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The Bengals rewarding top talent isn’t as rare as you may think

The Cincinnati Bengals signed two of their best pass rushers to contract extensions on Tuesday. You may think the Bengals are cheap, but it’s not rare that the team pays its top talent.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Fantastic news everyone.

Did you hear?

The Bengals aren’t cheap anymore.

Cincinnati signed defensive tackle Geno Atkins (61.0) and defensive end Carlos Dunlap (64.5) to extensions as both players look to assault Eddie Edwards’ unofficial sack record of 83.5. (Sacks didn’t become an official statistic until 1982 so we have to point out it’s unofficial.)

Atkins reportedly signed a four-year extension worth $65.3 million with $25.5 million earned in the first year and $37.5 million by year two of the deal. Dunlap will earn $45 million on his three-year extension.

That’s $110.3 million worth of extensions for two players.

That doesn’t sound cheap to me.

Wait, are there qualifiers?

Cincinnati has historically rewarded its best players with extensions, from Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Clint Boling, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Vontaze Burfict, to previous administrations with Andrew Whitworth (before 2016, which we’ll touch on in a second), Willie Anderson, Carson Palmer, Rudi Johnson, and of course, Chad OchoCinco Johnson.

That’s not to say they’ve always retained talent. Cincinnati was committed to signing Whitworth, who was extended multiple times, to a one-year deal whereas Los Angeles said, “here’s three.” The Bengals were smart in not re-signing Kevin Zeitler — someone without any accolades in the NFL yet netted a $60 million contract. Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones departing for Atlanta and Detroit respectively caused a brief arial outage that the Bengals are, hopefully, recovering from. But also, how cool would it have been if they stayed?

It’s also true that the Bengals don’t often pay free agents who suited up for other teams the previous year. Not big-name free agents, at least.

Nope.

Spending lavishly on free agents isn’t a guarantee to improve your roster. Jacksonville spent $168 million within three weeks of the start of free agency in 2017. They improved with a division title. However, San Francisco ($148 million), Chicago ($116 million), Cleveland ($109 million), and Detroit ($100 million), all added $100 million or more in free agency and none made the playoffs — three finished last in their division and one didn’t even win a game. Of that group, San Francisco could grow — but mostly because of a trade, not because of free agency.

Simply, Cincinnati prefers building through the draft and with college free agents. It’s frustrating, right? Especially when other teams sign recognizable names and we watch top-tier talent fade like a picture from Back to the Future. Every year it feels like teams are improving and the Bengals are standing still — not that paper championships are awarded in March.

It’s all about the draft.

20 of the Bengals’ 22 projected starters this season were either drafted or signed as college free agents since 2009. And many of those players are playing on extensions and new deals.

Right, wrong, or flawed, that’s always been the Bengals’ formula.

Draft players, build them up, and then reward them.

That’s what happened today.