If you're a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals, you've heard it before: the Bengals are one of the "cheapest" franchises in professional sports. Though the team has recently been a pillar of regular-season success, with 40 wins during the past four seasons and five playoff appearances in the last six seasons, hints of the stigma remain.
The team is not a player in big-name free agency, and when they take part in the first few days of free agency (like this year), it's with second-tier free agents and/or familiar faces who have since been cast off by other clubs. A possible hidden agenda behind the club targeting players who have been released from other clubs is the old "compensatory pick formula".
In today's NFL, the draft is highly-emphasized to build a successful franchise. If the compensatory pick formula is one that the Bengals are truly employing, it is a wise one for modern day clubs. After all, it's mostly been in the draft and those bargain-bin free agency deals where the Bengals have built their autumn empire in the past half-decade or so.
Over the past couple of weeks, NFL Draft specialist and Cincy Jungle contributor, Cody Tewmey shared an interesting sentiment regarding the team's first two draft picks in this year's draft. With the picks of two offensive tackles -- Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher -- Tewmey hinted at those picks being more about Mike Brown's frugality than true savviness in planning for the future.
Initially, I balked at the idea. But, as I continue to waver on the route that the Bengals took with their first two selections, faith in the front office comes into question--especially when the decision irks one of the best players in Bengals history (Andrew Whitworth). While some may or may not agree with it, like our own Jason Marcum who sees it as a smart move, Tewmey made an astute observation. Was it a reach, or is there more than meets the eye with bringing in of Ogbuehi and Fisher?
As many fans know, the contracts of both Whitworth and Andre Smith are up after the 2015 season. It's highly unlikely that both will be retained beyond their current deals, now that the first two picks in this year's draft were invested in their position. In 2015, the combined cap hit for Whitworth and Smith is about $12.5 million.
Additionally, right guard Kevin Zeitler's future is cloudy beyond 2016. The team wisely exercised the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, but aside from the recent Clint Boling deal, the Bengals have traditionally shied away from handing mega-deals to guards. And, given the talent level of Zeitler, he's likely to make a little more money than Boling's five-year, $26 million deal.
The questionable long-term status of the team's three best current linemen seems to contradict Tewmey's sentiment. All of a sudden, grabbing two top tackles in this year's draft looks pretty wise.
Wait, How Much Money Do They Still Have?!:
Remember when the Bengals told everyone (through the media) that they couldn't afford both Michael Johnson and Nick Fairley? Well, according to the most recent NFLPA public salary cap report, Cincinnati has over $18.5 million left under the 2015 cap.
Sure, the team is likely looking to extend A.J. Green long-term, but with the exercising of his respective fifth-year option in 2015, his cap hit is already around $10.2 million. If the Bengals were to extend him this year, as Brown has shown an affinity to do at the position (Chad Johnson, Carl Pickens, etc.), it would likely only add a couple million to the 2015 cap. Even if they don't reach an agreement with him this year, the franchise tag is useable on him in 2016, thus not affecting the $18.5 million surplus that the team currently has at their disposal.
With extensions already given to key players like Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict, Carlos Dunlap and Andy Dalton, and with most of the rest either locked up for a few years or being among a young core of talented players, who is left? Zeitler and Dre Kirkpatrick, sure, but they are still under contract through 2016.
The money left over signals the ways that the Bengals could have been even more active in free agency, if they truly wanted to be. Sure, adding back a slew of defensive players from the 2012 roster was nice, but a couple of potential difference-makers could have made a difference. Some disagree that free agency is the way to go, and there is merit to that argument, but high-quality teams have mastered the draft and free agency to build championship teams.
A truly savvy front office would have made extensions to older and possibly declining players who have expiring deals. Leon Hall and Domata Peko come to mind to save a few mil against the cap to make other immediate impact moves. It could also be argued that Whitworth could have used an extension, which may have also quelled his anger after the team drafted the two tackles.
Of course, this idea isn't centered around "spending money just to spend money", but obviously having a plan and showing some aggression to upper-tier free agents could continue to improve the team. Even more obvious should be that this isn't a call for the Bengals to spend and get themselves in cap hell a couple of years down the road, forcing them to lose important internal players. Rational folks will recognize the happy medium that exists.
So, What Does This All Mean For The Offensive Line?:
If I'm looking into a crystal ball, there is a potential major shake-up on the line ahead. Given the lukewarm reception that coaches have had over the years for Smith and his penchant for missing games almost every year, I'd assume he leaves after this season. The team will likely take care of Whitworth for another year or two, but it wouldn't surprise me if they didn't as well.
I'm also thinking that Zeitler might also be out of the picture after 2016. Why? The first of two reasons is the team already gave one guard a big extension, and as previously mentioned, Zeitler will likely cost more than Boling. In relation to that, the second reason is because the team doesn't traditionally value guards. Zeitler was a rare first round pick at the position by the club. One of the last times the Bengals had a quality guard, Eric Steinbach, they let him walk in favor of paying other skill positions.
While the prospect of losing two or three quality linemen is scary, a light at the end of the tunnel is that Ogbuehi and Fisher have the potential to fill tackle or guard spots at the next level. The question is if the two youngsters will be just as or more successful than their impending predecessors.
To Tewmey's point, the projected deal for Ogbuehi is $8.5 million over four years with a $4.4 million signing bonus and a 2015 cap hit of $1.5 million. Fisher's will probably be a little less than that and both will slightly increase each year. Conservatively speaking, if those projected numbers end up being accurate, there is likely about a $3 million cap hit between the two rookies, as opposed to a possible $12.5 to $20 million hit for Smith, Whitworth and Zeitler.
Penny-pinching or running a business wisely?