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Bengals in free agency: Filling the void

The draft isn’t the only way the Bengals can shore up some areas of need. Which outside free agents could be a good fit in Cincinnati?

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Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

With only four teams left in the playoffs, the 2016 season is all but complete. The interesting part of the draft order is determined, and most people are excited about the prospect of having a top 10 pick. However, it seems unlikely that the front office can address each of the team’s needs through the draft alone, so it is important to look at some possible solutions elsewhere. The Bengals demonstrated just last season with the acquisition of Brandon LaFell that they can use free agency to fill some gaps with a known commodity. The Bengals aren’t going to be huge spenders in free agency, but we should expect them to pick up a few low key players who can make an immediate impact.

According to, the base salary cap will be $168,000,000, and the Bengals will have about $47,000,000 in cap space for next year. With this amount of money available, the Bengals will be able to re-sign some of their 14 unrestricted free agents who are set to leave this year, as well as acquire some talent on the open market.

There’s no doubt the draft will provide solutions to many of the Bengals’ problems. But, let’s take a look to see how the Bengals could address positional needs in free agency alone.

Potential Departures in Free Agency

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Before diving into which players will be available and would make for a good fit on the team, it’s worth noting who is likely to be leaving the Bengals through free agency as well. Here is the current list of players set to hit free agency.

Bengals 2017 free agents

Player Pos. 2016 Team Type Current APY Guarantees Status
Player Pos. 2016 Team Type Current APY Guarantees Status
Andrew Whitworth LT Bengals UFA $9,000,000 $2,000,000
Domata Peko 4-3 DT Bengals UFA $4,500,000 $4,400,000
Brandon LaFell WR Bengals UFA $2,500,000 $1,000,000
Dre Kirkpatrick CB Bengals UFA $2,155,749 $7,840,065
Karlos Dansby 4-3 OLB Bengals UFA $2,000,000 $700,000
Kevin Zeitler RG Bengals UFA $1,886,050 $6,125,446
Eric Winston RT Bengals UFA $1,090,000 $80,000
Cedric Peerman RB Bengals UFA $1,065,000 $250,000
Margus Hunt 4-3 DE Bengals UFA $917,775 $1,049,892
Wallace Gilberry 4-3 DE Bengals UFA $885,000 $0
Brandon Thompson 4-3 DT Bengals UFA $840,000 $50,000
Chykie Brown CB Bengals UFA $760,000 $0
Randy Bullock K Bengals UFA $675,000 $0 Re-Signed
T.J. Johnson C Bengals RFA $600,000 $0
Rex Burkhead RB Bengals UFA $565,550 $102,200

No doubt, several of these players will have a new home at the beginning of next season, but many will return to Cincinnati, too.

Need - Offensive Line

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Issues

The Bengals were plagued by offensive line uncertainty and failures this season. The line has seen little improvement in the two months since Pro Football Focus wrote this:

For years, the Bengals had one of the league’s best lines, but this season they have fallen off. Heading into the season, they had two potential issues on paper at right tackle and center, and both have proven to be problems. RT Cedric Ogbuehi has allowed seven sacks and 32 total QB pressures across nine games, and C Russell Bodine has allowed more sacks than any other center in the league. Andrew Whitworth has remained one of the best tackles in the game, currently second in PFF’s rankings with an 89.8 grade, but he hasn’t had enough help.

These issues could be compounded by the potential loss of Kevin Zeitler, one of the few dependable players on the line this year. It seems unlikely that both Whitworth and Zeitler will return. Zeitler is the best guard available in free agency. In a league in which protecting the quarterback becomes more important each year, Zeitler will likely field several attractive offers from teams who need offensive line help. At right guard, Brandon Brooks (PHI), Kyle Long (CHI), and David DeCastro (PIT) have all recently signed contracts worth $40,000,000 or more, and it seems likely that the same could be paid to Zeitler.

