The Bengals have 15 players hitting free agency this offseason. While the list looks small, especially in regards to those of the Bengals' rivals in the AFC North, several starters and key role players will be hitting the market. While the Browns, Ravens and Steelers could all lose some starters and key role players, the Bengals look like the team that could be hit hardest by free agency.
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling released their list of the NFL's top 99 free agents and the Browns, Bengals, Ravens and Steelers were all well-represented on the list, but the Bengals saw the most players on the list of any AFC North team, despite having the fewest players set to hit free agency. Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh each had three players on the list, but seven Bengals players managed to make their way into the top 99 ranking. This makes Cincinnati one of the most vulnerable teams in free agency, with the Rams and the Broncos in similar situations, each having five players on the list.
With so many players hitting free agency, the Bengals will need to discern which players are most valuable to the team. This will be an incredibly difficult task for Duke Tobin, Katie Blackburn, Marvin Lewis and the rest of the Bengals staff, as there are plenty of questions to answer. Should the team keep its leaders on board to serve as mentors for younger players, should the team keep its young players in preparation for the future, or should Cincinnati do something in between?
Please note that this is my personal take on these players, and your rankings will surely vary from mine. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
Bengals free agents ranked by the importance of re-signing.
1. George Iloka, S
Iloka is perhaps the NFL's most physically gifted safety, and his coverage skills can't be matched. The safety should be the Bengals' number one priority, as he's the most talented young player in Cincinnati's secondary.
He could draw a couple of big offers from other teams, but coming off a down year, Iloka could potentially sign a deal with less guarantees than the deal he could've signed during the 2015 offseason. If the Bengals need to overpay for Iloka, they should still shell out the money. He's worth every penny.
2. Marvin Jones, WR
Assuming Alshon Jeffery receives the franchise tag or signs a long-term deal with the Bears, there's an argument to make that Marvin Jones is the best free agent receiver on the market. The wide receiver has quickly emerged as one of the NFL's top deep threats, and he is the perfect complement to A.J. Green on the outside.
Many people assume opposing teams will shell out major cash for Jones, given how thin this season's free agent class of wide receivers is. But there are impact pass-catchers available in the 2016 NFL Draft and it's possible teams wise up and don't dish out number one receiver money to Jones. If the Bengals can keep Jones' deal within a reasonable range, they must re-sign him.
3. Adam Jones, CB
People seem to be forgetting that Adam Jones is hitting free agency, but here's a quick reminder. Jones is the Bengals' top kick returner and was one of the top five coverage corners in football in 2016. While he's up there in age, Jones is still skilled enough to be a capable corner on the outside, especially in Cincinnati where he thrives.
It's hard to imagine Jones seeing huge offers from other teams, especially after the media scrutiny he faced after the fallout of the Bengals' playoff loss to the Steelers. However, Jones had the best 2015 season of any corner on the market, so anything is possible. Jones will likely come at a discount, and it will be crucial for the Bengals to lock him up, as Josh Shaw and Darqueze Dennard would be the only players left to play on the outside alongside Dre Kirkpatrick.
Sign at the right price
4. Mohamed Sanu, WR
Mohamed Sanu is the best gadget receiver in football, boasting a perfect passer rating and two touchdowns in five career pass attempts. He's also a very reliable slot receiver, showing great hands and proving to be very effective out of the wildcat formation as a passer and runner. As a pass-catcher, he also has great hands; he didn't drop a single pass in 2015.
Like with Jones, it's entirely possible that a team could overpay for Sanu, and the Bengals would let him walk if it were at an unreasonable price. But like I mentioned, it's hard to believe that NFL teams are really so dumb that they'd overpay for players who are complete uncertainties in bigger roles. Sanu only has 11 career touchdown catches, two less than what Tyler Eifert posted in just 13 games in 2015.
5. Vincent Rey, LB
Perhaps Cincinnati's most versatile linebacker, Vincent Rey has been great in a supporting role throughout his tenure with the Bengals. But he's not worth starter money.
