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Making sense of the Bengals’ approach in free agency

Surely Mike Brown and the decision makers in Cincinnati had a strategy with their free agent signings, and non-signings. We try to figure out what it might have been.

Let’s start with the positive. The Bengals kept cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on a reasonable deal, five years, $52 million. He’s a young corner who was the 17th overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. He clearly has the physical tools. And he’s just recently started putting it all together. Judging by his recent comments and uptick in production, it is unlikely Kirkpatrick becomes content after cashing in. Rather, it seems probable he will continue to improve over the course of the next few years.

And signing wide receiver Brandon LaFell for another two years for $9 million was a smart decision. Though he’s not a flashy player, LaFell was a great fit with Andy Dalton last year. If you go back and watch LaFell’s highlights, you’ll notice that a lot of deep balls thrown his way were perfectly on target, perhaps suggesting that - unlike that of the blazing fast A.J. Green - LaFell’s speed fits Dalton’s arm strength rather well. Re-signing the 30-year-old receiver sent a clear message: the Bengals want consistency, and they don’t think their window has closed.

Meanwhile, the departures of Domata Peko to the Denver Broncos and Rex Burkhead to the New England Patriots aren’t cause for concern. And Margus Hunt... we wish him the best in Indianapolis with the Colts. Peko is replaceable, the Bengals should be able to find a new running back in the NFL Draft and Hunt, well, he was hardly used anyway.

Now we can get to what everyone’s thinking about: how and why did the Bengals allow their two best offensive linemen to walk without putting up a real fight? It became more and more clear as free agency approached that Kevin Zeitler was going to leave for a contract that would reset the market for guards everywhere, but the waters surrounding Andrew Whitworth’s future were a lot murkier.

In the end, it was plain and simple. The Bengals stuck with their offer, they assumed Whitworth would come to terms, and unsurprisingly, Whitworth agreed to a deal that would compensate him more appropriately with the Los Angeles Rams. Coming off a 6-9-1 season, it was essentially inexplicable for the Bengals to fail to retain their top priority of the offseason. Whitworth is now a Ram, and the Bengals new starting left tackle, Cedric Ogbuehi, is coming off a year where he was ranked as the 4th worst right tackle in the league.

Not only did the Bengals not flinch at the table, they are sticking to their succession plan, with no sign of surrendering. In 2015, the team took Ogbuehi and Fisher in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft to replace Whitworth and Andre Smith down the road. In 2016, the team selected Christian Westerman to potentially step into Zeitler’s shoes at right guard when he would inevitably leave for a market-value deal. And with at least two of those three players in line to take over as the starters, with no promising pro tape to their names, the uncertainty for the Bengals’ offensive line as a unit is at an unfamiliar high. Smith will now come in and potentially serve as a right guard, but, he’s coming off a season that was cut short due to injury and he wasn’t great in the three games (and limited snaps in the fourth game) that he did play.

The Bengals’ resistance to offering market-value deals with relatively high guaranteed money is nothing new. And their openness to bringing back lower to mid-level players like T.J. Johnson and LaFell, on deals that could exceed their open market value, along with the refusal to lose dead weight in the form of Adam Jones and Rey Maualuga, is also common in the team’s building practices.

If the Bengals want different results and playoff wins, they should look for a different process of winning before the season even begins. The team’s current approach in free agency leads to continual mediocrity, and not postseason success.