We know the Bengals have an inward approach to free agency. The blueprint is to draft well, develop the most promising talents of the crops and retain them before or when their contracts expire. When it all comes together in the best of ways, the planned parts end up netting winning seasons, including the 52 regular season wins over the past five seasons.
Bengals Director of Player Personnel, Duke Tobin, basically acts as the team's General Manager and has recently talked about the internal retention focus. But, with an estimated $39 million of cap space, the Bengals will likely still add pieces a few players for depth and/or improvement at certain positions in free agency, along with re-signing many of the 14 unrestricted impending free agents they have.
We've talked about how linebacker should be one of the team's main targets for replenishment, and one intriguing player who could be up the Bengals alley is Detroit Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead. Here is the background and scouting report on Whitehead.
NFL Combine Performance: 4.7 40-yard dash, 124-inch broad jump, 21 reps on bench press, 37-inch vertical jump.
Draft Selection: Fifth round, 2012 Draft
College: Temple University
Height/Weight: 6'2", 242 pounds
2012 Scouts' Take: Most believed Whitehead would be a backup linebacker and special teams candidate when turning pro.
Stats: 8 games started, 50 total tackles, 2 sacks, 6 passes defensed, 1 interception.
Rundown on 2015 performance: Whitehead stepped in to start during the second half of the season at outside linebacker after a revolving door of other options experienced issues ranging from injury to ineffectiveness. After a deplorable 1-7 start to the season, the Lions hit the bye week and made a number of changes--one of which was inserting Whitehead into the starting lineup. While the team played better as a whole, finishing 6-2 down the stretch, the defense improved quite a bit. Many credit Whitehead for a good portion of the defensive improvement.
Predicting the Future:
Synopsis: Strictly from an on-field performance standpoint and how he's entering free agency -- and stay with me here -- there are quite a few parallels to Nate Webster from when the Bengals signed him from Tampa Bay back in the 2004 offseason. Marvin Lewis really liked Webster at the time and though he started just five of 16 games in 2003, the Bengals thought they had a promising starting linebacker. Webster didn't work out for Cincinnati because of injury and it turns out he was a terrible human behind the scenes.
Whitehead has a much better character history than Webster and doesn't play middle linebacker, but if the Bengals view him as a potential starter on the outside, even if it's just for the three games while Vontaze Burfict is serving a suspension, they could roll the dice on him. Whitehead showed a lot in those eight games, but was it a flash-in-the-pan performance in a contract year, or was he just totally overlooked and someone who could be a solid starter on a stacked defense? A big benefit is his age, as Whitehead will be just 26-years-old at the start of the 2016 season.
Possible Contract: A three year, $8-9 million deal basically puts Whitehead in the top-45 paid outside linebackers, and while that sounds incredibly low, there are a couple of reasons as to why. With the hybrid nature of the position, 14 of the 15 top salaries belong to pass-rusher types in 3-4 defenses. Oddly enough, after signing a pretty big contract extension a couple of offseasons ago, Burfict's 2016 cap hit is $3.825 million, placing him at No. 33 on the list, while A.J. Hawk has the 55th highest cap hit at the position for 2016.