As of now, most who follow the Cincinnati Bengals are resigned to believe the team won’t be proactive in free agency—even after a 6-9-1 season. The franchise’s leaders have said the team and their 2017 mode of operation will be “vastly different”, but what the Bengals do next month will begin to tell us all whether it’s all just rhetoric.
One thing is for sure after head coach Marvin Lewis and his trio of top assistants came under fire last year: big changes are not coming to the coaching staff this season, in fact, it looks like no changes are being made to the coaching staff. Still, the team may finally make some mid-tier moves in outside free agency to instill confidence in both the locker room and the fanbase.
Wide receiver is a tough position to figure out for the 2017 Bengals. A.J. Green is a top-three receiver in the NFL and Cincinnati likes the potential of second-year receivers Tyler Boyd, Alex Erickson and Cody Core. Additionally, Brandon LaFell had a solid season with the Bengals on a rental year, but how many other productive years does he have left in the tank?
One interesting option the Bengals could pursue in outside free agency is Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton. Even though he hasn’t been the same type of dynamic player we saw at Oregon State, he’s still been a relatively productive player in an outstanding Steelers offense. On the surface, he might be a little more expensive than most expect the Bengals to spend on a single outside player, but he could be a nice improvement with Cincinnati’s offense needing some sizzle.
Why it makes sense for the Bengals:
Bettering the offense, while weakening a rival: The Steelers have a number of big players to re-sign this offseason, including fellow wideout Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. Wheaton missed 15 games last season, including the postseason, which paved the way for Eli Rogers to step up for Pittsburgh. Martavis Bryant is also expected to return to the Steelers in 2017, so Wheaton seems to be expendable.
On Cincinnati’s side of the fence, they could definitely use Wheaton’s 4.45 40-yard dash speed and ability to make big plays on the outside and the slot. Cincinnati’s gain would be Pittsburgh’s loss, which is always something that brings a smile to the faces of the Who Dey faithful.
Might he actually be cheaper than re-signing LaFell?: Even though LaFell had the second-best season of his career in 2016 with the Bengals, he is four years older than Wheaton. Thus, the consensus opinion is that Wheaton might be more expensive to sign than LaFell. However, using the somewhat inexact science of estimated market values from the reliable source of Spotrac, Wheaton is predicted to have a slightly smaller average annual salary than LaFell.
Opening up the NFL Draft: For a team whose depth was highly-lauded over the past few seasons, the Bengals have a number of roster holes to plug this year. A handful of options seem to be in play in the first couple of rounds, be it linebacker, defensive end, wide receiver, or even offensive line, depending on what happens to a couple of impending free agents. While Wheaton may not have the upside of a Mike Williams or Corey Davis, the team could use top picks on other needs.
Why it doesn’t make sense for the Bengals:
LaFell might be the better option: The advantages of upside and longevity sit with a Wheaton signing, but LaFell’s solid 2016 campaign, coupled with Wheaton never cracking 750 receiving yards in his career, might point to the grizzled veteran being a better fit. LaFell also has four inches of height on Wheaton, which is a desirable trait in the red zone.
Better and less expensive options in the draft: While guys like Williams and Davis could be major busts, the idea of them reaching their potential lined up opposite of Green has Bengals fans drooling. Even if they eschew receiver in round one, other solid options like JuJu Smith-Schuster, DeDe Westbrook, Malachi Dupree and others could be had on day two. These options will undoubtedly be far cheaper per year than either Wheaton or LaFell as free agents.
Injury history and lack of production: As mentioned earlier, Wheaton has never had more than 749 receiving yards or five touchdowns in any pro season. Obviously, he’s taken a back seat to Brown, Heath Miller and others at times in the Steelers offense since he arrived in the NFL back in 2013, but he’s also missed 17 regular season games in four years with the Steelers—including 13 in 2016 (plus two more postseason contests). Because of the injury bug hitting the Bengals so badly on offense last year, spending an estimated $6 million per year on a guy with that history is a risk.