Teams look at free agency as a time to make enhancevents with players they wish they had – whether it be wider receivers, fuller backs, longer snappers, or tighter ends. By spending money, they attempt to end up with a better roster than what they started with.
Despite the desire to improve by spending millions of dollars, free agency is ultimately a give and take. Teams add some new free agents from other teams and conversely, lose some of their existing free agents from their own team. At the least, teams hope to break even. But ideally, they hope to walk away from free agency better than when they started.
How teams spend in free agency varies widely from team to team. One team may spend $100 million on a big pair of linemen, while another may avoid the big splashy moves, opting to spend a little on this and a little on that. But the goal is the same – spending money in the right way in order to add the necessary pieces to be better then you were in the previous season.
But the botox of free agency isn’t always a cure-all. Consider the Houston Texans who dove head-over-heels into the free agent botox last year, which left them with ugly results, and cost them dearly. Not only did they end up with a quarterback, Brock Osweiler, who passed for more interceptions than touchdowns, and provided DeAndre Hopkins a sub 1,000 yard season, which the combination of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden couldn’t even accomplish. But they also had to give away a second round pick to unload Osweiler’s contract from their roster only one year later.
Teams like the Texans only show that you should try to add pieces wisely – not avoid adding altogether. And that brings us to the Cincinnati Bengals. While most teams approach free agency with a mindset for adding to offset subtractions, the Bengals approach free agency with a purely defensive mindset. They don’t look to add new free agents. They only look to minimize the number of free agents they lose. They expect to take losses, but apply the tourniquet so their losses don’t hemorrhage the team beyond resuscitation.
It is rare that the Bengals sign an outside free agent of note. Typically every year you will get a middle of the road veteran a la A.J. Hawk, Brandon LaFell or Marshall Newhouse. But you have to look back to the signings of Terrell Owens (2010) or Antwan Odom (2008) to find the Bengals really attempting to add an above average starter to the roster via free agency.
The Bengals’ strategy is to re-sign some of their pending free agents, such as Dre Kirkpatrick, Clint Boling, George Iloka, and Giovani Bernard. But after that they will sit by and watch the remainder of their free agents like Kevin Zeilter, Marvin Jones, Reggie Nelson, Mohamed Sanu, Emmanuel Lamur, Andrew Whitworth, Leon Hall, and so forth exit as free agents, with hardly any attempt at recouping those losses by adding free agents from other teams. Sometimes, the team does try to bring back its players, but fails, and then still sits pat and doesn't look to bring in new feee agents.
This strategy is not a new one just over the past few years. Players like Takeo Spikes, Justin Smith, Jonathan Joseph, Eric Steinbach, and Darryl Williams were all high picks who left Cincinnati as soon as their rookie contracts (and franchise tags) were up. None of them were replaced with similar caliber free agents.
The Bengals seemingly enter free agency knowing they'll have a worse roster after it's over. Their main objecting in free agency is to minimize the level of “worseness” that their roster undergoes, hoping they can get back to where they started through their draft picks. This strategy makes it difficult for a team to ever get better. Rather it is a perpetual mechanism of sameness which slowly bleeds the roster dry.