In the 2019 offseason, the Bengals are going to have in the range of $60 million in cap space to work with as of this moment, though that number will be much lower by the time next March comes around.
They have yet to reach extensions with Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Darqueze Dennard or Tyler Kroft, and those four represent just a small percentage of their upcoming free agency class. It’s financially possible they can retain all of the players that they deem worthy of a new contract, but we’ve seen in recent years it doesn’t always turn out that way.
As the salary cap continues to grow by approximately $10 million every year, the average salary for the top contracts at each position increase with it symbiotically. This of course directly impacts the franchise tag amounts for every position, and could possibly impact the Bengals as well.
Cincinnati has not utilized the franchise tag since the 2013 offseason when they used it on defensive end Michael Johnson. The 100% guaranteed cap hit for defensive ends that year was $11.175 million, and Johnson played under it after he logged a career high 11.5 sacks in 2012.
Johnson predictably regressed following that season statistically and the decision to let him enter free agency for the first time was an easy one. He signed with the Buccaneers for five years on the open market in 2014, underperformed, and subsequently was cut after just one season. He then was picked up by the Bengals on a deal much less expensive than what he could’ve received with the team just a year prior.
The usage of the franchise tag on Johnson has proved to be the smart move when the alternative was giving him a second contract much larger than the deal he has almost completed now. But since then, the team has not recognized another scenario like Johnson’s worthy of using the tag. That could change with over 30 expiring contracts peeking over the horizon of 2019. As far as who would be reasonable candidates, that list is much shorter.
The aforementioned group of Atkins, Dunlap, Dennard and Kroft all have cases of their own if one of them plays out this season without reaching an extension with the team. Atkins and Dunlap are the prime candidates for new money before the season starts and the indication is both will be playing for the team next year on deals signed in the coming weeks. If they can’t finalize a deal with one before then or before the free agency period in 2019, tagging Atkins would be the more logical decision over Dunlap.
For the 2018 league year, the tag number for defensive tackles was set at 13.9 million, over $3 million less than the 17.1 million set for defensive ends. Tagging Atkins makes sense in terms of a reasonable escalation of his salary relative to his ability and production. While he’s been one of the best 3-techniques in the game this decade, he’s been compensated well under the current market value for pass-rushing defensive tackles. His current contract ($10.6 million apy) is one of the best values in the NFL and paying him as a top-5 player at his position for a year is far from nonsensical if it comes to that.
Dunlap’s deal is also a bargain relative to the lucrative contracts that makes the edge rusher market nowadays, but a jump from his $7.8 million apy to a number even larger than $17 million next year is far too great for the Bengals to accept, even for just one year. Dunlap would be unlikely to get that money on the open market with his next deal being his third and him turning 30 just before next free agency.
As for Dennard and Kroft, they would need to elevate their level of play even more than they did in 2017 to warrant the franchise tag. Second contracts for Cornerbacks are approaching edge rusher numbers, and while Dennard should be considered a starter because the Bengals defense (and every defense in the league) primarily features three cornerbacks, slot cornerbacks aren’t getting the same money that those who play on the boundary are getting.
Their monetary value has not seem the same increase in on-field value they’ve gained of late, and paying Dennard like one doesn’t seem logical as of now. Factor in the investment the team made in two fifth-round picks at the position this past draft, they could be preparing to see Dennard walk anyways.
Kroft is in a unique spot right now. He’s contending for an extension this year that would reflect his role as a pseudo-starter at tight end, but if circumstances find him as the no. 1 tight end again this year and builds off what he did last year, he could garner more leverage if no deal is reached.
Ideally, the offense would use him as the Y or “inline” tight end to be used in 12 personnel where two tight ends are on the field, the other tight end being the Bengals best option for the franchise tag next year.
Tyler Eifert is playing on a one-year deal this season because he’s missed more games than he’s played in his five year career, and his ability is amongst the very best at the position. Long-term, his career outlook is one of the foggiest on the team because of his lack of durability and the nature of the position he plays.
It’s very possible we’ve seen the best of Eifert back in 2015, when he was healthy for the majority of the year and lead all tight ends in touchdowns with 13. Since then he’s played in 10 games and has under 500 receiving yards.
The impact Eifert has on the offense is extremely evident statistically in terms of points per game, and in the red zone. The Bengals may not trust he can stay on the field for the better part of a new multi-year contract, but they also may not have a choice if they can’t find a worthy replacement for him.
This is why the franchise tag makes the most sense for Eifert. Players like Atkins and Dunlap may’ve also already peaked statistically but can still be relied on to play week in and week out and the team will maximize the investment they put into each one. Dennard and Kroft are solid players but aren’t worth the price of the tag.
Eifert is making $5.5 million this season and can make up to $8.5 if he hits certain incentives. The tag for tight ends this year was 9.8 million, and will likely be in the $10-12 million range next season. If Eifert’s time on the field and production is up from the last two years, but the team can’t come to terms with a multi-year deal, he’d likely be worth that number. Even if they do tag him, they’d be given time to work out a deal until this time next year.
The Bengals have avoided using the franchise tag for half a decade. In 2019, they may not have that luxury, and if they have to use it, Eifert right now makes the most sense.