In a scenario that feels all too familiar, the Bengals face an uphill battle in the coming months. Officially, 13 players on the team could potentially hit the free agency market, with the pedigrees of each player varying from franchise cornerstone to frequently inactive depth player.
Last year, the Bengals lost eight players — all of whom saw fairly significant snaps throughout the 2015 season — in free agency, with more than half of those guys being players who had started in Cincinnati prior to leaving.
This year, things don’t look quite as bad, with six starters hitting the market, some of whom fans hope the team moves on from. In all, 12 Bengals could potentially become unrestricted free agents (and one a restricted free agent), compared to last year’s total of 15.
Of the 2015 free agency class, the Bengals’ big three were George Iloka, Marvin Jones and Adam Jones, though several other key contributors were in the mix. Mohamed Sanu, Reggie Nelson, Andre Smith, Vincent Rey and Leon Hall were all free agents, too, and all but Rey left the Bengals in 2016.
This year, the Bengals’ big three features Dre Kirkpatrick, Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. Other contributors hitting the market include Rex Burkhead, Brandon LaFell, Karlos Dansby, Cedric Peerman, Domata Peko, Margus Hunt and Wallace Gilberry. Eric Winston, Chykie Brown and T.J. Johnson (RFA) are the team’s three remaining free agents.
Let’s evaluate each individual hitting free agency and whether or not the team should retain the players listed. I’ll also offer a few Draft needs and free agent targets to finish. But with that, let’s get started.
CB Adam Jones: The soon to be 34-year-old cornerback has gotten off to a tumultuous offseason, to say the least. The question that has to be answered at some point is whether Jones’ offseason issues are drastic enough for the Bengals to cut him. Ignore Jones’ age and level of play and consider this: last offseason, Sheldon Richardson led police on a high-speed chase, allegedly driving as fast as 143 miles per hour, which resulted in his being arrested on a variety of charges. Two other adults and a 12-year-old were in the car with Richardson. Additionally, a fully loaded semi-automatic handgun was found in the car, and all of the car’s passengers allegedly “smelled of burned marijuana.”
Jones and Richardson are two completely different players — different ages, different positions, different skill level. But with Jones’ already marred history, what about his most recent arrest changes anything? The Bengals knew who Jones was before signing him, and Jones’ most recent actions shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed his career.
The cornerback’s actions were indefensible, but if Jones doesn’t receive punishment from the NFL and is able to continue playing at an average-or-better level (which he did last year), why should the team cut him? It’s disgusting to see anyone, football player or not, disrespect others — not to mention people who work in positions of public duty — but I find it hard to believe many teams in the NFL would cut a player for an incident like this. Jones’ age and cap hit make him expendable, but unless the team believes it can be just as good, if not better, without him, I don’t see why it should cut a player in a move that would be made strictly for PR.
Final verdict: Cut, if and only if:
- The team re-signs Dre Kirkpatrick or signs a free agent corner of somewhat equal value
- Jones receives a significant enough punishment from the NFL to warrant being cut
LB Rey Maualuga
As the 2016 season progressed, it seemed like Maualuga was falling out of favor in Cincinnati. The linebacker’s snaps decreased, as guys like Rey and Nick Vigil saw increased opportunities, especially in the last few weeks of the season. Bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson appears to believe Vigil will start next season. I could go on, but from the looks of it, the Bengals seem set on cutting the former second-round pick. Cutting Maualuga wouldn’t incur any dead money and would save the Bengals more than $3.6 million in cap space.
Final verdict: Cut
DE Michael Johnson
Love him or hate him, Johnson is a guy who belongs on an NFL roster at this point in his career. Pro Football Focus doesn’t seem to love him, and most Bengals fans — myself included — have been frustrated by his inability to generate much semblance of a pass rush. Johnson as a whole, however, is a better player than he’s made out to be. He’s inarguably one of the team’s top two edge-setters, and that’s by no means encouraging. Will Clarke showed signs of development early in the season, even leading the team in sacks at one point. The team was so starved for another player who can just hold the edge and force runners inside that it ended up signing Gilberry, a move made out of desperation.