Conditioning and studying this offseason could help to solve Cedric Ogbuehi’s poor performances and Jake Fisher could wind up being the answer to the fledgling line. But based on what we know now, the unit could use some help, and free agency may be just the place to fill the hole that Zeitler will probably leave behind, as well as the problems which already exist.

Who’s Available?

  • T.J. Lang (GB - right guard) - Lang would almost certainly be a downgrade from Zeitler, but he would also be more affordable. The former Pro Bowler has also dealt with injury throughout this season. That being said, Lang is a tested veteran who has spent his career doing well enough protecting Aaron Rodgers that the Bengals could be comfortable using him as a quick fix until the rest of the line figures it out, or the Bengals draft a suitable replacement. But, Lang will also command a sizable contract as one of the best guards available, and if the Bengals are going to pay him, they might as well pay for Zeitler.
  • Joe Hawley (TB - center) – Though it lasted less than one game, Russell Bodine was benched late in the season in favor of T.J. Johnson, yet another free agent. Joe Hawley has had a turbulent few years, being released from the Falcons somewhat unexpectedly and now enters free agency. Hawley is probably the best available free agent center, and could offer more consistency to the position.
  • Andre Smith (MIN - right tackle) - When Andre Smith left the Bengals to sign with the Vikings last offseason on a one-year deal, the hope was that Cedric Ogbuehi would step in to fill his shoes. Ogbuehi has not lived up to those expectations and Smith is once again on the market. On one hand, Smith may not be much of an upgrade from Ogbuehi given his poor play and the season-ending surgery he underwent in 2016. On the other hand, this is a player who is familiar with the system, and his less-than-stellar 2016 may mean the Bengals can get him back for a reasonable cost. This type of lease-back would not be the first time the Bengals have taken a former player back. The Bengals will likely get a compensatory pick for Smith in this year’s draft, so it would be quite ironic if they were to re-sign him in 2017, just like they did with Michael Johnson in 2015 after his one-year stint with the Buccaneers.

Need - Defensive Line

NFL: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Issues

The Bengals’ run defense took a marked step back this season. In 2015, the Bengals had the seventh-best rushing defense in the league, allowing only 1,477 yards on the ground to opposing offenses league. This season, they allowed 1,812 yards on the ground, the 12th worst.

On top of this, while none had great 2016 seasons, the potential loss of Domata Peko, Karlos Dansby and Margus Hunt means that depth on the defensive line will be affected. Defensive end is a position that many believe will be addressed by the Bengals early on in the draft. The return of Andrew Billings from his unfortunate preseason injury could also help the defensive tackle unit.

Still, there are a few names that could bring life to this area.

Who’s Available?

  • Alan Branch (NE - defensive tackle) - The journeyman Alan Branch could make his next pit stop on the road to retirement in Cincinnati. Branch is no spring chicken, but his statistics have remained remarkably consistent. This year he has recorded 49 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and has remained a solid run stuffer, a need for the Bengals. Like Smith, discussed above, the Bengals may be able to get Branch for a short and reasonable deal. However, this has less to do with poor performance than it does his recent violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy and the fact that he is already in his thirties. Ideally, the Bengals would offer him a one-year deal to help add some depth.
  • Andre Branch (MIA - defensive end) - Andre Branch is a younger than the elder Alan Branch and has high upside, given that he was buried behind Cameron Wake and Mario Williams on the Dolphins’ depth chart and still managed to nab 49 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Andre likely wouldn’t be at the top of the Bengals’ depth chart either, but bringing him into the fold and increasing rotation with Johnson may have the effect of improving Johnson’s play while also adding much needed depth at the position.

Need - Linebacker

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Issues

The acquisition of Dansby last offseason wasn’t enough to solidify the linebacker corps. Rey Maualuga’s regression meant that Vontaze Burfict had to carry the load. That’s not a big problem, but Burfict needs help. This is another position the Bengals may take in the first round of the Draft, but there are some options in free agency. That being said, a suitable upgrade in this department may require the player to switch systems.

