While it has come at the frustration of many fans, the Bengals’ cautious and calculated free agency approach, for the most part, has been effective.
Cincinnati has been one of the more frugal teams when it comes to spending big money on outside free agents, and the strategy appears to have worked in the Bengals’ case. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, Cincinnati was one of the bottom seven teams in the league in terms of outside free agency spending from 2013-2015. (The Texans, Cowboys, Steelers, Packers, Panthers and Seahawks are the six teams who spent less than the Bengals in outside free agency in that span.) And while the Bengals have yet to earn that elusive playoff victory, they’ve still managed to compile 28 wins during the past three seasons, despite a six-win season in 2016 and two ties in the past three years.
The data used for the above graph shows teams’ offseason spending from 2013-15.
At the end of the day, wins will unfairly play a big part in dictating teams’ success rates in free agency. The Chargers, who signed Casey Hayward, Brandon Mebane and Travis Benjamin to bargain deals, easily had the best free agency period of any AFC West team last year in terms of getting production out of the overall money spent, but the media (and football fans) have hyped the Raiders’ 2016 offseason as though it was one of the best offseasons of all-time. Because Oakland made the playoffs and San Diego (now Los Angeles) only won six games last year, it’s easy to cite the Raiders’ additions as more impactful, even when Hayward — originally signed to be the Chargers’ third cornerback behind Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers — led the NFL in interceptions in his first season with the Chargers.
The feeling around Cincinnati seems to be that the Bengals’ lack of free agent signings was a major reason for the team falling short of the playoffs in 2016. And while I can understand where the notion is coming from — Cincinnati just feels like a team that needs major changes at this point — I can’t wholeheartedly get behind the cynical notion that Cincinnati’s front office has failed in free agency.
Last year, the Bengals let eight players walk in free agency, with only three of those players making any sort of significant impact (unless you think Brandon Tate was an impactful return man in Buffalo). Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Reggie Nelson, the three players alluded to here, all performed fairly well in 2016. But the question of whether any of the three have earned the massive salaries they’ll soon be getting paid has yet to be definitively answered.
In 2016, the Bengals signed four external free agents: Brandon LaFell, Karlos Dansby, Jimmy Wilson and Taylor Mays. Because Wilson and Mays both didn’t end up making the final 53-man roster (and had insignificant cap hits), however, for all intents and purposes, let’s just focus on LaFell and Dansby.
Though he’s no Jones, LaFell managed to put together a career-year in 2016. Of all wideouts who were free agents last year, LaFell ranked fourth in receiving yards this year, with 862. The only players ahead of him? Jones (who tallied more than one-third of his season yardage in two games), Rishard Matthews and Mike Wallace.
LaFell was one of the lowest-paid free agent receivers — he signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract — and ended up being one of the more productive players. Sure, LaFell’s numbers are a bit skewed with Green’s late-season injury. Still, Bleacher Report’s NFL 1000 project graded him as the 19th-best receiver in the NFL last year. (Keep in mind NFL 1000 operates exclusively from a film-based approach.)
Like LaFell, Dansby was signed on an incredibly cheap deal. And just like LaFell, Dansby massively outperformed his contract. For the price of just $2 million in 2016, the outside linebacker put together a nice season, tallying a career-high 10 run stuffs (which led the team), as well as grading out as the 17th-best 4-3 outside linebacker per NFL 1000. At the SAM position, Dansby was a noticeable upgrade from his predecessors, A.J. Hawk and Emmanuel Lamur. He was outstanding in run support and made quite a few plays in pass coverage. Despite his being an upgrade from Hawk and Lamur, the 35-year-old Dansby still didn’t seem to meet fans’ expectations.
It’s worth mentioning all six of the teams who allocated less money to external free agents than the Bengals from 2013-15 have made the playoffs in at least two of the past three years. The six teams have combined to miss the playoffs just three times in the past three years (18 collective seasons).
Sure, a lot of those teams’ respective successes have come from drafting, developing and retaining talent, but it’s worth mentioning none of these teams have gone out on massive free agency spending sprees. The occasional splurge can work — the Broncos’ spending spree a few years ago and Patriots’ signing of Darrelle Revis immediately come to mind — but more often than not, allocating big money to free agents is a recipe for disaster. Remember when Ndamukong Suh was signed by the Dolphins for $114,375,000 on a six-year deal? In his first year in Miami, he looked like a shell of himself and the Dolphins were heavily criticized for handing over such a massive contract. (See the above chart for how poorly the Dolphins compare in free agency spending vs winning.) The Bengals have avoided free agent disaster stories well by utilizing a consistent approach to free agency and focussing on developing and re-signing their internal talent.
Cincinnati’s lack of free agency spending is frustrating — I can personally attest to that — but looking at the Bengals side-by-side with the other perennial playoff contenders, it becomes clear Cincinnati’s free agency strategy has worked and should continue to work for the team.