Cutting Johnson can save the team a couple million dollars, but in the long term Cincinnati would be ridding itself of one of the team’s most balanced edge players. I absolutely believe the team should look to replace its current starter at the right end position, but even if it manages to do so, cutting Johnson isn’t worth the money it would save the team.
Final verdict: Keep on the roster
DT Pat Sims
To me, the decision of what to do with Sims is the most interesting of any player in question, including Jones. On one hand, he’s been a fairly solid player. On the other, he’ll turn 32 next season and is very replaceable. For a player at a crowded position group with a contract that would allow the Bengals to cut him without incurring any dead money, Sims’ future on the Bengals is a coin-flip to me.
Final verdict: Choose between him and Brandon Thompson — one stays, one goes
RB Jeremy Hill
Do not cut Hill. It wouldn’t even save the team a million dollars. (And no, he’s not getting traded.)
CB Dre Kirkpatrick
Kirkpatrick, to me, is the most important guy to re-sign. Get him back, and Jones becomes expendable. From there, you have the four guys behind him (Darqueze Dennard, William Jackson, Josh Shaw and KeiVarae Russell) to boast one of the deeper cornerback groups in the NFL. Bringing Kirkpatrick back also ensures that there’s at least one young, experienced corner on the roster.
With plenty of talented corners on the market, I think Kirkpatrick — barring a team coming out of nowhere with ridiculous money well above market value — could, and should, be a fairly easy player to bring back (for a guy in this tier of players hitting free agency).
Final verdict: Get it done, Bengals
OG Kevin Zeitler
Zeitler’s impending free agency is going to be the hottest topic of the Bengals’ offseason.
In this situation, it’s easy to point at the Falcons as a team who signed a big-name interior lineman to a lucrative contract and somewhat correspondingly made a Super Bowl run. In all reality, things are a lot more complex than they appear. In Atlanta’s case, the Falcons will have to come to terms with the realization that a 31-year-old center is locked into a long-term, high-paying deal while the team’s franchise left tackle (Jake Matthews), shutdown cornerback (Desmond Trufant) and most talented running back (Devonta Freeman) could all hit the free agency market next offseason. Unless Thomas Dimitroff can work some cap magic, at least one of those four will likely leave next year. And if he somehow does manage to get those guys under contract, good luck getting Matt Ryan, Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Tevin Coleman under contract during the following offseason.
If Atlanta’s gamble had resulted in a Super Bowl victory, than it would’ve been a no-brainer. Even a Super Bowl berth in itself might be worth the big contract. But as I believe we’ll come to see in the next couple of years, gamble moves like these — guaranteeing big money to an interior offensive lineman — will have long-term cap implications that aren’t easy to overcome without a lot of things going right.
Don’t get me wrong — I’d love to see the Bengals re-sign Zeitler. But I think the Bengals’ supposed stance here (not wanting to shell out massive money to an interior lineman and instead putting that money toward positions the team deems more important, like offensive tackle and cornerback) is valid.
Final verdict: Let him walk unless the asking price is a maximum of $10 million per year, a la David DeCastro’s deal with the Steelers last year. (I expect he’ll fetch more than that in free agency as the best guard available.)
OT Andrew Whitworth
It seems as though the Bengals are prioritizing Kirkpatrick and Whitworth this offseason, which will certainly piss off the fanbase, and for good reason. (Such was the case with Reggie Nelson and Marvin Jones in 2016.) But Whitworth, still one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL, has been severely undervalued by Cincinnati fans over the past few months. Even in a down year, the tackle was still among the best at his position and a top-tier starter.
Per the Washington Post, Cincinnati’s left tackle didn’t surrender a single sack in the entire 2016 season. During the past three years, Big Whit has only given up four sacks at a position where he’s generally matched up against opponents’ top edge players. Whitworth has been incredible, and until he shows serious signs of regression, Cincinnati should absolutely make sure he’s still around. Even if he were to deteriorate in the upcoming season (something that seems unlikely at this point), Whitworth is durable enough to potentially kick in at guard should the team need him to.