Who’s Available?

  • Malcolm Smith (OAK- outside linebacker) - Malcolm Smith is wrapping up a two-year stint with the Raiders, during which he has averaged 113 tackles per year. Smith has playoff experience, and was the Super Bowl XLVIII MVP. Smith also already plays in a 4-3 defense and has done so since he played for the Seahawks, which may ease the transition into the Bengals’ scheme. Adding a versatile, playoff-tested linebacker to play on one side of Burfict may be the shot in the arm the run defense needs - especially if the Bengals decide to go for a defensive lineman high in the draft. The downside is that Smith will likely not come cheap, so the Bengals may not be interested.
  • DeMarcus Ware (DEN – outside linebacker) - Bringing Ware to the Queen City for a short-term deal could work well. The Bengals have shown that they are willing to take chances on older, talented linebackers in free agency with last season’s signing of Dansby and AJ Hawk the year before. Ware is coming off season-ending back surgery and career-low numbers, giving significant leverage to teams in the market for a veteran linebacker with high upside. Granted, it would require Ware to adjust to the Bengals scheme at the ripe age of 34 and this could just be a flashy name whose best days are in the rear view mirror. Still, considering his numbers throughout his career, he would look good in orange and black. As for his motivation, Ware released the following statement on his surgery:

Need - Cornerback

NFL: Adam Jones Archive Sam Greene-USA TODAY Sports

The Issues

Statistically, the Bengals pass defense wasn’t horrible last year, allowing 22 passing touchdowns, a 63.1% completion to opposing quarterbacks, and a total of 3,800 yards in the air. These number are not so different than 2015, an objectively much more successful year for the team.

What makes things troublesome here is that it’s uncertain what the Bengals, the league, and the Ohio judicial system are going to do about Adam Jones after his recent brush with the law. On top of that, the Bengals don’t really know what they have in first-round pick William Jackson III, and Darqueze Dennard saw only 30.73% of snaps in 2016, which isn’t the level of use one would like to see from a first round pick in his third year in the league. This may make the Bengals more likely to prioritize bringing Kirkpatrick back, or even to pursue another young corner early in the draft. It’s no secret that the Bengals are prone to taking defensive backs early and often in the draft. With the uncertainty at the position it would not be surprising (even if less than thrilling to fans) to see another cornerback drafted by the Bengals early. Another possibility might be to pursue a tested corner in free agency.

Who’s Available?

  • Stephon Gilmore (BUF - cornerback) - Gilmore may not be the biggest name corner in free agency, but if Jones is either released or suspended and Kirkpatrick signs elsewhere, he could make for a nice addition to the secondary. In 2016 he netted five interceptions, two more than any player currently on the Bengals’ roster. Gilmore has shown growth in each season he has been in the league, and the Bengals have the cap space to sign him in a pinch. He wouldn’t be the cheapest option, but he’s not likely to get a Josh Norman-sized deal.
  • A.J. Bouye (HOU - cornerback) - A.J. Bouye had a breakout year and showed he has the chops to be considered one of the best corners available in free agency. In 15 regular-season games, Bouye led the Texans with 16 passes defensed and an interception. In two playoff games, he had six more passes defensed and two interceptions. The competition might be great for Bouye and the Texans have indicated they would like him back:

"We want A.J. Bouye back," head coach Bill O’Brien said. "He’s one of us, you know what I mean? He’s a guy that was undrafted before we got here and when we came here, based on his own work ethic, the coaching from John Butler, the guy has done an excellent job.”

A young up-and-comer like Bouye could be a good fit to help solidify a position for the Bengals that has quickly become one big question mark.

Final Thoughts

While the Bengals may elect to play it safe and continue to rely on the Draft to develop talent, these free agents could be just what the team needs to bounce back from a less-than-stellar 2016 season. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all available players the Bengals could possibly pursue, but they are some who might make sense to see in stripes next year.