The Bengals desperately need linebacker depth, especially considering Vontaze Burfict's three game suspension to start the 2016 season. Rey loves playing for the Bengals, and Cincinnati loves having him around. It's highly likely the Bengals will be able to work out a reasonable deal with the linebacker.
6. Brandon Thompson, DT
Because Domata Peko had a career year in 2015 and provides leadership that Marvin Lewis highly values, Brandon Thompson hasn't seen much playing time. Coupled with a season-ending knee injury, it's easy to see that Thompson hasn't seen the greatest of circumstances in Cincinnati. But Thompson is still one of the Bengals' best interior run defenders, so it would be a shame to see him walk in free agency.
Thompson will likely sign a one or two year deal, as the defensive tackle and his agent know that he's suited to play a key role for a contending team. Hopefully the Bengals will be the team to hop on and snag him, as Peko is aging and the defensive line could use an infusion of youth.
Sign at a team-friendly deal
7. Emmanuel Lamur, LB
Lamur has been tabbed as the Bengals' best coverage linebacker in past years. He's best in a supporting role, and is worth keeping around. After suffering a season-ending knee injury, he'll come cheap.
8. Pat Sims, DT
Sims was fairly effective as a run-stopper, and he'd be a great candidate to fill out the roster at defensive tackle. If the Bengals decide to draft and develop another interior defensive lineman, however, Sims could find a new home elsewhere.
9. T.J. Johnson, C
Russell Bodine's struggles have been well-documented, but he's here to stay--at least for now. Johnson is versatile enough to provide depth at all three interior offensive lineman positions, and he's still young enough to have a chance at challenging Bodine for the starting job with enough improvement. That being said, Johnson's signing would be more for depth than anything else.
10. Reggie Nelson, S
Reggie Nelson is a fantastic safety, coming off a huge season, but, he is getting up there in age. Shawn Williams is ready to see some starting action, so it could actually be unwise for the Bengals to keep Nelson around in anything more than a supporting role. Given that Nelson is still capable of making an impact, it's difficult to see him accepting a demotion. Nelson becomes much more of a priority if Iloka signs a deal elsewhere. In that case, Nelson would immediately become a player who must be signed and jump to the top of this list.
11. Leon Hall, CB
I love Leon Hall but I'm not sure whether the Bengals should re-sign the defensive back who's also in his 30's. The Bengals adore Hall, so he'll still have a chance to play on an extremely minimal contract. But at some point, the Bengals need to give playing time to their young corners. I'd love to see Hall join the Bengals' staff, whether in a role directly involved with players or not. But I'm just not sure the Bengals should re-sign the corner, especially if he receives an offer elsewhere.
Time to move on
12. Andre Smith, OT
Smith is a fantastic offensive tackle, but he has struggled during the past few seasons. If it weren't for my complete certainty that Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher will be sufficient replacements, I'd definitely want Cincinnati to re-sign the behemoth tackle. But Smith will likely sign a huge deal elsewhere, which could be mutually beneficial for he and the Bengals.
13. Wallace Gilberry, DE
I might catch some flak for this, but I just don't see Gilberry being valuable to this team anymore. While he's still a fairly talented defender, at 31-years-old, I believe the Bengals would be better suited using this money to re-sign Iloka and/or Jones. After all, Gilberry doesn't seem like the kind of player who will sign a minimal deal, unless it's the only offer coming his way.
14. Eric Winston, OT
Winston has been a great stopgap rotational tackle, but his time in Cincinnati is likely coming to a close. Jake Fisher is capable of serving as the backup at almost any position on the line, and the aforementioned Johnson could be a nice backup along the interior. Drafting an offensive lineman late should be a priority for the Bengals, as there's no such thing as too much offensive line depth.
15. Brandon Tate, WR
Do I even need to explain this? Tate is at best an average receiver, he's far from a special teams ace and he's a mediocre returner. Mario Alford might not be capable of replacing Tate as a returner, but there's another option. Reduce Adam Jones' playing time, giving more opportunities to the younger corners. Plug him in at returner, and there you go. Giovani Bernard could be an option at returner as well.