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Projecting mid-tier markets that Bengals may explore in free agency

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Will the Bengals overcome their fears of offering actual guaranteed money in free agency? There are signs that point to...maybe.

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Faux promises of increased free agency involvement remains a lasting sentiment from the final years of the Marvin Lewis era. It seemed like every year after 2015, Lewis would take the podium for his end of the year press conference and talk about the need for adding talent beyond the draft.

And to the surprise of nobody, players such as Brandon Lafell, Kevin Minter, and Preston Brown ended up as the “marquee” signings the Cincinnati Bengals would boast from the mountaintop.

We get it. The franchise generates a minuscule amount of revenue in comparison to nearly every other club. They’re incapable of offering players large sums of cash up front. Salary cap space is a social construct. All of that is known, but it doesn’t excuse them from doing more than they’ve done in the past.

In Zac Taylor’s second year as head coach, it does seem like the Bengals are indeed prepared to do more.

Whether it’s the rise in media scrutiny (it’s not) or the fact that Andy Dalton and Cordy Glenn’s contracts are soon to be off the books, the duo of Taylor and Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin have recently dropped hints that increased activity in free agency is on the horizon.

Reading between the lines is an ever-important skill you need to derive information from the Bengals. While some of the statements themselves may not reveal too much, there are certainly messages implied.

First, Taylor mentioned it multiple times in his interview with Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic:

“...Year 2 is such a big jump and we are so far ahead right now. Draft prep, free-agency prep, all being on the same page with exactly what we need to upgrade ourselves and improve.

“Build the team the right way, do it through free agency and the draft and keep building the culture we built upon and we will be in really good shape.”

Taylor himself is very fluent in coach speak, but he’s a candid personality that will shoot it straight when given the opportunity. He’s mentioned the difference in organizational preparation for this offseason compared to last year a few times now, and that’s important in projecting how much more productive they may be in constructing a new roster.

It was brought up again during his interview with Peter Schrager of Good Morning Football:

Again, nothing too much to be taken from the surface, but Taylor knows the passivity of last March cannot be replicated again now that they’re way ahead of where they were last year.

It was typically Lewis who expressed a desire to utilize free agency more often, and how much he was able to accomplish was always hindered by upper management. Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com alluded to the club having a bigger presence in free agency based off some of the comments Tobin made before combine week. Tobin proceeded to drop a statement during his combine podium session that made every Bengals fan double take.

The messages Taylor and Tobin are conveying seem to align with one another and if nothing else, that backs up the concept that the Bengals have a better grasp on what direction they want to go this offseason.

So, with all of that laid out, let’s put this speculation to some productive use. If the Bengals decide to integrate themselves in free agency sooner this year, where would they look to spend and how much would they be required to spend to sign someone? The obvious signs point towards two positions.

Linebacker

Like, obviously right? Even when the Bengals have been bystanders in free agency, a linebacker has usually been brought in because the team simply cannot find the right players there. Minter and Brown have been the recent examples and their downhill-thumper archetype has long been outdated. Cincinnati seems to have found their replacement for Brown in Germaine Pratt, but he’s the only player they have that they can confidently build the position group with. They may add four new linebackers in total this offseason and shouldn’t automatically lock Pratt into that MIKE spot.

Just like it is at every position, in order to acquire better veterans, the investment must be bigger. The Bengals will likely never try to sign the top-tier free agents who receive contracts that reset the highest market at their position, but there’s more than one market per position.

The mid-tier market—or mid-level market, whatever you prefer—regularly keeps its distance from the top-tier market because the growth it experiences is much less exponential. Teams get crazy when free agency begins, that’s nothing new. The differences in average salary per year (APY) are notable, but the differences in guaranteed money at signing is what truly separates both markets.

This is what prohibits the Bengals from entering the top-tier market, and the guaranteed money dealt in this market matches up with the highest amounts of real cash that are in the contract extensions the Bengals agree to sign (this is important, so maybe remember that).

If the Bengals are going to be more aggressive in free agency, this is the price range they need to deal with.

How has the mid-level market for linebackers grown and where is it at now? Let’s examine its growth over the last three years using the same sample size (three) for each year.

Mid-tier linebacker market (2017-2019)

Year Player Age Years APY GUARANTEED AT SIGNING AVERAGE APY AVERAGE GUARANTEED AT SIGNING
Year Player Age Years APY GUARANTEED AT SIGNING AVERAGE APY AVERAGE GUARANTEED AT SIGNING
2019 Jaylon Smith 24 6 $11,403,500 $19,006,678 $8,967,833 $14,168,893
Jordan Hicks 27 4 $8,500,000 $17,000,000
K.J. Wright 30 2 $7,000,000 $6,500,000
2018 Demario Davis 29 3 $8,000,000 $16,000,000 $7,277,778 $12,758,333
Avery Williamson 26 3 $7,500,000 $16,000,000
Tahir Whitehead 28 3 $6,333,333 $6,275,000
2017 Kiko Alonso 27 4 $7,227,500 $15,950,000 $6,368,683 $10,283,333
A.J. Klein 26 4 $6,000,000 $9,400,000
Kyle Van Noy 26 2 $5,878,548 $5,500,000

Naturally, the slight rise in APY is evident, but the rise in the fully guaranteed cash is the important aspect to note. Andy Dalton’s contract had as much guaranteed money as Jordan Hicks’ deal from last offseason. Aside from Dalton’s deal, the only second contracts that have more than $10M in fully guaranteed money on the books for Cincinnati are A.J. Green’s ($26.725M), Dre Kirkpatrick’s ($12M) and Tyler Boyd’s (just over $11M).

