We are a week away from the start of free agency, and even closer to the legal tampering period, which means rumors are about to start heating up. That is what seems to be happening with soon-to-be-free agent defensive end Chris Smith.
Free agency rumors will really heat up the back end of this week & of course once “legal tampering” begins Monday. But I can say now #Bengals DL Chris Smith is expected to have a lot of interest - but reps have talked w/ the Bengals & the club is interested in bringing him back.— Jim Owczarski (@JimOwczarski) March 7, 2018
The Bengals would surely like to keep Smith after a great first year for the defensive end in Cincinnati, but, he’s also likely be getting interest around the league, as Jim Owczarski noted on Monday.
The Bengals’ interest in retaining Smith is fairly straightforward. Last offseason they traded a conditional pick to the Jaguars in order to trade for Smith who was buried down near the bottom of Jacksonville’s depth chart. It ended up costing the Bengals a seventh round pick in order to keep Smith on the final 53-man roster, which turned out to be a small price to pay for a solid player.
Smith earned his way onto the roster against all odds. The team already had Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, who weren’t going anywhere. They also drafted Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis after making the trade. This meant he had to beat out Wallace Gilberry and Will Clarke. He also had to prove he was worthy of being the fifth defensive end on the roster, while the Bengals haven’t always kept that many at the position. He proved it though.
After having a dominant preseason, Smith was relegated to a pretty limited role along with Willis. Both players spent most of the season as rotational players seeing roughly 20 percent of the defensive snaps in any given game. His numbers won’t jump out at you, but having three sacks, two passes defended and a forced fumble in a limited role is fairly impressive.
Smith may not have blown up the stat sheet, but the interest in him makes sense. He has shown a great amount of promise, and there is a good chance that with a bigger role he could be a solid player. It helps that this free agency defensive end class isn’t great after DeMarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah were both franchise tagged. The draft class also falls off hard after Bradley Chubb, a likely top five pick. This means teams that have a need for a pass rusher are probably going to be interested in Smith’s services.
The Bengals may not have a big need for Smith right now, but they should see the bigger plan here. Johnson should be a cap casualty, but in all likelihood the Bengals will keep him for the final year of his contract. After that though, they should let Johnson walk. He will be 32 by that time. Smith should be viewed as a guy who can fill Johnson’s role of kicking inside during passing situations as well as just serving as a good pass rusher. Lawson should soon be a starting defensive end, but Smith should be getting a portion Johnson’s snaps as well. The guy has played smart when he is on the field, and he deserves to be out there more.
A smart franchise may look to cut Johnson and use part of the $6.1 million created to bring back Smith. The odds of that happening aren’t great, but the odds of Smith coming back should be better.