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What if Bengals matched their departed free agents’ contracts?

What would have happened if the Bengals matched the offers that the team’s departed players received? Well, they really couldn’t have done that.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Cincinnati Bengals Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals are experiencing yet another offseason defined by their key free agent losses, rather than notable gains to their roster. So far, they have lost Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, and Domata Peko to the Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns, and Denver Broncos, respectively, and those are just the starters. In addition, they lost Rex Burkhead to the New England Patriots, Margus Hunt to the Indianapolis Colts and Karlos Dansby to the Arizona Cardinals.

For the most part, the Bengals have been heavily criticized for being cheap with their own players, refusing to pay players what they deserve. But, was it even feasible for the Bengals to re-sign all of the players they ended up losing?

The Bengals currently have $24,778,665 in available cap space for 2017, according to the NFLPA (and that’s before taking into account Kevin Minter’s contract, which isn’t yet official). Had the Bengals matched the contract offers their free agents received from other teams, they would be paying Whitworth $9,166,666, Zeitler $8,400,000, Peko $3,300,000, Rex Burkhead $3,150,000, Margus Hunt $2,068,750 and Dansby $2,250,000 in 2017. That adds up for a grand total of $28,335,416, more money that the Bengals have current cap space. Even if you remove Andre Smith’s $3.5 million deal (because had the Bengals kept Whitworth and Zeitler, they wouldn’t have brought back Smith), that’s still more money spent than cap space available.

And, that’s before bringing in 11 rookies who will all need contracts, requiring a few million dollars the Bengals wouldn’t have.

When you start to break down the hypothetical scenarios, you could make the argument that the Bengals would have brought back everyone and would have chosen the players they brought back in a more constructive way. By returning high performers like Whitworth, Zeitler, and Burkhead but letting low performers like Peko and Hunt walk, still would have amounted to $20,716,666 for 2017 among the three of them. That would have given the Bengals money to sign most of, but not necessarily all of their draft picks, and would supply no money for insurance purposes (as the team typically likes to keep) or other free agent signings.

When you start to look at things from that perspective, it makes sense why the Bengals let so many key players walk this offseason. The Bengals were extremely unsatisfied with their 2016 results, so they are doing what they can to open up cap space and reshape the roster into a more competitive one. The Bengals did plan for the loss of Whitworth in the 2015 NFL Draft. And, there are a few options to compete for Zeitler’s spot between Christian Westerman, T.J. Johnson, Alex Redmond and Trey Hopkins. Traditionally, the Bengals have preferred to build their roster through the draft, so it makes sense that they would want plenty of cap space available for the 11 new faces they are planning to add in late April. That should cost roughly $8-$10 million, based on typical rookie contracts from each round.

Last year, there were no 11 pick draft classes, but the Lions' 10 pick draft class cost Detroit $7,059,411 and the Browns' 12 person draft class cost them $9,621,392. With the rising salary cap, the Bengals’ rookie class cap hit for 2017 will probably be close to what the Browns’ was in 2016.

Suddenly, the Bengals’ plan to only spend $15 million on free agents in 2017 seems a lot more reasonable. From the players the Bengals signed internally, Brandon LaFell has a $5,000,000 cap hit in 2017, Kirkpatrick has a $9,384,375 cap hit in 2017, Winston has a $695,000 cap hit and while T.J. Johnson's cap hit is currently unknown, it's expected to be less than $2 million for 2017. Let’s say Johnson’s cap hit is $2 million, that’s a total of $17 million among the free agents who’ve been re-signed, so just slightly more than Geoff Hobson said the team would be spending on its free agents. The Bengals have also signed Andre Smith to return to Cincinnati after one year away and are bringing in former Cardinals linebacker Kevin Minter, both on one year deals. Smith’s deal is said to be $3,250,000 with a cap hit of $3,062,500. Minter’s deal has not yet been announced, but the Cincinnati Enquirer is reporting that its for up to $4.5 million, some of which is likely bonuses and incentives.

The Bengals still could have brought back more than one of their priority free agents at market value (either Zeitler or Whitworth in addition to Dre Kirkpatrick), but that isn’t the way things worked out. You could also say the Bengals could cut players like Rey Maualuga and Adam Jones to add more cap space to use on more important players. But, that’s just not how the Bengals typically operate. The team did waive James Wright when re-signing Winston, and it made sense as the veteran offensive tackle’s cap hit was very close to what Wright’s would have been in 2017.

In cases like Whitworth’s and Burkhead’s, the Bengals’ plans for the players’ futures may have required the team to offer more money to keep them around. The Bengals have made it clear they are trying to bring the new generation of offensive tackles along, and Burkhead had been buried on the depth chart for all but a handful of games of his four years in Cincinnati. He was chasing an opportunity and he believes he’s found it in New England. That same reason was why Marvin Jones left the Bengals for the Lions just last year. It seems Whitworth felt his usefulness to the team had a clear expiration date, and he wanted to be wanted, both monetarily and from an emotional standpoint.

There are clear flaws in considering the what ifs surrounded by the contract matching game. But, this is just a look at considering one reason why things have played out the way they have.

While it’s difficult to see the Bengals losing many key players, not every player can be re-signed and that’s clear when considering how things have shaped up already this offseason. The Bengals will rebound from their losses and as we’ve seen with the signings of Smith and Minter, the team will continue to improve as the 2017 season nears.