Heading into the offseason, the Bengals had a long list of signings to make. The club wasn't able to retain every player it wanted, but overall, the team did a good job keeping its roster intact and preserving the club's Super Bowl window by making key signings of starters and depth players.
Many Bengals fans aren't satisfied with the team's decision to move on from players and avoid big-name free agent signings, because they claim that Cincinnati needs to "go all-in." While I too am frustrated with the team's approach, I certainly understand it. The Bengals figure that they'll have higher odds of making a Super Bowl run by making the playoffs every season than by going all-in one year and hoping no one gets hurt in a potential Super Bowl run. I think this is the right move to make. But whether you agree or disagree with management, you need to respect the club's strategy. After all, Cincinnati was one of the most laughed-at franchises in sports 10-15 years ago, and the team is now making appearances in the postseason on an annual basis. Five consecutive playoff appearances isn't something to take lightly, despite the goose egg in the wins column.
With that, let's take a look at some of Cincinnati's best and worst moves of free agency.
1. Re-signing George Iloka and Adam Jones
Cincinnati's three best players hitting free agency were Iloka, Adam Jones and Marvin Jones, and the team was able to sign two of those three players to more-than-reasonable deals.
The George Iloka signing, at 5 years and $30 million, was the best bargain safety signing in free agency. Eric Weddle, Rodney McLeod and Tashaun Gipson all signed for more APY than Iloka, whose $6 million APY is far less than many expected. After Eric Berry signed his franchise tender, Iloka became the best free agent safety on the market, according to Rotoworld's Evan Silva. NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling tabbed Iloka as the third-best safety, and Pro Football Focus touted Iloka as the league's second-best at the position. Though Weddle may currently be the better player, Iloka signed for less overall money, took $8 million less guaranteed money and is the younger of the two players. The Bengals hit Iloka's contract out of the park.
Re-signing Adam Jones, who was one of the best players at his position in 2015, was an important task for the Bengals. Fortunately, the team got the job done. Jones signed a three-year, $22 million contract that the team could opt out of after two years if it decides Jones isn't worth the money he's being paid. The Bengals would only suffer $666,668 in dead money in 2018 if they were to cut the corner. But until Jones shows signs of slowing down, something he has yet to do, he's a huge bargain signing. The corner is a master return specialist, and he only allowed a single touchdown in the entire 2015 season, a miracle catch by Deandre Hopkins that no corner in football would've been able to prevent. Though Jones signed for a high salary, he's worth the money, especially after playing at such a bargain rate for years in Cincinnati. The corner earned more in his first three seasons with Tennessee and Dallas than he did in eight seasons with the Bengals. He deserves the money.
Plus, check out what Hopkins has to say about Jones...
Pacman https://t.co/hdUSVh5aOj— Deandre Hopkins (@Nukdabomb) March 24, 2016
2. Letting Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu walk
I love Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. I'll continue to be a fan of theirs until they take their final snaps in the NFL. Both guys are extremely fun to watch, and they both seem like fantastic people. But the Bengals are better off without paying number two or three receivers $7-8 million per season. Cincinnati's offense may be duller in 2015, or it could be more explosive. There's no way to tell right now, especially considering how Ken Zampese, rather than Hue Jackson, will be running the offense. Rather than overpaying for one or both of these receivers, the Bengals could make many different moves going forward this offseason. They could select a top receiving prospect (Corey Coleman, Laquon Treadwell, Josh Doctson, Will Fuller or Michael Thomas) in one of the first two rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft, or they could even try and emulate the Patriots, drafting another tight end. Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry would be the top option for Cincinnati, as he is the premiere tight end in this year's draft class. Pairing Henry with Tyler Eifert, Ryan Hewitt, Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah would give Cincinnati an opportunity to use more two tight end sets and run more I-formation, which could help Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard as running backs and keep Andy Dalton upright in the pocket. And the team wouldn't have to cut any of the aforementioned tight ends, because the Bengals have the space to keep all five guys on the roster, if they wanted to.
Regardless of what the Bengals elect to do at wide receiver and tight end, the team put itself in a good financial position. Rather than paying more than $20 million per season at the wide receiver position alone, the team can focus its financial means on locking up key players in free agency next season and rely a veteran receiving addition, a young guy like James Wright or Jake Kumerow, a rookie or a combination of the three.
3. Making quality depth signings
Whether you like Cincinnati's decision to bring back guys like Brandon Tate, Vincent Rey, Pat Sims, Taylor Mays and Brandon Thompson, there's no arguing that the Bengals know what they're doing. Cincinnati was able to lock all four of these players down on team-friendly deals, and the club can now focus its efforts on drafting the best players available rather than trying to fill roster holes. Additionally, the Bengals will be able to hold Mays and Thompson on the roster without committing them to the 53-man roster when the season starts, as Mays will be suspended for the first four games of the season and Thompson could start the year on the PUP list due to the ACL tear he suffered in Week 17 of the 2015 season.