What we’re looking at here is a deal that matches an extension the Bengals would give to one of their cornerstone homegrown players. This wasn’t quite the case just a few years ago, but it is now after the rise in the cap has inflated the market.

Exactly who the Bengals may target is obviously unknown, but I’m willing to bet it isn’t likely to be Cory Littleton or Joe Schobert; with the former likely to command over $20M in up front cash and the latter likely to return to Cleveland and command similar money. But there is a mid-tier option that could intrigue Cincinnati.

Example deal: Bengals sign Packers LB Blake Martinez to a four-year deal

  • $38M ($9.5M APY)
  • $16M guaranteed at signing (prorated over four years, $4M per year)

Let me preface this by saying projecting individual contracts is a near impossible task and to take them literally is inadvisable. With that said, Martinez is going to command a deal of at least this magnitude on the open market but may not reach the financials Littleton or Schobert receive because he’s not at their level in coverage. And that’s not an indictment on Martinez.

Having just turned 26 in January, Martinez experienced some slight regression in Green Bay’s revamped defense, but he’s displayed all the traits of being a complete second level defender in his three years as a starter. Because of his youth and skillset, it’s completely plausible he becomes a more consistent player in the next four years. The player he already is, however, is much much more than what the Bengals have at the position.

Offensive guard

The sting from letting Kevin Zeitler leave for Cleveland still persists, and right guard, not right tackle, is the spot to watch this offseason for the Bengals’ ever-evolving offensive line. John Miller inked the biggest contract the Bengals gave to an external free agent last year, but Dehner Jr. also reported last month that the team hopes to find an upgrade at his spot and nothing has changed on that front.

Miller played as you’d expect: OK. The Bengals see his spot as a big opportunity to upgrade the line. I expect a bigger name to start in front of Miller at right guard next year. He could still stay on as a backup, but if you want a really good offensive line, he’s not the guy.

The Bengals have invested a lot of draft capital in the offensive line recently and may spend one of their first handful draft picks on another one come April. But if they want to find an immediate upgrade over Miller, free agency is where they’ll find one.

Interestingly enough, the mid-level guard market is about the same as the equivalent linebacker market and has grown at a similar rate as well.

Mid-tier guard market (2017-2019)

Year Player Age Years APY GUARANTEED AT SIGNING AVERAGE APY AVERAGE GUARANTEED AT SIGNING
Year Player Age Years APY GUARANTEED AT SIGNING AVERAGE APY AVERAGE GUARANTEED AT SIGNING
2019 Ali Marpet 26 5 $10,825,000 $10,374,581 $9,358,333 $12,300,220
Cody Whitehair 27 5 $10,250,000 $17,526,078
Billy Turner 28 4 $7,000,000 $9,000,000
2018 Shaq Mason 25 5 $9,000,000 $21,907,000 $8,318,333 $15,969,000
Justin Pugh 28 5 $8,955,000 $13,000,000
Zack Fulton 26 4 $7,000,000 $13,000,000
2017 Ronald Leary 28 4 $9,000,000 $18,650,000 $8,666,688 $16,604,926
Joel Bitonio 25 6 $8,527,463 $17,164,777
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif 27 5 $8,472,600 $14,000,000

There’s no clear reason why the average guaranteed money dipped last year compared to 2018, but the APY increase indicates the value of the position is still increasing.

The top-tier market is approaching the tackle market quickly and that’s going to have a trickle effect on what guys like Joe Thuney and Brandon Scherff make this year. Both of those guys aren’t in the Bengals’ sights, but they could very well find better value in the mid-tier market.

Example deal: Bengals sign Lions RG Graham Glasgow to a three-year deal

  • $33M ($11 million APY)
  • $15M guaranteed at signing (prorated over three years, $5M per year)

Glasgow has been a starter for the Lions since his rookie year and after a below average first season, he’s been one of the more consistent interior blockers in the game. What makes his last three years even more impressive is that he’s started at a different position each year and was an asset at each one. 2019 saw him locking down the right guard spot and that’s where the Bengals would play him at.

Could the soon-to-be 27 year-old Glasgow command more money upfront with his impressive resume? Absolutely, but there’s just not a ton of high-end athleticism in Glasgow’s game and that’s why Thuney and Scherff are going to command more. If that ends up being the case, Glasgow becomes a fantastic consolation prize, if that’s even an applicable label for him.


The sobering reality here is that while the Bengals could potentially handle both of these contracts, ~$30M in signing bonus money for one free agency period—let alone from just two contracts—is asking a ton from this organization. They will not address both positions this aggressively, no matter how badly they need to. These are also two positions that have never received substantial deals from them, so just one at either would be setting a new precedent.

You’d have to think that linebacker is going to be pursued more heavily by the front office, but like they always say, it’s a two-way street. Coming to terms with one of the top linebackers may be more challenging than doing so with one of the top guards, it’ll depend a lot on other contracts given out at those positions.

Predicting what the Bengals will do in free agency is typically a sad exercise, but even from an objective point of view, there are signs that 2020 may be different. Just remember how deep the wallet really goes and what numbers really matter.