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A Bengals Free Agency Blueprint For 2015

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Last year, we posted an extensive game plan for the Bengals to follow in free agency. Because of the response we're doing it again for this offseason.

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The 2014 offseason was an absolute yawner for the Cincinnati Bengals and their fans. With the team seemingly close to making a deep playoff run, one would think that they would have wanted to make a couple of semi-splashy, yet savvy moves to bolster certain areas and build depth. They didn't.

Marshall Newhouse (ouch), Danieal Manning (didn't make the team) and R.J. Stanford (who?) headlined some of the early signings. Jason Campbell was the first "outside guy" to sign with the club and he was inked nine days into the start of free agency. Yep--zero urgency last year.

In January while scouting the Senior Bowl, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said that big changes are on the way--especially in free agency for 2015. He reiterated it a week ago, saying that "we're changing a lot". Hm. Alrighty then.

We've been here before and fans shouldn't expect a mega-spree of a free agent class with players like Julius Thomas and Ndamukong Suh. But, they can still identify those "B-level" players, spend wisely and really beef up their team. What's also intriguing is that some of the names out there will have previously been with division rivals.

Last offseason before the onset of free agency, I created a blueprint for the team to follow and the reader response was great. Because of that, I've decided to bring it back again for 2015, which should be particularly interesting, given the "change" that is supposed to be occurring. As a reminder, this isn't a post of "Anthony's Spending Spree" or "if I were General Manager of the Bengals". There is a little bit of that in this post, but the NFL and salary cap management isn't like "Madden Football". This post is designed with a pulse on the Bengals' history in the month of March, some of the types of players they like, others at positions of need and sprinkled in are some personal biases based on those aforementioned aspects.

Overview:

Salary Cap: $143 Million, plus $8.697 Million Bengals rolled over from 2014 : $150.7 Million

Cap Space: Approximately $39.9 Million, with recent releases of Mike Pollak, Greg Little and Robert Geathers.

Players Set To Hit Free Agency In 2015: 16 -- 13 unrestricted, 2 Restricted, 1 Exclusive Rights

Significant Outside Free Agents In 2014: Five (others were signed to Practice Squad and/or midseason additions)

Inside Free Agents Re-Signed In 2014: Three (Dane Sanzenbacher, Brandon Tate, Alex Smith)

Players Who Were Given Contract Extensions In 2014: Three (Domata Peko, Andy Dalton, Vontaze Burfict)

Rookie Pool Amount: $5.33 Million

Injury Pool And Money For In-Season Free Agents: $6-$6.5 Million (based on $5.5 estimation for 2014)

Salary Cap Space After Pool Amounts: Approximately $29.2 Million

Potential Cap Casualties/Restructures And Their Savings:

Robert Geathers, Defensive Lineman: As mentioned, it happened. Not many actually believed that it would and it might have been a year or two later than it should have been, but he's gone. 2015 Savings Gained: $3.05 Million

Leon Hall, Cornerback: The veteran corner needs to stay in Cincinnati for a couple more years, especially with Terence Newman mulling retirement and Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard looking to get more playing time in 2015. The latter two are somewhat unproven commodities at this point, and with the possibility of Adam Jones getting increased time as a returner, Hall's presence would be welcomed. But, at a one-year deal costing the team $9.6 million? The average $9.75 million per year on the deal that was inked in 2011 makes Hall the sixth-highest paid corner in the league. After two Achilles injuries and some of the issues on tape last year, is he worth that in the final year of his deal? No--extend him two more years at $6 million per year on the extension, making the average year salary drop to $7.1 million (basically a three-year, $21.5 million deal).

Potential Cap Savings From Hall Restructure: Approximately $2.4 Million

Approximate Cap Space After Cuts/Restructures: Approximately $31.6 Million

Other Notes: Domata Peko could be a nominee for either cutting or restructuring of his deal, but I just don't see it happening at this point. His 2015 cap number of $3.7 million is relatively manageable, and it's unlikely that the team would cut both he and Geathers in the same year, being such good "leaders".