Some will argue that Cincinnati would be better served bringing in more undrafted free agents, but most undrafted free agents don't turn out to be as good players as Vontaze Burfict. Last season's top practice squad rookies, Terrell Watson and James Wilder Jr., have already moved to greener pastures. So why not sign guys who the team knows can play rather than bringing in two guys who have a microscopic chance of ever cracking the roster?
1. Being too focused on sticking to the Bengals' offseason formula
I'm very relieved that Cincinnati didn't make a rash signing, like the 5-year, $62.5 million contract Janoris Jenkins signed with the New York Giants. However, there were plenty of moves the team could've made at a bargain price. Fans want to see flashy signings, and while I'm in agreement with the management on the impracticality of bringing in a player who is for the most part a relative unknown, I still believe that the Bengals could've made a move or two more. Former Dolphins defensive end Derrick Shelby signed a four year, $18 million deal with the Falcons. That's a huge bargain for a guy who filled in for Cameron Wake without a significant dropoff in production.
Sure, signing a free agent could eliminate a potential compensatory pick, but the Bengals are lined up to have 11 picks in next year's draft. It's hard to imagine all 11 players making the roster in 2017. Even the Bengals' own Emmanuel Lamur signed for just $2.25 million per season in Minnesota on a two-year deal. I'm not sure if he wanted out of Cincinnati, but the team's free agent spending, or lack thereof, can be frustrating for fans who want to see the team improve.
That being said, fans are too quick to forget that just because a team doesn't drastically improve in the offseason, doesn't mean the team is getting worse. In fact, based on offseason losses, I'd argue the Steelers are worse now than they were last season, which is indirectly beneficial to the Bengals. Sure, they'll get Le'Veon Bell back, but the losses of Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller, Kelvin Beachum, Steve McLendon and Antwon Blake leave holes on Pittsburgh's roster. The Patriots made a couple of great moves, but they still haven't shored up the one position they needed to fill, their offensive line. Jonathan Cooper may have once been a top-10 pick, but he's yet to prove he can play through a season. Additionally, the Broncos still don't have a quarterback, and they lost several key defenders in free agency. Fans and analysts are too quick to grade a team for its offseason. Wait until September before saying the Bengals were offseason losers, and I'm sure that by then, you'll be glad you kept your mouth shut.
2. Not going all-in when it comes to free agent spending
I certainly don't think holding back in free agency was a bad move, but many fans think it was. The past three Super Bowl champions all made big moves in the offseason before their Super Bowl-winning season, so fans are rightful in their gripe about how the Bengals "need to go all-in."
However, that's just not the way the Bengals run their operation, and I respect them for not conforming to the way of the rest of the league. Gearing up for a potential Super Bowl seems like a fantastic idea with the roster healthy, but there's a 99 percent chance the Bengals will be down at least one key starter by December or January. In 2013 it was Geno Atkins, in 2014 it was half the roster (including A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones and Vontaze Burfict) and in 2015 it was Andy Dalton. Over the past three seasons, the Bengals have never seen Andy Dalton, Geno Atkins and A.J. Green active in the same playoff game. Analysts often say that the team that stays the healthiest during the season is the team that wins the Super Bowl. Prior to Andy Dalton's thumb injury, the Bengals looked like that team. But Dalton's injury alone was a huge reason why Cincinnati fell short yet again in 2015.
Adding a ton of free agents won't help the team get over the hump if two or three key starters are injured during the playoffs. 12 of the Bengals' 2015 starters have missed at least one playoff game in the past three seasons due to injury. More, like Mike Nugent in 2012, have missed playoff games in previous seasons. There's just not much you can do about injuries, other than hope for the best. The Broncos did not lose a single starter during their 2015 Super Bowl run. It takes luck like that to hoist the Lombardi trophy.
Ultimately, my point is that health, rather than flashy offseason spending has a bigger impact on a team's ability to win a Super Bowl. I'd argue that if the Bengals are able to get into the playoffs every season with the players they have, they have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl than they do in an alternate universe where they spend $20 million on external free agents. It doesn't matter how many consecutive playoff games they manage to lose.
3. Not going after wide receivers with urgency
This year, the wide receiving market was very slim, which grants the Bengals a bit of a pass when it comes to not being able to find a complement to A.J. Green out wide. But Cincinnati still could've done more in free agency at the wide receiver position once Jones and Sanu walked.
I certainly understand where they're coming from; they'll be able to add both a receiver and a draft pick by adding someone like Brandon LaFell, as he doesn't count towards the team's compensatory picks. Travis Benjamin signing a 4 year, $24 million contract with the Chargers was a huge value signing. I have no idea why Cincinnati couldn't get a deal done with the former Browns receiver, as Cincinnati would have offered a great change of scenery for the wide receiver. Benjamin wouldn't be the top receiver in Cincinnati, but Keenan Allen owns that role in San Diego. So there's really no reason why the Bengals shouldn't have taken a flier on him. I get why the Bengals probably didn't even send an offer Benjamin's way, but I'm still a bit frustrated with the decision.