Final verdict: Sign the guy — he deserves it, and the team needs him around
DT Domata Peko
Peko has been hyper-criticized to an incredibly unfair extent for quite some time now, but that being said, there comes a point where teams need to move on from the veteran players in their lineup. That time feels like now. With Andrew Billings appearing to be Cincinnati’s preferred starter at nose tackle for the upcoming season, Peko becomes expendable.
There’s certainly value for a guy who can stay healthy — Peko has been perhaps the most durable nose tackle in the NFL during the course of his career — but even in a reserve role, I’m not sure the veteran has much gas left in the tank. With guys like Marcus Hardison, DeShawn Williams and Brandon Thompson still looking to work their way up the depth chart, I’m not sure Peko should even be re-signed as a reserve.
Final verdict: Move on
WR Brandon LaFell
LaFell is one of the more interesting cases on the Bengals’ roster, considering the team’s past ability to generate production out of virtually any receiver who lines up across A.J. Green. Whether it was Jerome Simpson, Jones or LaFell, every receiver who has been the number two across from Green has put up numbers around the same vicinity. That’s not to say they’ve all been players of the same talent level. But with that knowledge, it’s quite possible the Bengals think LaFell is expendable at this point, especially with the late surges of rookies Tyler Boyd and Cody Core.
That said, I think the team still likes LaFell and wants another veteran to keep around alongside Green. If the team does decide to re-sign LaFell, however, it needs to ensure the veteran understands he won’t have as big a role next year as he did this year. That in itself makes it difficult for me to envision LaFell wanting to stick around, as the receiver put up some nice numbers last year and will likely be looking to make more money than he did last year.
Final verdict: Let him walk, if he’s looking to be more than a number three and/or demands a salary higher than that of a player in said role
RB Rex Burkhead
There’s not much that needs to be said here. The fan-favorite running back has proven he’s a capable player and deserving of, at the very least, a much more prominent role. The problem with re-signing Burkhead, however, is that Cincinnati made him ride the bench for the length of his rookie deal. What incentive does Burkhead have to come back? I’d love a Burkhead return, but I think most fans should prepare for life without the former Nebraska running back.
Final verdict: Let him walk, unless he wants to re-sign in Cincinnati
RB Cedric Peerman
The Bengals’ special teams DVOA took a major dip with Peerman out of the lineup for the first half of the Bengals’ season, dropping from eighth in 2015 to 22nd this past season. Eight of the 10 teams that finished 2016 in the bottom of special teams DVOA missed the playoffs, proving once again that special teams play is the most under-looked facet in the sport of football. The two playoff teams which finished in the bottom 10 in terms of special teams DVOA? The Texans, kings of the vaunted AFC South, and the Packers, whose poor play in almost every phase of the game was veiled by tremendous quarterback play.
Peerman’s impact in the special teams game is often under-appreciated, and until the veteran back is no longer a top special teamer, he’s a guy the team should keep around.
Final verdict: Re-sign
DE Margus Hunt
The Estonian defensive end hasn’t lived up to his Draft billing, but like with Peerman, there’s value in a player who can make a significant impact on special teams. I’d like to see Hunt return on a minimal deal, if he’s willing to stick around.
Final verdict: Re-sign
C T.J. Johnson
Johnson is a nice reserve player at the center position. Whether or not he’s re-signed will likely be determined by the Bengals’ sentiment concerning starting center Russell Bodine. If the team believes he needs to be replaced in the near future, it will likely let Johnson test the free agent market and select a center in the upcoming Draft. If Cincinnati sticks with Bodine, bringing Johnson back seems like the next move to make.
Final verdict: Re-sign
LB Karlos Dansby
Dansby, like many players on the Bengals’ roster, has been hyper-criticized based on unreasonable expectations. Fans shouldn’t have ever expected the now 35-year-old linebacker to be a top player when he signed with the team this past offseason, yet it seems as though the general sentiment about the ‘backer is that he’s been a disappointment despite what I’d consider a pretty good season. The veteran linebacker tallied a career-high 10 run stuffs last year, along with 114 tackles, six pass defenses, a sack and a fumble recovery. He’s certainly not the speedy coverage back he once was, but Dansby has earned a second contract, should he want one.
