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Optimistic look at Bengals’ free agency decision making

Mike Brown and company are heavily criticized as a front office. Some of the criticisms are justifiable, but others are unfair. We break it all down and try to get to the bottom of the Bengals’ approach to free agency.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time of the year again. Free agency and NFL Draft season are in full swing and the arm chair NFL GMs are coming out of the woodwork. The Bengals front office has made a name for itself as being cheap in the way it operates. The team picks and chooses players to pay market-value deals to (A.J. Green and Dre Kirkpatrick for example), but then lets other players leave without putting up a fight (Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler are the most recent examples of that). Bengals fans are frustrated by this way of doing things year in and year out. In some cases, the fans’ frustrations are justified, but we need to remember that there’s usually a plan in place.

The Bengals’ “cheapness” is due to football related reasons. The team is not letting players walk in free agency for their own personal monetary gain, despite popular belief. Each player they do or do not re-sign comes with a strategic decision, made with the foresight of three or four years down the road.

What may come across as frugalness could also be seen as forward-thinking. In fact, there are a few highly successful franchises that approach their spending the same way the Bengals do. The Green Bay Packers are the first team that comes to mind. Per Spotrac the Packers were expect to have around $40 million in cap space for 2017 prior to the start of free agency, yet they let their Pro Bowl Right Guard, T.J Lang, walk in free agency due to a rise in the market price for quality offensive guards. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? And, he’s not the only player who got away.

Like the Packers, the Bengals had around $40 million in cap space for 2017 prior to the start of free agency. Despite having significant money to work with, the Bengals were unwilling to pay Kevin Zeitler the money he was seeking. Why? Because they don’t feel a guard is worthy of receiving $12 million per year, and the team would rather allocate that money elsewhere. Zeitler ended up signing a 5-year, $60 million contract with the Cleveland Browns, $31.5 million of which is guaranteed. The other teams that showed significant interest in Zeitler were the Jacksonville Jaguars and New Orleans Saints. The commonality between the three teams is that none of them have had much success in recent years. Yes, the Saints made the playoffs in 2011, but that was due to a weak division. Based on recent track records, the Bengals approach of being conservative seems to be the more trustworthy one.

Then you have arguably the second best offensive lineman in Bengals history, Andrew Whitworth. Whitworth agreed to a 3-year, $36 million contract with the Los Angeles Rams, $15 million of which is guaranteed. Losing Whitworth hurts for a multitude of reasons. He is class act who represented Cincinnati as well as one possibly could. Whitworth was also an anchor for the left side of the line for a decade. I think everyone wanted him to retire as a Bengal, but giving a 35-year old $15 million guaranteed is a risky move. I know Whitworth is still playing at a high level, but sometimes regression isn’t a gradual thing. We’ve seen it recently with Adam Jones. Jones had the best season of his career in 2015. He looked like a 27-year old elite cornerback, but a year later he looked like the 33-year-old cornerback that he is. Losing Whitworth hurts, but from a big picture standpoint, the Bengals did the right thing here in failing to match the $36 million and three year contract the Rams threw his way.

The Bengals are willing to pay players what they think their value to the team is, but they’re hesitant to overpay. Marvin Jones Jr. hit free agency after the conclusion of the 2015 season. The Bengals reportedly matched the value of the offer that the Detroit Lions made to Jones. Ultimately, Jones decided to play for the Lions. I have no problem with how the Bengals handled that situation. Would Jones have been nice to have on the roster last season? Absolutely. But, Jones is a complementary receiver and the Bengals weren’t willing to overpay for him. Before Jones decided to sign with the Lions, he drew interest from the New England Patriots. Like the Bengals, the Patriots weren’t willing to overpay for Jones.

The Patriots are another franchise where you can find similarities with the Bengals as far as spending tendencies. All signs point to free agent, Martellus Bennett, moving on from the Patriots to play elsewhere. Bennett was a valuable asset to the Patriots’ offense in 2016, totaling 55 catches for 701-yards and seven touchdowns. Unfortunately for Bennett, the Patriots weren’t going to accommodate the $10 million annual salary that he was looking for in free agency, especially as they already have Rob Gronkowski on the roster. Similarly, the Bengals have Green at wide receiver, the second highest paid receiver in the league, in regards to the Jones situation. However, what separates the Patriots’ personnel strategy from the Bengals’ strategy is that they’re loyal to no one. They know when to cut ties with veterans who aren’t producing anymore. The Bengals inability to move on from old, unproductive players is one of the team’s biggest downfalls.

The criticism the Bengals front office receives for taking a level headed, conservative approach to free agency is unfair. However, the lobbying of fans wanting the team to cut ties with old players past their prime is completely justifiable. They’re consistent in the fact that they pay for what they believe a player’s value to the team is. The issue is that their ability to determine value is questionable. Rey Maualuga, Michael Johnson, and Domata Peko are three guys who the Bengals considered to be valuable enough to keep on the roster. And while Maualuga and Johnson are still on the roster (and should be cap casualties) Peko will now be moving on to the Broncos after signing there in the early days of free agency.

Rey Maualuga

The NFL is always evolving, and a big bruising type of linebacker isn’t evolving with it. It seems as though the Bengals didn’t get that memo. Following the 2015 season, the Bengals signed Maualuga to a 3-year $15 million contract. Maualuga’s production under his current contract hasn’t been worthy of a roster spot, let alone $5 million per year. In 2016, Maualuga recorded a career low in both snaps and tackles. He played on just 30% of the Bengals defensive snaps. By comparison, Vinny Rey played 54% of the snaps, and also totaled 58 more tackles than Maualuga. It doesn’t make sense to pay Maualuga $5 million on average per year with the limited role that he plays. In 2017, Maualuga’s cap hit is $3.6 million and he can be cut at any time with no repercussions. It would be wise for the Bengals to part ways with Maualuga now before he wastes a valuable roster spot in 2017.

Michael Johnson

Johnson was a key member of the Bengals defense during his first go around with the team. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been the same since. In 2016, Johnson recorded just 3.5 sacks while playing in all 16 games. Johnson’s role on the defense is to get to the quarterback, and 3.5 sacks isn’t enough to justify his $5 million average annual salary.

Domata Peko

Peko has been performing below the level he was getting paid for years in Cincinnati. From 2014-2016, Peko was making an average of $4.5 million per year. Yet, his play wasn’t up to that standard. The Bengals made a run at bringing back Peko for this season to mentor Andrew Billings, but, the Broncos stole him away on a 2 year, $7,500,000 deal. Now, it’ll be on them to overpay for his services.

Final Thoughts

I know that defending the Bengals’ front office isn’t a popular thing to do right now, but they deserve a little more credit than they get. Yes, they need to stop being stubborn about veteran players and cut them when they aren’t producing anymore. That’s the biggest issue with how this organization has been run for the last decade. It’s difficult to tell fans that you can’t overpay for a top 10 guard when you overpay for a washed up defensive tackle. The Bengals can be delusional about the value of some players and the Bengals’ management isn’t perfect, but they do a better job than a lot of people give them credit for.

Every team (besides the Patriots) have down years. It’s unrealistic to expect the Bengals to be a top five team every year. Turnover happens, and the wrong thing to do is to overpay players for immediate fixes. That’s a dangerous path to go down. Patience and sticking to the plan is the best way to maintain a stable franchise. The strategy for which the Bengals have operated for the last decade has worked, even if the playoff wins haven’t come. The Bengals have made the playoffs six times in the last eight years. They might be in for a couple of down years, but in the long run, the Bengals will benefit from how they’re handling business right now.