Have you ever played the game "would you rather..."? As a teenager and college student, you likely have in some sort of setting where the topics quickly become, well...disgusting. In a warped way, the Cincinnati Bengals might have to play a version of the game when it comes to free agency.
As things currently stand, the team's wide receiver position looks to have its top three players on the depth chart heading for free agency next offseason. Given the team's focus of re-signing their own core players, it looks promising that some, or even all of the three may return to Cincinnati for 2016 and beyond.
With the recent news that Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green is acting calm, cool and collected about his contract status and will play out 2015 under the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, some are thinking the franchise tag is imminent for the star receiver. