So far, the Bengals have re-signed three of their own free agents while also tendering offensive lineman, T.J. Johnson and finally making an outside signing by inking Andre Smith to a deal on Tuesday. But, a few household names have departed leaving some holes on the roster that the team will try to plug with the 11 draft picks they have in the upcoming draft. But with some of their less important players also leaving, the Bengals know they have some room to work with on the edges of free agency without risking losing compensatory picks in 2018.
Former Texans and Eagles pass rusher Connor Barwin, former Redskins and Giants linebacker Keenan Robinson and old friend and former Vikings right tackle Andre Smith (who is now signing with the team), all have visited Paul Brown Stadium in the last few days. They all share a number of characteristics that the team has coveted since 2011.
They all have connections to either the team or the staff. Barwin played for the Cincinnati Bearcats, Robinson was with Bengals’ linebackers coach Jim Haslett for three years in Washington, and Smith, of course, was drafted by the team and played in the Queen City until 2016.
They are all veterans who would serve as bridges for the next wave of young talent while also providing the team with insurance. These would be the same types of moves as the Bengals pulled last season when they signed wide receiver Brandon LaFell after both Marvin Jones Jr. and Mohamed Sanu left in free agency. The Bengals don’t like to draft out of necessity and it served them well as recently as in 2016, given how thin the wide receiver unit was.
Smith, Barwin and Robinson shouldn’t affect the Bengals’ compensatory picks they are projected to receive in 2018 after Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth signed elsewhere. Barwin, as he was released by Philadelphia, and isn’t taken into account, but with other players like Margus Hunt, Karlos Dansby, Domata Peko and Rex Burkhead gone, the Bengals know they have more room to work in the market. So Robinson and Smith, in spite of not having being cut by their teams, don’t have the high profile required to disrupt those calculations. According to Bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson, the team thinks it will get a third-round pick for Zeitler and a fifth rounder for Whitworth.
Barwin, Robinson and Smith are not good enough to derail the franchise’s plans for the draft, but they are known commodities who could allow Cincinnati to keep contending. Their roles wouldn’t be much different than similar players the Bengals have signed in free agency before, guys like James Harrison, A.J. Hawk, Marshall Newhouse, Dansby and LaFell - or even Taylor Mays last year, even if he never suited up for the Bengals again. Robinson is a special case after playing over 70% of the snaps last season for New York, ESPN was comparing him to Vincent Rey a week ago. The Bengals also play only three linebackers regularly and Nick Vigil looks solid and is a likely choice to start in 2017
They could also be quite cheaper than other options. Barwin was waived despite offering to take a pay cut. Robinson was good in coverage but only started in six games at the weakest position on their defense - and also had to sign a one-year deal in 2016 amid questions about his durability. Smith never had the chance to help one of the worst offensives line in the NFL in Minnesota after getting injured early, but wasn’t highly coveted when he first hit the market last spring. Now, he’s back and reportedly moving to right guard.
With only $2-3 million available under their self-imposed budget (before the Smith signing), the Bengals would probably like to save every penny they can.
Some would claim the guys the Bengals are considering to sign (and signed in Smith) all bounce-back candidates, but the team usually is counting on them to stay around for one year while protecting their young players. Smith’s case is different, and one could envision him following the same path as Michael Johnson, but at some point the Bengals have to play Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi after investing two high draft picks on them and letting Whitworth go.
There is nothing wrong with this plan. Barwin has 50+ career sacks and two double-digit sack seasons, although he was bad after his team transitioned from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 scheme. Robinson has tremendous athleticism and is still young, and Smith could be the veteran lineman the Bengals need in a unit that has a lot of unproven guys.
This is the Bengals way to free agency and it seems the team hasn’t changed their method at all.