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Fixing the Bengals in 2018: Aggressiveness in free agency and the NFL Draft

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The Bengals are approaching the final game of a disappointing season. It’s the second straight poor campaign, so might they need to be more aggressive in the way they operate this offseason?

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In a disappointing 2017 campaign, the Cincinnati Bengals are looking at the final game before a potential overhaul in 2018.

Marvin Lewis, the coach of the team for the past 15 seasons, appears to be on the outs, as his contract has not been renewed after two straight years with just 12 combined wins.

On the last episode of The Orange and Black Insider, Scott Schulze and I continued our miniseries of ways to fix the Bengals this next offseason. A next step in greatly improving the Bengals, after our initial one of looking at coaches to be replaced beyond Lewis, is to be far more aggressive in the spring months.

The Brown family has always run their team in a conservative manner, with it having some major pluses and minuses to the approach. Cincinnati has preferred to lean on a “draft-and-develop” strategy in the recent years under Marvin Lewis, and while there have been some great finds in the NFL Draft, roster holes continue to exist for a variety of reasons.

This isn’t a cry for reckless spending, but what has the conservative approach netted them recently? In years in which the Bengals seemed oh-so-close to a championship, namely 2013 and 2015, why wouldn’t they attempt to get as many able players as possible to push them over the hump?

Like many aspects when looking ahead for this team, a change in operations need to take place if a Super Bowl trophy is truly the desire in Cincinnati.

A different approach in March:

Outside free agency: A major part of the reason that the Bengals have been so gun shy in free agency is them being burned prior to the 2011 rebuild. Whether is was Antwan Odom, Laveranues Coles or a myriad of others, Cincinnati has preferred to get younger and cheaper.

Truth be told, I’m a bit more of a proponent to building a team partially through free agency than others. I think we can all agree that nobody wants to see the Bengals fall into salary cap hell with poor outside hirings. But, that can be avoided with savvy moves, while also being active in the spring and improving the roster.

As we currently sit, per the NFLPA public salary cap report, the Bengals have $10.73 million of cap space, along with carrying nearly $6.6 million from the year prior. With their lone big outside free agent signing this year for $4 million in linebacker Kevin Minter, one is inclined to believe that Cincinnati could have at least raked in one more player who could have helped them this year.

What’s also frustrating in the coinciding lack of playoff wins, is the fact that the team has been hovering around that type of space in recent years. Again, they need to avoid cap hell, but some would still like to see them have a bit more of an “all-in” approach—especially when they seemed to be so close to greatness.

Have you ever heard of other teams using the “in-season windfall” excuse that we hear from the Bengals? While the Ravens are busy signing Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin and Brandon Carr, while the Steelers nabbed Joe Haden, Tyson Alualu and Mike Mitchell in recent seasons, it’s easy to see why they are both slated to be in the postseason right now.

Yes, these and other teams have had their share of free agency misses, but the point is they got back on the horse in an effort to put their team in the best position possible. Cincinnati needs to stop acting like a scorned lover in free agency and go after immediate impact players.

Obviously, Minter has been a bit of a disappointment this year, prompting many to note the lack of need to go outside for contributors. He didn’t force a single turnover this year and ended the season on Injured Reserve on a one-year deal.

That’s a fair enough argument.

Inside free agency: Cincinnati has made it known that they prefer to keep their core stars. Obviously, it’s a wise strategy, especially if those players end up having solid long-term careers.

Recently, the Bengals have re-signed many starters and role players to lock them up. Those contracts either occur in the summer of the last year of their current deal, or after it expires. The list includes names like Carlos Dunlap, Vontaze Burfict, Andy Dalton, Geno Atkins, George Iloka, Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Brandon LaFell (another one of their big outside signings when he initially joined the team) and Giovani Bernard.

It’s safe to say that while those players continued to contribute since their new deals, some haven’t fully lived up to the contracts they’ve been given. Dunlap, Atkins, Green and Bernard are still cornerstones, but even their quarterback hasn’t been immune to criticism.

Speaking of the Dalton criticism, while he has been a pretty good quarterback in his seven-year tenure with the Bengals, it’s well-known that he’s a player who needs quality surrounding talent. It’s why his career seasons in 2013 and 2015 show a roster filled with offensive stars.

Yet, even as the Bengals have committed to No. 14 and know of his both his abilities and shortcomings, they have completely gone away from their inside free agency strategy with some of their best players on that side of the ball.

Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu were allowed to leave (yes, I’m aware of the pursuit the Bengals showed Jones), while his two best offensive linemen from 2015, Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, were also allowed to walk.

Anyone happen to see what has happened with their careers, as well as the direction of the Bengals’ offense the past two seasons? Whitworth is widely-seen as the best free agency acquisition of 2017, while Sanu was a key contributor to Atlanta’s Super Bowl run last year. And, if you watched the game against the Lions on Christmas Eve, Jones made yet another highlight-reel catch, en route to his first career 1,000-yard campaign.

If you go back further in the Lewis era and where some of the issues the Bengals cling to when it comes to outside free agency is their losing of T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Both sides played hardball, though “Housh” was deserving of a good deal by the Bengals after he gave them a Pro Bowl campaign in a terrible 2008 season.

It’s in that decision that the Bengals went after Coles and Terrell Owens in consecutive offseasons. Both guys only lasted a year with the team, whereas a guy like Houshmandzadeh could have been a nice bridge player in the playoff run of 2009 and the disaster of 2010.

Yes, as a team, you aren’t going to be able to keep everybody—i.e. Jones wanting a higher-profile role as a No.1-type of receiver. However, if the team is spending minimal money on outside free agency, keeping more key players from within their walls needs to happen.

In short, identifying the right players to keep and the right ones from the outside should be a balancing act to round out a roster. The change here is the team spending more money.

Changes in April:

The NFL Draft has been the team’s bread-and-butter of late. The key to their five consecutive playoff berths from 2011-2015 resided almost exclusively in the hauls they grabbed in 2010 and 2011.

On one hand, you have to like the “best player available” strategy. Letting quality players who inexplicably fell further than they should have, and right into their lap, provides roster flexibility and builds long-term depth.

However, as mentioned earlier, in that five-year span of success, the team seemed to be just one or two impact player(s) away from a championship run. Instead, as they’ve stockpiled cornerbacks and tight ends in recent years, other needed position groups suffered.

Because of this strategy, another fallout is potentially-higher talent players not seeing the field immediately. The biggest evidence of this in 2017 is probably in William Jackson. Yes, he was on I.R. last season, but some believed he was ready to return and then had been essentially the third or fourth corner this year.

Well, he’s been pretty good:

And, in what should be the search for immediate impact players, be it in a rotational role or a starting one, the Bengals prefer to stay put or even move back in the draft. Accumulation of picks is great if you are a perennial four-win team, but with the team averaging over 10 wins a year from 2011-2015, it would seem that moving around to get players they truly want would be the way to go.

When the team moved up for Russell Bodine in the fourth round of 2014, it was only the third time the club made a move up in history. That’s an indirect indictment as to why the Cincinnati Bengals have never won a Super Bowl.

What do you think about what the Bengals should do in free agency and the draft in 2018?

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