Re-Signing Of Own Free Agents:

Clint Boling, Offensive Guard: Where does Boling's value fall? It's hard to say, given that he isn't even the best guard on his own team, let alone the free agent market. Still, he played well in 2014 after a knee injury late in 2013 and the team wants him back. Financially speaking, a guard in the top-20 of average annual salaries hovers around $4 million a year. Going just north of that puts him in the company of Shaun Luvao, Geoff Schwartz and Marcus Cannon. I'm going on the Jon Asamoah contract that he signed with the Falcons in free agency last year (14th top salary at the position) as the benchmark. If you look at the Asamoah contract, you'll see his cap hit at about $4.2 million, though the Bengals could backload Boling's deal so that they don't have a huge hit up front. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: Approximately $4-4.5 Million

Jermaine Gresham, Tight End: It's been a tumultuous relationship between the former first round pick and both the team and the city of Cincinnati. For all of the drama that has ensued, Gresham has put up decent numbers and the club values his improved blocking skills over the years, so they might want him back. Gresham recently stated publicly that he wants to be back as well, so both sides might get something done. Though some want to move on from Gresham, the fact remains that Ryan Hewitt is more of a fullback than tight end right now, Tyler Eifert is coming off of arm surgery, Alex Smith landed on I.R. and has to be nearing the end of his career and Kevin Brock doesn't give you much behind them. Pairing Eifert with Gresham and adding another guy in the draft could be a wise strategy. For Gresham, I'm using Brandon Pettigrew's extension he signed with the Lions last year as the benchmark, at four years for $16 million. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: Approximately $3.5-$4 Million

Rey Maualuga, Middle Linebacker: Some want him back and some don't. To those who want to bid adieu to Maualuga, I have four words for you: Vontaze Burfict microfracture surgery. At a minimum, the seventh-year linebacker would be a nice insurance policy and we saw what his presence meant to the Bengals defense after he returned from injury. Still, he has problems staying healthy for a whole season and he just hasn't been the same type of linebacker in the pros as he was at USC. Coley Harvey of ESPN said that Maualuga still looks to be coming back to the Bengals, but only after touting A.J. Hawk as another fit for the team. I would look at the two-year, $6 million contract he signed before 2013 as the benchmark again. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: Approximately $2.5-3 Million

Mike Nugent, Kicker: The team might move on from him, but the coaches seem to like him. He didn't miss a kick for ten straight games before missing a long one in Pittsburgh during the season finale. It could be a coin flip on keeping Nugent, but young kickers can be so erratic, so he might be the safest play--at least for competition purposes. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: Approximately $1.5 Million

Taylor Mays, Safety/Linebacker: Unfortunately, the Bengals haven't been able to see the Mays "hybacker" project in its entirety because he ended up on I.R. in 2013 and couldn't get out there much on defense in 2014. He's an athletic freak, has helped on special teams and has the versatility gene that Lewis and Co. covet, so they might keep him around on another veteran minimum-type of deal. Mays staying or going doesn't hurt either way, so we're going to factor him in here. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: Approximately $800,000

Cedric Peerman, Running Back/Special Teams: He's another unsung guy that the Bengals love and they shouldn't have trouble keeping him around if they want him. Whether it's making plays on punt coverages and/or fake punts, backing up running backs, or doing anything else that the coaches ask of him, Potential cap Hit: Approximately $1 Million

Emmanuel Lamur, Linebacker (RFA): His play in 2014 was hot and cold, but he still has the athleticism and upside that could intrigue the coaches to keep him around. If you're willing and able to pay a restricted free agent, you can keep them and it's unclear if there will be a snake in the weeds like the Browns were with Andrew Hawkins last year. They probably won't throw the first round designation on Lamur, but might put the second round one on him and have him compete for a spot. ESPN has the tender level amounts for 2015 here. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: Approximately $2 Million

Chris Lewis-Harris, Cornerback (ERFA): This poor guy has been bounced on and off of the Bengals roster over the years, but he can initially provide depth for the departing Terence Newman and see how the draft shakes out at the position. As an exclusive rights free agent, he will be kept easily and will be cheap to do so. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: Approximately $600,000

Players Kept: Six-Eight

Internal Free Agent Departures: Eight (Devon Still, Marshall Newhouse, Dane Sanzenbacher, Jason Campbell, Alex Smith, Eric Winston, Brandon Tate, Terence Newman)

Cap Space Used: Approximately $12-$17 Million

Remaining Cap Space After Re-Signings: Approximately $15.5-$19.6 Million

Notes: The range of cost is determinate upon how many of these guys the Bengals actually sign. Eric Winston could also be added here, but he could be available far after the onset of free agency if the Bengals don't grab a tackle high in the draft.

