It's no secret that the Bengals have a large number of free agents set to hit the market tomorrow. There's so much potential turnover for next year that the momentum of the promising 12-4 record they put up last year might not actually have much effect going into this year. With the team having been unable to make it past the first round of the playoffs despite making it to the postseason every year since 2011, it's clear there needs to be some changes. Still, losing their top free agents would be a change the Bengals shouldn't want to make.
Why fans are worried
Players like Reggie Nelson George Iloka, and Andre Smith have been steadily productive and have played key roles over the years for the team. On top of those three, there's Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Emmanuel Lamur, Leon Hall, Vinny Rey, the list goes on an on. Many of these contracts took up a significant amount of salary cap space, while still others like Marvin Jones are coming off rookie contracts and are bound to hit a hefty payday with some team, whether it's the Bengals or not.
That's roughly 25 percent of the 2015 roster that may not be with the team for the 2016 season. As promising as the 2015 season was, there is an uncomfortable amount of uncertainty heading into the next year for many fans.
And, with as many rumors as there are circulating about the Bengals' free agents, it's easy to get worked up and start thinking the team is doomed to lose many of their prized players.
Why fans should stop freaking out
These things tend to work themselves out in the end. The Bengals might have to cope with the possibility of losing both of their dynamic receivers that have complemented A.J. Green over the years as Mohamed Sanu isn't likely to return, and Marvin Jones is likely to be one of the hottest free agents on the open market. However, they're only in that situation because they drafted two talented receivers in the first place. Plus, there's a good chance the Bengals are competitive in retaining their top players, which Jones is one of.
The Bengals have always made an effort to re-sign their own, but rarely have they had to deal with so many major unrestricted free agent contracts in one offseason. It's been even more rare that they've jumped at overpaying someone just because they have such a great history with the team.
Take Michael Johnson, for example. As they do with most young guys ready to sign their first big contract, the Bengals took the approach of trying to get him to stay for a reasonable amount of money and the added benefit of staying in a familiar system that he has already found success. As many young players, ready to sign their first big contract do in that situation, he turned the deal down in favor of a $43.75 million contract over five years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You might recall that things didn't work out so well and he came back to sign with the Bengals for $24 million over four years just a year later.
While he was gone, the Bengals did alright without him. The once dominant defensive line that accrued 43 sacks in 2013 dropped off to an NFL low for the season of 20 in 2014. However, the team still made the playoffs and performed about as well once there in 2014 as they had in 2013. Yes, they lost in the first round, as they've done in their last seven attempts, but the point is, the team as a whole didn't miss much of a beat despite losing such a prized free agent. When Johnson re-signed with the team in 2015, he returned to his spot in the starting lineup, compiling 5.0 sacks, 29 tackles, three forced fumbles, and two batted passes.
On the same note, let's consider the case of Jonathan Joseph. In their heyday with the Bengals, Joseph and Leon Hall combined to form one of the most potent cornerback tandems in the NFL. The team and the fans watched as Joseph took his talents that put up 220 tackles, 76 passes defensed, and 14 interceptions for 228 yards to the Houston Texans for a lucrative contract. He has since continued to be impressive in his new city, putting up very similar numbers for his new team.
It's not exactly the most encouraging thing for Bengals fans going into this year's free agency, but consider what the Bengals did following Joseph's departure. When they were unable to sign Joseph for a reasonable price, they went out and signed Adam Jones who had recently been cut from the Dallas Cowboys for both on and off the field reasons. They also signed Terence Newman and drafted Dre Kirkpatrick in 2012 to help bolster the position.
The point is, the Bengals have a recent history of handling free agents their way while still finding success. The days of the team letting a key free agent like Justin Smith go, and not properly adjusting for his departure, seem to be in the past. Nobody wants to see a key fan favorite like Marvin Jones go, but you can probably bet if he does depart this offseason, the Bengals will find someone great to fill his shoes.
When it comes to building a roster, the Bengals deserve more credit than they're given. It's time to trust the process and see how it works itself out.