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Bengals making smart decisions that should please fans as new NFL year starts

I don’t want to get too excited too fast, but, at least there’s a reason to be optimistic.

NFL: Houston Texans at Cincinnati Bengals The Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

Typically, when there are decisions the Bengals have to make, I’ll just assume they’re going to make what I feel is the wrong decision. Because that’s what they do.

But on Friday, the Bengals actually made a smart decision.

The team, which has shown its loyalty time and again to aging veterans on the roster, decided to decline the option on Adam Jones’ contract. That doesn’t mean Jones won’t be a Bengal in 2018, but it does mean the Bengals won’t be paying him the $6,447,918 he was due this season.

The Bengals will look to re-sign Jones to a more team-friendly deal that’s commensurate with what he brings to the organization at this point in his career. The Bengals no longer see Jones as a boundary cornerback, but someone who can play in nickel packages as well as serve as a returner on special teams.

That makes sense and Jones could be a valuable asset to the Bengals at a much lower cap hit than what was written into the contract he signed in 2016 following his Pro Bowl 2015 season. With the emergence of William Jackson and Darqueze Dennard in 2017, the Bengals could not justify paying Jones as much as he was due in 2018.

Jones remains under contract with the Bengals through Wednesday, March 14 at 4:00 p.m. ET. If the Bengals don’t re-sign him to a new deal before that time, he will become an unrestricted free agent and will be able to see if other teams still view him as a starting cornerback. Jones lives in Cincinnati year-round with his family and I imagine he’ll want to remain with the Bengals as long as the team offers him a fair deal. With that said, a fair deal would probably pay out about half of what he was contracted to make in 2018 if the Bengals picked up his option.

My top takeaway from this is that the Bengals are actually making smart decisions as we head into the new league year. People have varied opinions on the team signing defensive tackle Chris Baker, but I actually also see that as a smart move, too.

Baker comes to the Bengals after a down year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it wasn’t only a down year for him, the whole team was bad. He was cut and two of his former coaches — Jacob Burney, Baker’s defensive line coach in Washington and Jim Haslett, Baker’s defensive coordinator in Washington — are now on the Bengals’ staff and wanted to work with him once again. Both of those coaches worked with Baker for four or more years and know who he is as not only a player but a person. So, consider me unconcerned by the reports of him being lazy and a bad teammate. I think the Bengals know exactly what they got in Baker and want to push him to return to his top level of play on a one-year prove-it deal. This signing signals the Bengals won’t be bringing back Pat Sims and I feel Baker is a better option than Sims, which already makes this signing a good one. Baker will also push the Bengals’ young defensive tackles like Andrew Billings to step up their game and compete with him for a starting role.

From an unbiased perspective, Walter Football even gave this signing an “A grade”:

If you ask the Redskin fan base about Chris Baker, they’ll tell you that he’s a tremendous, disruptive defensive lineman. However, if you ask the Buccaneer supporters about Baker, they’ll tell you he’s a lethargic bum who shouldn’t be in the NFL. And they’d both be right. Baker was terrific for the Redskins in 2016, then signed a 3-year, $16 million contract with Tampa last spring. The Buccaneers cut him after one season because he was lazy and unmotivated.

I like Cincinnati’s decision to buy low on Baker. The 320-pound defensive tackle is a big-time talent, but needs to be motivated. I think this 1-year “prove it” deal will do so. Baker will try hard to get another substantial contract, and Marvin Lewis has enjoyed success getting the most out of these sort of players. I think he’ll do so with Baker. And if not, this isn’t costing Cincinnati much, so there’s no risk involved.

Let’s hope that 2018 also sees the Bengals handing their best players the keys to the starting jobs and not just letting veterans play because they have in the past. That should be the case with Brandon LaFell and Michael Johnson, for example, as younger guys should be pushing for their starting jobs. If the Bengals play their best players and not just their highest paid players, I think Baker will be a good signing for the Bengals and prove the team is making smart decisions as it looks to finally get over the playoff hump.

The Bengals still have many more decisions coming up as the team has 11 players who are about to become free agents. And, on top of that, you have to hope the Bengals are exploring signing free agents to improve the offensive line. So, while it’s early on in the offseason, the Bengals did something on Friday that I didn’t think they’d actually do and it’s giving me a lot of hope for what’s to come in the next few weeks and months.

It’s probably early to have any hope at all following back-to-back losing seasons and the return of Marvin Lewis, but really, why not have hope?