over the past few seasons. While these groups were the primary focus of reader questions this week and ones we'll address, I do need to tell Brian from Ottawa that it's still okay if you're harboring ill will toward Steelers fans.
Let's start with a couple of tweets about the wide receivers.
@CincyJungle Why does everyone think the Bengals need a wr in round 1? With green and Eeifert why? No faith in James Wright? Thoughts?— Nate renner (@Naterenner1) February 19, 2016
I don't know that everyone thinks the Bengals should take a receiver in the first round of this year's NFL Draft, but it might need to be contemplated if certain scenarios play out. The rumors have been flying around about two Bengals receivers set to hit free agency in No. 2 guy Marvin Jones and No. 3 utility guy, Mohamed Sanu.
Jones has said he won't offer the Bengals "hometown discount" and rumors swirled saying he wanted $7 million a year. Jones took The Cincinnati Enquirer to task a week later refuting the reports of his wanting of that type of contract.
Meanwhile, another recent report now says there is "virtually no chance" Sanu re-signs with the Bengals. The reasons vary from being a lost option in the offense to potentially getting a bigger payday elsewhere from a team who might recognize his strengths a bit more than the Bengals seem to. We'll see.
There are two things I know for sure about these two situations right now, though. One, this is NFL free agency 101--people (cough, agents) spit out rumors to drive interest in players and create contract negotiations. And two, Hue Jackson and the Cleveland Browns will come sniffing around for the services of one or both of these players. My advice? Wait until the ink dries on whatever contract these two sign before you fully believe anything and hope the new Browns' head coach stays the heck away from Jones and Sanu.
Anyway, it's in losing one or both of these wideouts that has some looking at many of the talented receivers for the Bengals high in the draft. Imagine if they lost both in free agency? That would leave Mario Alford, Michael Bennett, Jake Kumerow (which I'll get more into in a little bit), and James Wright to complement A.J. Green. Yikes.
Green is a star player who makes everyone around him immensely better, but he's also benefitted from the skills of Jones, Sanu and Tyler Eifert as well. Having the crew back and healthy this year not only made Andy Dalton into an NFL MVP candidate, but it also took some of the bracketed coverage off of Green, which he had seen so many times in the past.
Oh, and remember the uproar from fans when the Bengals took Eifert in the first? "They don't use a tight end," some said, while others called it a waste. In his third season, Eifert set the team record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end with 13 in as many games. He still needs to get past the injuries, but he's a star in the making. Sometimes offensive weapons that might seem like a luxury pick end up being gold mines.
All of that plays into Nate's stance on the non-necessity of a wide receiver early in the draft, but it also goes against the roster plan the Bengals have been building since Dalton arrived. While he seemed to improve by leaps and bounds in 2015, it's always been about surrounding him with as much offensive talent as possible. Losing these receivers and not getting adequate replacements does a disservice to Dalton and we may not see the same guy from last year.
As for relying on Wright as a No. 2 or even No. 3, if that's the implication of the question, no thanks. In two seasons with the Bengals, he has five catches for 91 yards, zero touchdowns and sat out all of 2015 with an injury. Preceding these numbers was a 2013 collegiate season in which he didn't record a single reception. I like what he's flashed so far and the team still should give him a fair shake at some playing time, but I've seen nothing to tell me he's anything more than a No. 4 NFL receiver and special teams player to this point.
Sure, teams like New England and Carolina made it far in the postseason without perimeter weapons, but the Bengals don't have a Tom Brady or Cam Newton under center. Even teams like Pittsburgh and Denver, who have other future Hall of Fame quarterbacks on their respective rosters, have propped up Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning up with a stable of exciting receivers.
The other facet any business has to consider, especially one run by the Brown family, is cost. It's possible Sanu and Jones will make a healthy chunk of change next month, maybe ranging from $3-$7 million per year, while the projected 2016 cap hit for the Bengals at the No. 24 pick is just north of $1.6 million. Just sayin'.
My rule of thumb this year is that if the Bengals lose either Sanu or Jones, a receiver should be a priority within the first three rounds. If they lose both, using No. 24 on an exciting rookie weapon might be the way to go, especially after re-fortifying the offensive line with their first two picks in 2015.
@CincyJungle Is this where Jake Kumerow shows us what he is made of? Can't teach 6 foot 5— Thomas Bryant (@thomasbryant650) February 18, 2016
Yes--the old adage is you can't teach size or speed, right? Kumerow was one of those small school gems the Bengals have been finding as undrafted free agents, and the tall kid impressed in the early portions of camp. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough for him to keep a roster spot, as he was waived and then signed to the Practice Squad last year.
His chances to make the roster probably hinge on three things: his own improvement, potential departures of veteran receivers and a subsequent potential reluctance of the Bengals eschewing to go with a receiver high in the draft.
If a guy with that size flashes more in camp and preseason this year, I'd be inclined to keep him around as a back end guy on the positional roster. The problem for Kumerow might be the same one he faced last year: crowding. If the Bengals keep Jones and/or Sanu, that leaves 3-4 spots for the final roster to sort out between a pretty sizable group. With Wright coming back, the coaches likely wanting to see more out of Alford, and the frequent Brandon Tate rental agreements being forged, Kumerow might be on the outside looking in again.
Still, a guy with that size and an ability to pluck the ball over smaller defenders is appealing. And, while Dalton's accuracy greatly improved last year, there are still some instances of intermediate throws across the middle that tend to sail a little bit, so a 6'5" wide receiver to move the sticks is a nice commodity to have.
It's a tough situation--you don't want to stunt the development of a promising second-year player, but the team can't sit idly by and miss out on opportunities to better the roster. The best bet is for the Bengals to give Kumerow more extensive time in the preseason this year to see if he's deserving of a spot, while also trying to add weapons in the draft and free agency.
We've addressed Leon Hall in a previous mailbag, so we won't re-hash it here, but the topic of re-signing Adam Jones is a different animal though, for a variety of reasons.
While he has really cleaned up his act off the field, there have been a couple of close calls sine he came to Cincinnati initially in 2010, involving an incident with a woman at a bar and his getting tossed out of a casino. Still, Jones has definitely matured and has been one of the better players on the team over the past couple of years.
Jones was the Bengals' best corner last year and he still was able to contribute on special teams. The veteran corner does have leverage with the team because of a relatively-disappointing season from Dre Kirkpatrick and another from Darqueze Dennard because of a shoulder injury. With Hall also hitting free agency and the team's lack of preference in starting a young corner they might draft this year, Jones has negotiating power.
However, with his antics at the end of the Wild Card game and his turning 33 years old by the early part of the season, he might not get the money he thinks he deserves. In fact, I could see Jones coming back on a team-friendly deal, while the Bengals attempt to groom another rookie and also continuing to develop Dennard and Josh Shaw. Hall might be an in-camp signee if an injury occurs.
A thought that keeps popping up in my mind with the thought of re-signing Jones is a near-total transition to return man. Maybe not in 2016 because he had such a solid campaign last year, but maybe in the final year of a deal that shouldn't be longer than two or three years. Doing so would make Tate expendable and open up a receiver spot open, while also getting the young guys playing time.
If you want percentages, I suppose I can through out some arbitrary numbers. I'll go with an 80% chance of re-signing Jones and a 55% chance of re-signing Hall.