Outside Free Agent Options, Either For Departures And/Or Upgrades:

Jabaal Sheard, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker: The Browns defensive lineman is set to hit free agency and is a bit more under-the-radar than that of some other outside linebacker/defensive end players like Brandon Graham and Jason Worilds. Because of that, he'll likely become a little cheaper than those two. He's only going to be 26 years old when the 2015 season stars and has 23 sacks in four seasons. He would probably fall between the Cameron Wake and Michael Bennett range for defensive ends and somewhere in the same monetary ballpark for outside linebackers. It makes him a little pricey, but worth it for a Bengals defensive line that struggled to get pressure last season. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: Approximately $7 Million

Kendall Langford, Defensive Tackle: Once upon a time (as in 2012), Langford was courted by the Bengals as he left Miami. The Rams quickly swooped him up with a lucrative four-year deal, but he didn't see the last year of it
as he was recently released. He's 29 years old and had eight sacks in three seasons with St. Louis, one being with limited playing time. The team needs help on the defensive front and while Langford isn't Ndamukong Suh, he has played in every game in seven seasons and might be one of those "rotational guys" that the Bengals seem to covet--especially in free agency. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: $3.5-4 Million

Virgil Green, Tight End: Whether the Bengals re-sign Gresham or not (Geoff Hobson's piece that is linked above doesn't note him as a team priority), Cincinnati will still need to stock up on another tight end somehow, and two if Gresham leaves. The team usually likes to keep three on the active roster during the season, so if Gresham does bolt, it's a recovering Eifert, Kevin Brock and Jake Murphy on the roster. Yikes. So, you like Alex Smith, fine, but Green can do what he does for a little more money while being six years younger. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: $2.5-$3 Million

Sean Weatherspoon, Outside Linebacker: Talent hasn't been Weatherspoon's problem, it's been his lack of ability to stay on the field. Even though he missed all of 2014 with an Achilles injury and nine other games in 2013, new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn recently said that he wants Weatherspoon back in Atlanta in 2015. His health will scare some teams, but the Bengals, always liking the reclamation projects, might want to give him a shot because of the questions surrounding all three starting linebacker spots. Linebacker contracts are hard to predict because of some being pass-rushers, but with Weatherspoon being a sort of jack-of-all-trades, I would estimate his salary in the Philip Wheeler/Curtis Lofton range, as he isn't a guy like Von Miller who puts up double-digit sack seasons. Because of his injury history, I'd back-load the contract as the Dolphins did with Wheeler a couple of offseasons ago (not for his injury reasons though). Potential 2015 Cap Hit: $4-$5 Million

Jerrell Freeman, Inside Linebacker: There have been rumblings that if Maualuga leaves, a possible solution would be to move Burfict to the middle and find outside backers to flank him--hence the Weatherspoon idea. However, with him rehabbing a significant knee injury and his status up in the air, another guy in the middle to replace Maualuga could be Freeman. In three seasons with Indianapolis, Freeman has 365 tackles, nine sacks and three interceptions. The down side? He's smaller than Maualuga, is the same age despite playing three fewer seasons and for those who use Pro Football Focus as NFL Scripture, Freeman had a -6.4 overall 2014 score to Maualuga's -0.1. Still, he played 781 snaps last year to Maualuga's 452. Oh, and he was a force in the Wild Card game, racking up 15 total tackles and 1.5 sacks against the Bengals. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: $2.5 Million

Freeman Update: The Colts linebacker was a restricted free agent and Indianapolis tendered him at the second round level. With Rey Maualuga back in the fold and the team needing to give up a second round pick to sign Freeman, it probably isn't happening now.

Other Possibilities: A.J. Hawk (LB), Greg Hardy (DE), James Casey (HB/TE), Jacoby Jones (KR/WR), Jermaine Kearse (WR)

Notes: Hawk's name is getting tossed out there often for the Bengals, but he scored worse than both Freeman and Maualuga last year by PFF, and he's about three years older. Hardy would be a dream for some and a nightmare for others because of his baggage, but if he has his head on straight, the Bengals could get a dominant pass-rusher. He'd have to come cheaper than expected though because of that baggage and we already know that the team has visited with tight end James Casey as well as return man Jacoby Jones.

Extensions For Players Currently Under Contract:

A.J. Green, Wide Receiver: While the Bengals were excruciatingly slow in free agency last year, the one thing that they did do well was keep some of their own core guys with mega-extensions. Burfict's came with resounding trumpets, while Dalton's came with a mixture of cheers, groans and eyerolls, but the fact remains that for two straight seasons, the team has kept some of their best players before they can even reach free agency. The team undoubtedly hopes that the streak will continue with Green. Because of the exercising of the fifth-year option on his contract, Green is eating up a cap number of almost $10.2 million. So, the good news is that by even giving Green a mega-deal, it likely wouldn't cripple the Bengals in 2015 from a cap standpoint. The top-five yearly average salaries for wide receivers ranges from just north of $11 million to $16.2 million per year. Say the Bengals pay Green as the No. 4 highest average salaried receiver in football and it's not that big of a dip. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: $10-10.5 million

