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Bengals among best NFL teams at salary cap management

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While the Bengals don’t usually push the salary cap with huge spending, they are one of the best in the league in not accumulating massive amounts of dead money.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Minicamp Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

There are mixed opinions on the Cincinnati Bengals’ free agency approach. Some get frustrated with their lack of aggressiveness to potentially improve the team, while others understand the draft and develop from within strategy.

While the team has constantly remained under the yearly salary cap, the contracts they do dole out seem to be of high quality. Per Spotrac, the Bengals boast the third-lowest current dead cap number at just $333,000. The only teams who rank better than Cincinnati in this regard are the Broncos, who rank second) and the Raiders who have the least dead cap on their ledger.

Dead cap numbers are based on a team still paying for contracts of players who have either been released or traded. Cincinnati has not only kept their core players intact on the roster with extensions past their original rookie deals, but they have also used the draft to amass heaps of youthful talent. Most of the veterans who have left the Bengals have done so in free agency, not necessarily because the Bengals needed to cut bait on a bad contract.

There are a couple of other interesting things to note in the gathering of these numbers. First, from a divisional perspective, the Baltimore Ravens have the second-highest dead cap number in the league at a whopping $18.87 million. It’s no coincidence that a team who once perennially went far in the postseason has now missed the playoffs in three out of the past four seasons, while carrying such a number. The Browns also come in at No. 8 on the list with $11.47 million in dead cap space.

The second aspect, similarly, is noting the teams in the bottom portion of this list. Teams like the Bengals, Seahawks, Patriots, Panthers and Raiders are all among the best in limiting wasted money and all have had recent success, in getting to or through the playoffs.

From a Bengals perspective, there are positives and negatives with a figure like this. Obviously, on the plus side, gone are the days where the Bengals doled out ineffective contracts in free agency like they did to guys like Antonio Bryant and Antwan Odom. Part of the shift of focus since their solid rebuild from 2011 has been quality or quantity with contracts—especially when it comes to free agency.

Also worth examination is the team inking seemingly-big contracts to their star players that are actually team-friendly. Andy Dalton, Vontaze Burfict and Shawn Williams are all recent examples of this, and all have worked out well for the club. Because of not over-reaching in outside free agency and the structuring of these types of deals, Cincinnati has managed to avoid being in salary cap hell. The Ravens are currently there and it’s not a good place to be.

Of course, on the flip side, there is still the lingering stigma of frugality with the team—especially when we’re talking about free agency. While it’s admirable they aren’t throwing away money on expensive veteran players who don’t perform, they still haven’t won a playoff game since refocusing their internal strategy.

Could a high-priced outside free agent or two push the team to a championship, while still relying on the draft-and-develop theme they have come to rely on? Wouldn’t at least a slight change in strategy be called for after five straight first round playoff losses from 2011-2015 and a six-win season last year?

The other criticism could be linked in the team’s unwillingness to shed underperforming veterans on the roster for other possibilities. We’ve seen Marvin Lewis play favorites in this regard over the years and that could be why some of their bigger and unpopular contracts remain on the roster and don’t count to dead cap numbers. If the Bengals cut a guy like Michael Johnson it would add to the team’s dead cap number, but also add more salary cap space to go after a better player.

Regardless, while the Bengals aren’t one of the biggest spenders in the league (right around the league average for current available salary cap space), they do have themselves in a enviable financial position among other NFL franchises.