Free agency is typically a time for Bengals fans to sit back and watch as the team focuses on re-signing its own players. The Bengals tend to let the first few crazy days of free agency work themselves out before the team starts looking through the clearance bin for guys like Brandon LaFell, Karlos Dansby, A.J. Hawk, and James Harrison. Therefore, any discussion about the Bengals seriously pursuing a high-profile free agent is probably pointless. However, with the recent news that the Ravens are planning to let three-year starter Rick Wagner walk in free agency to focus on other contracts, fans will at least be intrigued by the possibility of Wagner coming to Cincinnati.
Why he would be a good fit with the Bengals
At 27-years-old, the vast majority of Wagner’s NFL career is still ahead of him. He was rated as the 18th best tackle in the NFL this year by Pro Football Focus and could potentially fix all of the Bengals’ problems at right tackle. Not only does he have the potential to continue climbing as one of the NFL’s top tackles, but the Bengals’ right tackle position is currently in serious transition after a rough 2016.
Cedric Ogbuehi proved that right tackle is not the position he is suited for at the NFL level and is now being groomed at left tackle. Jake Fisher appears to be in line for the starting spot at right tackle, but he has also yet to inspire much confidence. Eric Winston has been a below average starter but has plenty of starting experience. But, he is 33-years-old and about to be an unrestricted free agent. So, any stability that he brings to the position could easily be gone in 2017.
Why the Bengals shouldn’t sign him
Wagner is undoubtedly going to be a hot name on the free agent market as one of the best available young offensive linemen. Therefore, the Bengals are going to have to throw quite a bit of money his way for him to agree to a contract. For example, after four successful years with the Philadelphia Eagles, Lane Johnson received a five year, $56 million contract to remain in Philadelphia last offseason. Wagner is relatively the same age with similar production, so there is a solid chance that number could be similar to what a team is willing to pay him. That’s likely why the Ravens have reportedly already decided they can’t afford to renew his contract. Spotrac projects Wagner will make nearly $7 million per year on his next deal. That’s not quite the $11.2 million annual salary Johnson is getting, but the second highest annual salary for a right tackle (Johnson’s deal is the most lucrative) is Bryan Bulaga's $6.7 million average salary.
The Bengals are going to be dealing with a few hefty contract renewals of their own with Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, Dre Kirkpatrick and Rex Burkhead among the team’s internal free agents. Therefore, it would be tough to imagine Cincinnati playing for a guy like Wagner, regardless of how excellent of a fit he could potentially be. In addition to various other factors, including the Bengals’ recent draft investments at the tackle position, signing a high profile veteran right tackle seems like an unnecessary expense.
The Bengals would prefer to try to develop Fisher at the right tackle spot before they move on to a new player. Even if he doesn’t work out, the team could re-sign Winston to fill in at the position again in 2017. Even if the Bengals wanted to bring in someone entirely new, they would likely prefer to draft a player who they can develop in their system rather than bringing in a pricey veteran whose experience is rooted in a different offensive system and who would count against any compensatory picks the team would receive in 2018.
For the Bengals to sign a high-profile free agent like Wagner, the following things would have to materialize: a glaring need at that player’s specific position, a lack of confidence from the Bengals’ coaching staff in the upcoming draft, and the available funds to pull off such a move. The only one of those criteria you could argue the Bengals meet is the first one, so the likelihood of a move for Wagner in free agency seems very low.