Free agency is not how you build a winning team. Though it's a sacrilegious thought in the March and April months, AKA the beginning of a new NFL year, there is much truth to the statement. Wise teams use it, but more so as a piece of the championship puzzle, also including hits in the draft and retaining key players long-term.
The Cincinnati Bengals have done well in the latter two departments. Though there have been a share of misses, some key contributors have been discovered over the past handful of years. And, when the team recognized the talent that they have uncovered, the front office stepped up and gave nearly each one of those players a big contract extension. It's why players like Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Leon Hall, Andrew Whitworth, Andy Dalton and Vontaze Burfict have outlasted their rookie deals and remain in Cincinnati for the foreseeable future.
Free agency, on the other hand, has not been a specialty of the club. Seemingly still burned by the trio of wide receivers they signed on the open market from 2009-2010 and others who were inked way past their prime, the Brown family and Marvin Lewis usually go into hermit mode during those spring months. The 2013 offseason was an outlier, as the club inked 17 contracts to their in-house free agents and a handful of others to those outside of Paul Brown Stadium.
With the Bengals seeming to be ever-so-close to being a championship team, surely the 2014 offseason would bring those handful of players that would put them over the top, right? Not unless you consider guys like Marshall Newhouse and R.J. Stanford as that caliber of player. The team decided to focus on re-signing Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson to deals, but they not only lost out on them, but other potential contributors on the open market.
Injuries, ineffectiveness and the few personnel losses through free agency have hit the team pretty hard in 2014. The inactivity in free agency and the pile of available money the team is sitting on, even after two more big extensions were struck, is beginning to show. According to the public NFLPA report, the Bengals currently have $13.6 million of cap space as of this moment.
Let's take a couple of recent examples, shall we?
In the 2013 offseason, the team hosted veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby for a visit, clearly showing their interest. He was coming off of a few great seasons with Miami and some others in Arizona before that, having played every linebacker position in his career . The Bengals eschewed signing the versatile Dansby and instead gave a contract to James Harrison, who was never a fit in a traditional 4-3 defense. Harrison was cut a year later and Dansby has had one and a half uber-productive years in Arizona and in Cleveland.
This offseason, the Bengals brought in defensive end Robert Ayers for a visit, hoping to boost their pass rush, which had already been formidable over the past few seasons. Reeling from the loss of Johnson to Tampa Bay, the Bengals were looking for any kind of stopgap solution to ease the transition for Margus Hunt and likely an oncoming rookie (became Will Clarke). Again, the team didn't pony up the dough for a rotational addition up front. The result? Ayers has four sacks in five games with the Giants, while the Bengals ranked No.29 in the NFL with 13 total sacks on the season.
Outside of the Bengals organization, a free agency arms race occurred between two traditional AFC powerhouses. The New England Patriots had cornerback Aqib Talib on their 2013 roster and after a nice renaissance, he was a well-sought after free agent this season. Lo and behold, the Denver Broncos scooped him up (along with safety T.J. Ward) in an effort to boost their secondary, which they viewed as a weakness. Talib has two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), 11 passes defensed and 37 tackles this year.
Not to be outdone or allowing of their rival to take their coveted corner, the Patriots reacted quickly. Darrelle Revis was released by Tampa Bay and New England opened their loving arms to sign him. In case you missed it, he had a great night against Bengals Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green on his resume, and has two interceptions, one forced fumble, and one recovery on the year.
"Those teams have supermen as quarterbacks and that's why they're winning, not because of these free agent moves", you say? True. However, those teams have also recognized the few weaknesses on their respective teams and have made moves to keep that Super Bowl window open as long as possible for the two Hall of Fame quarterbacks approaching their late-thirties. The Bengals have to be smart enough to know that their signal-caller has more limitations than Peyton Manning and/or Tom Brady, so one would think that they would do all that they can to surround Dalton with as much talent as possible on both sides of the ball. They didn't. The Cincinnati Bengals were content with the status quo this offseason.
Though these are just a couple of small examples, they are things to point to when wondering if the Bengals actually bettered themselves this offseason, rather than settling for the status quo. No players that the team signed this offseason filled a starting position--in fact, only two players that they signed from outside of the organization stuck on the final roster by week one (Alex Smith and Jason Campbell).
Again, free agency is a just a piece to completing the championship puzzle. However, the Bengals failed to do their part to improve their football team in that area and it is showing during this 2-3-1 stretch.