Kevin Zeitler, Offensive Guard: Zeitler and Whitworth are the embodiment of what Paul Alexander loves out of his linemen, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Zeitler stay in Cincinnati for a long time. Will a deal get inked this offseason though? Tough to say. It wouldn't be a huge hit to the cap if they are able to, but it would depend on how it's structured. As a rookie, Zeitler played at a near Pro Bowl level, however some nagging injuries and other small bits of inconsistent play have tempered enthusiasm on him a little bit. His contract is set to expire after 2015 and because of his play and youth, he would likely be the first guy that the team looks at extending over an aging Whitworth and infirmary-favorite, Andre Smith. If he were to be paid as the No.8 guard in the league, he'd average about $6 million annually, which is a jump from his $2.4 million number this year. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: $3.5 Million

George Iloka, Safety: This kid really blossomed into a good NFL safety in 2014, his first as a full-time starter. To sign Iloka this offseason would be bittersweet--it would be a huge jump from his 2015 salary, but they'd keep a solid and continually improving defensive player in the fold. Some NFL strategists have been suggesting that the safety is somewhat of a dying breed--especially the in-the-box guys because of the pass-happy nature of the NFL. If the Bengals put Iloka's average salary number in the extension on par with guys like T.J. Ward or Antonie Bethea, he'd be looking at almost a $5 million jump in salary. Potential 2015 Cap Hit: $4-$5 million

Other Possibiilities: Andre Smith (OT), Andrew Whitworth (OT), Dre Kirkpatrick (CB), Mohamed Sanu (WR), Marvin Jones (WR)

Notes: Really, all of the "other possibilities" have something to prove before they should receive a deal. Whitworth has to prove that he can stave off Father Time for a few more years, Smith and Jones have to prove that they can stay healthy, while Sanu and Kirkpatrick need to show that they are able to be counted on for big roles. Most that follow the team wouldn't really oppose new deals for any of these guys, per se, but there are varying degrees of questions surrounding each.

Salary Cap Spending Minimum And Rollover Of Future Funds:

Given Green's big deal and these supposed "changes" in free agency, I see the team spending more money now than in the past two seasons where money has carried over. They might move some funds because of the huge impending 2016 free agent class that Cincinnati has looming, but I'm not seeing it this year. Potential Rollover To 2016: $0-$2 Million

Overall Prediction/Breakdown Of Bengals 2015 Free Agency:

Money Spent: Approximately $26-27.5 Million of $29.9 Million Of Available Cap Space (Figure From After Rookie/In-Season Free Agency Pools).

Money Saved And Money Rolled Over: Approximately $3.9-$2.4 Million Unused, $1 Million Rolled Over To 2016.

Internal Players Retained: Six (Boling, Maualuga, Nugent, Peerman, Lamur, Lewis-Harris), $12 Million Spent/Cap Hit Internally: Hobson recently stated over at Bengals.com that Boling, Maualuga and Nugent are the team's internal priorities, making Gresham noticeably absent on that list. It's possible that they can sign him, but if they can get Green and add another rookie for the price it would cost to retain Gresham, they may just opt for that. Boling will get the most attention on the free market, but he's also well-liked in Cincinnati, by most indications and also recently got married. He might not like the idea of uprooting his new bride across the country somewhere. The only reason he might is if the Bengals don't show him the "quan".

Outside Players Signed: Three (Sheard, Green, Langford), $13 Million Spent/Cap Hit: Lewis likes his tight ends to block (think how long Reggie Kelly had a home in The Queen City) and that is Green's specialty. You look at Green's stats and wonder how he can get the type of contract we're predicting, but with team's having an overflow of cash this season, guys will get (over)paid. He'll have a bigger statistical impact in Cincinnati's offense if/when Gresham leaves than he did in Denver, but make no mistake they will want him to block. Sheard is one of those guys who is a good player, but won't have the huge following as some others on the market. The Bengals have sprung for surprisingly big deals for guys like Antwan Odom and Carl Powell in the past, so getting another solid pass-rusher like Sheard might be exactly what Marvin Lewis is ordering up--even if Hobson is saying otherwise. Langford seems like one of those trademark after-the-draft depth signings that they love to ink. If Maualuga isn't signed then look for either Weatherspoon or Freeman to get their attention.

Extensions To Players Currently Under Contract: One (Green), $1.5 Million Spent/Cap Hit: I just feel like this will be one of their main focuses this offseason. They've rolled over space using the Green extension as the major excuse, so if they can't get it done, fans will be irate. The past two offseasons, the Bengals have signed five players to mega-extensions, usually during camp, so it wouldn't surprise us if it happened again. If there is a bit of good news that could come from not getting a long-term deal done, the Bengals could potentially hold on to Green for three more seasons (including 2015) because of the potential usage of the franchise tag for two consecutive years. Obviously, that's not ideal, so I think they work hard at an extension this season.