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If Bengals are still in win-now mode, they forgot to prove it

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With minimal money budgeted for continued free agency spending, and after losing their two best linemen, the Bengals can’t claim the team is trying to contend in 2017.

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

We’re less than one week into the start of free agency and the new league year. So, am I overreacting when I say the Bengals appear to be throwing in the towel on the 2017 season? Some probably will say I am, but the truth is, after a disappointing 6-9-1 season, the Bengals’ roster is somehow worse now that it was at the end of the season. To make things worse, it’s hard to trust the team can bounce back after claiming they only have about $2-3 million remaining to spent from the $16-18 million they budgeted for free agency.

The Bengals are supposed to be trying to win right now. Andy Dalton, the franchise quarterback, is 29. A.J. Green, the team’s superstar, will be 29 in July. Geno Atkins will be 29 in a few weeks. Carlos Dunlap is 28. The Bengals’ best players are in their primes right now, and yet, the Bengals refuse to make a push to win now.

Andrew Whitworth warned Cincinnati that he’d looking to play for a contender, but eventually took a nice offer from the Rams, who likely gave him more guaranteed money and an extra optional season. Kevin Zeitler was never an option as the team essentially doesn’t value guards as highly as the market does. Those two were players the Bengals couldn’t afford to lose, and this is not only about Whit spending his entire career in Cincy, but a struggling offensive line losing its two best men.

When Reggie Nelson left last season, it was okay; Shawn Williams was waiting in the wings. The Bengals made an effort to keep Marvin Jones Jr., but he wanted a bigger role than the Bengals could ever offer. Leon Hall was in the twilight of his career and the team had — and still has — plenty of cornerbacks that need a chance to play. This year, it’s different. The Bengals are just refusing to contend.

Whitworth’s contract with the Rams might be too much for some, but the Bengals had the money to pay it. The same for Zeitler. Some argue that Cincinnati didn’t want to make Zeitler the highest-paid guard in NFL history, but that is just timing. Free agency is all about timing, as contracts are devalued year after year. They could afford both and still have money for other deals, but they were working under a budget of "$16-18 million", according to Bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson. With that money it’s not that you don’t want to make Zeitler the highest-paid guard in the league but you don’t want to pay market-value for a top-level player

Nobody is saying the Bengals should go out and lock down Calais Campbell for $60 million, but if the core of your team is in its prime, you should as well stop hoarding compensatory picks that might yield nothing. Cincy should be trying to win now, and compensatory picks, while nice in their own way, can’t be an ultimate goal. They can be a good tool but they shouldn’t be what a contending team thrives for.

They managed to keep ascending cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, which is fine, but of their free agents, that position was the least concerning one. The Bengals have a lot of young players behind Kirkpatrick and he was the one they could afford to let go. I, for one, was in favor of retaining Kirkpatrick, but I also want the team to cut Adam Jones, and open playing time for second-year stud William Jackson III and former first-round pick, turned punt gunner Darqueze Dennard.

The Bengals will roll over some money and use some of their cap space to extend players like Vontaze Burfict and Tyler Eifert. Given that the Bengals rarely incur dead money, they forget how other teams get creative with their accounting and find space even when they don’t have it in order to contend. The Bengals hardly even need to get creative, the team can save money by releasing Rey Maualuga or Jones.

Losing Whitworth could be defensible if the Bengals had a viable backup, but right now, Cedric Ogbuehi is a project and he’s shown no reason to believe he can be a trusted starting left tackle. The Bengals can’t afford these experiments. The offensive line is key for Dalton to be an above average quarterback and right now the situation is murky. The Bengals already had two issues at center and right tackle, and all of the sudden only Clint Boling is a sure thing. If the line took a step back in 2016 it’s fair to wonder what will happen to it in 2017. If Ogbuehi was a disaster at right, let’s see how he handles left...

So did the Bengals already punt the 2017 season in order to be flexible in the future? The team still has 11 picks in the draft, but Marvin Lewis has always been reluctant to play his rookies and it’s hard to plug so many holes with late-round picks when the Bengals usually value their veterans over the young guns. That is why the team played T.J. Johnson over Christian Westerman late in the season and brought back Cedric Peerman over Jackson III off of Injured Reserve in 2016.

The Bengals have tons of cap space, so it’s not like they can’t pay their own good players. They are just not willing to bet all their chips on this core in hopes of a playoff win, or even more importantly, playoff wins. Fans, for once, would like to see the team make a definitive push and try to contend. The coaches and front office can claim they don’t have money but still feel confident about this group; but I just don’t see how the Bengals are proving they are trying to win now.