The Bengals don’t really fly too close to the salary cap sun. In fact at this moment Cincinnati is looking like they will still have over $16 million left in cap space. That is based on Spotrac’s cap space.
This isn’t uncommon for the Bengals though. Last season, they had roughly $11.2 million in cap space to work with, which ranked for the 13th-most cap space left in the NFL. However, in 2016, they only operated with about $6.3 million in cap space. It should also be noted that both of those numbers were under the league average, but there were also some pretty hefty outliers those seasons that helped with that.
Some fans may be wondering why the Bengals don’t go the route of teams like the Giants, Chiefs, Washington and Steelers who often hover right around that salary cap line. Why aren’t the Bengals attempting to add that one last piece that could push them over the hill they just can’t seem to get over?
Well, we’re about to take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of both styles of running a team, and why it isn’t always a bad thing to keep some space.
Staying around the salary cap limit
Teams that operate like this are usually teams that are very active during free agency. Teams like the Giants, Dolphins, Saints and Washington love making those huge splashes by adding a big-name player. There are also teams with a big-name quarterback as well as several other big-name premiere players like the Steelers, Ravens and more recently the Packers who have gotten far more aggressive in their offseason approach.
The major advantage to these teams is that you know you have an owner and general manager who are committed to fielding a winning team. Losing isn’t tolerated, and that is reflected by moving on from failing players quickly.
The major disadvantage is you often see these teams make tough decisions with good players. The Ravens are one of the best examples with this as they saw most of their talented offensive line from two to three years ago leave during free agency as the team brought in big-name defenders and skill position players.
The Saints have also had to disassemble their once great offense and build it again after they completely mismanaged their cap by staying active in free agency while having big-name players up for extensions. They had to get rid of players like Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham for this reason.
The other huge disadvantage is the outside players brought in don’t always perform. The Saints and Dolphins are the poster children for this. New Orleans has recently bounced back, but they went through some terrible seasons as their big-name free agents flopped. Miami is also recovering from their salary cap blunders.
Teams who have done well with this recently though include the Rams and Eagles. They have taken the approach of building their team with a mix of a ton of low-risk players with a few high profile trades.
Teams that operate this way are fun to watch in the offseason usually, but the rate of turnover can be incredibly high, which can result in the teams having a roller coaster success rate.
Teams operated in this fashion look to build in the draft. They are also focused on keeping their own talent. These are usually smaller market teams like the Bengals. This allows fans to really connect and grow a connection with their players. It also is far safer from an economical standpoint.
The Colts, Titans and Bengals are probably the best examples of this. These teams have made big splashes in free agency, but they are few and far between. They are much more likely to pick over the bargain bin of low-risk players.
As mentioned before, these teams are smaller market teams, which means they really don’t have the money to spend like some of these bigger teams. However, the money they do have is usually reserved for payers who have gone through their rookie deals that may also be willing to take a slight discount for the security of a longer contract and/or actually seeing the end of that deal.
The added bonus is these teams rarely have to make tough decisions on if they should cut a veteran player in order to stay under the cap. This obviously changed this season with the Bengals when they parted ways with safety George Iloka. That appeared to be more of a shift in philosophy at the position due to rule changes, though.
These teams don’t see as drastic a shift from being good to bad. It happens more gradually over a few seasons rather than year-to-year due to the low turnover rate. These teams sustaining long-term success is based off them basically picking and choosing which players to keep correctly.
This has been more of a problem for the Bengals recently. They saw most of their free agent class after the 2015 season flock to other teams, and it left a major hole in the team at receiver with no young talent ready to replace them.
The following free agent class went just as badly as they watched Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler sign elsewhere after their offensive line was already trending downward. Teams that don’t like to spend big usually are forced to draft consistently well. Otherwise, you have to watch a player like Cedric Ogbuehi try and replace Whitworth.
The additional bonus is these teams also have the space to provide extensions to foundation pieces without really having to cut anyone in order to do it. It is a matter of if those players are willing to accept those deals, which hasn’t always been the case with smaller market teams. We just saw this come to fruition with Atkins and Dunlap locking in for four and three more years respectively.
The best way for these teams to build a roster is also by hedging their bets with players competing for spots. The Bengals did a great job of this when they brought in Chris Baker through free agency and then drafted Andrew Brown to compete at the defensive tackle position.
Ultimately, Baker wasn’t the player Cincinnati was expecting, so they were able to cut him and fall back on other players like Josh Tupou and Ryan Glasgow. The Bengals problem comes when they don’t do this at positions of obvious need more often.
There really is no right way to run a team. We have seen champions built all sorts of ways. The Bengals struggles can usually be tied to struggling with players opting for more guaranteed money upfront in deals that will likely be cut short than a longer-term deal that they will actually see the end of.
There is obviously the coaching factor as the Bengals refuse to move on from Marvin Lewis. It is obviously understandable to be frustrated watching talented players walk and watch a good team get disassembled due to frugality and players opting for bigger roles elsewhere. It is also frustrating to watch your team struggle to fill weak spots with new players.
Those issues obviously aren’t defined by how much cap space the Bengals have though. The Bengals have a solid philosophy, but its execution misses the mark at times.