As a former Bengals free agent signing and current NFL agent, John Thornton knows NFL free agency pretty well.
According to Thornton, in an interview for Bengals.com, the Bengals also know how to maneuver through free agency pretty well.
""I don’t think they are (panicking) now," Thornton said. "Because they draft well. I’m pretty sure they’ve got a plan for everything. They don’t have major holes if you have coming back your quarterback, your top tight end, top wide receiver, and young guys on the offensive line waiting to play. They have a good defense coming back."
As much as Bengals fans get frustrated with an approach that can appear lethargic or even apathetic at times, Thornton understands that their strategy is something that the other NFL teams wish they could adopt. "Just from being an agent on the other side there's a lot of people asking about how they do things in Cincinnati. They wish they had the patience."
It's a tried and true approach that has allowed the Bengals to find sustained success in recent years.
"A lot of people envy them. I know that," Thornton says. Despite the uncertainty surrounding this year's unrestricted free agent pool from their roster, he notes, "They don't have major holes if you have coming back your quarterback, your top tight end, top wide receiver, and young guys on the offensive line waiting to play. They have a good defense coming back."
The Bengals' success comes despite the relative uncertainty surrounding the first 48 hours of free agency, or, as Thornton put it, "The Wild, Wild West." He also explained that "it's an environment the Bengals aren't comfortable... but it will settle back in a couple of days and the teams get back some leverage."
It's exactly the kind of environment that caused the Bengals to lose their most highly prized free agent during the 2014 offseason's "Wild, Wild West" portion off free agency. That free agent was Michael Johnson, who left during that period to sign a massive $43.75 million contract over five years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Coincidentally, Thornton is Johnson's agent. However, Johnson's stay with the Buccaneers didn't work out and, with the help of Thornton, he negotiated a $24 million deal to return to Cincinnati through 2018. In his first year back, he returned to form, playing in all 16 games and recording 5.0 sacks, 29 tackles, three forced fumbles, and two batted passes.
But, as is usually the case, Thornton knows the biggest deals the Bengals will sign in free agency -- and in general --will be for their own players. The Bengals take care of all of their mega-deals early, so as to not have to sign their top guys under the pressure of the open market later. That way, they have the luxury of being patient with their other free agent contracts and don't need to make big, risky splashes in the general free agency pool. Such was the case with Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins and Vontaze Burfict.
During the crazy first 48 hours of free agency, the Bengals are likely to sit back and watch as the rest of the NFL loses it's mind over the free agents who, for whatever reason, were unable to work out a contract with their original team. Because the Bengals have such a disciplined approach, Thornton said, "They rarely find themselves in panic mode."
The Bengals tend to be able to retain their own free agents because they are so good at fostering that environment of familiarity and success. However, it's not always perfect. Even this year, there's speculation that a guy like Marvin Jones might want to make a run for the big money offered by another team rather than take a sensibly priced contract with the Bengals in the interest of stability. And why shouldn't he?
As Thornton explains, ""It’s hard on a first big contract to sell them on anything but money . . . They lean to the money. And they should. It’s an unforgiving game. Once you’re done, you’re done."
Then again, the same argument could have been made about Leon Hall. He could have tested the free agent market in 2012 after his rookie contract ran out, but he chose to re-sign with the Bengals before the 2011 season for $39 million. The Bengals rewarded him by sticking by him through multiple injuries that may have ended his career elsewhere.
"Would he have played out his contract (five years, $39 million) anywhere else after ripping both Achilles and some team being as loyal to him? Probably not," Thornton said.
So, it's an envy that comes from two directions. A lot of teams who panic during free agency envy the Bengals because they don't spend a crazy amount of money on free agents who may or may not work out. At the same time, players who wind up being seduced by big contracts, only to be given up on when their career takes a turn for the worse, probably envy a guy like Hall who received a substantial amount of money as well as the loyalty and security that comes with being a great player on the Cincinnati Bengals.