Final verdict: Re-sign, but only on a one-year, low-incentive deal
DE Wallace Gilberry
This one’s pretty easy. The Bengals didn’t want him last year, hence the team’s decision to let him walk in free agency. Cincinnati only brought Gilberry back when it realized for what feels like the hundredth consecutive year that it doesn’t have enough players who can rush the passer. If the Bengals plan on taking a pass rusher at some point in the near future (I hope they can do so with one of their 11 impending Draft selections), Gilberry is expendable.
Final verdict: Move on
OT Eric Winston
I could see the team re-signing him, but I really wouldn’t have a preference either way. There are other players either via the Draft or who are already on the roster, who can take over his backup role.
Final verdict: Re-sign him to a team-friendly deal or let him walk — it shouldn’t matter either way
CB Chykie Brown
To be honest, I forgot the guy was on the roster. With a young cornerback group heading into the 2017 season, I could see the team re-signing Brown (and I could imagine such a move would be greeted with an overreaction regarding a player who won’t likely ever see the field). It really doesn’t matter whether Brown is or isn’t on the roster. What matters is that the team’s sixth corner, whether Brown or someone else, doesn’t see the field (a.k.a. that the team’s cornerbacks manage to stay healthy).
Final verdict: Re-sign as the sixth corner, or sign a sixth corner in free agency
Five biggest Draft needs
- Defensive end: It’s been a need for far, far too long. Johnson, as mentioned, is still a pretty solid run defender, but even in a scenario where he starts in base packages, the team still needs an edge rusher for third downs, at the very least. (In all reality, Cincinnati should be looking for a three-down starter at the position.)
- Offensive line: It’s hard to tell whether this will or won’t be a need following the re-signing period and the Draft, but it’s hard for me to imagine Cincinnati will lock up both Zeitler and Whitworth. If either of those two players is not re-signed, a lineman should be taken in the Draft — not to replace the starter, but rather as an insurance policy for guys like Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher and Christian Westerman.
- Running back: I anticipate Burkhead will be gone, which means the team will probably select a running back at some point in this year’s Draft. If the Bengals don’t think Hill is the guy moving forward, one could be had early on. If not, spending a late round pick on a back — or signing a cheap free agent — makes sense.
- Wide receiver: You can’t ever have too many good receivers. The future of the position group looks bright, with Green still as good as ever and youngsters Boyd, Core and Alex Erickson making waves in their respective inaugural season. In theory, one could make the argument Cincinnati doesn’t need another receiver. However, in a year where the team will have an abundance of Draft picks, it would seem foolish not to take a wideout at some point, perhaps even on Day 1 or 2.
- Linebacker: It’s not as big a need as many are making it out to be — Vontaze Burfict and Nick Vigil will likely be the future in nickel packages — but Cincinnati still needs a third linebacker for base packages. Keeping Maualuga and/or Dansby around, and/or promoting P.J. Dawson to the active roster could help, but the team could still use some speed at the position.
Five free agents who could fill these needs
- DE Dion Jordan: Teams might try to overspend for the former first-round pick, but Jordan fits what the Bengals are looking for. He has the frame and quickness the Bengals want in an edge player, but it would be a risky signing considering his lack of NFL production.
- OT Andre Smith: Signing the former Bengals lineman to a deal seems like a reasonable move. I wrote more about it here.
- RB Benny Cunningham: He’s a back who shares a similar skill-set as Burkhead but will probably be much more inexpensive.
- WR Marquise Goodwin: DeSean Jackson and Kenny Stills are two of the more notable free agent receivers on the market, as they have speed to burn. However, Goodwin — a former member of the Buffalo Bills — might be the fastest of the three players, though he’s a more limited receiver. Goodwin will likely come cheap and could be a solid free agent steal like LaFell was last year.
- LB Gerald Hodges: I would love to see Goodwin’s former teammate, Zach Brown, in Cincinnati. However, I just don’t see it happening with the Bengals’ frugality in free agency and considering Brown been a pretty inconsistent player throughout his career. Hodges, however, is a former safety who converted to linebacker and is pretty quick and could come cheap.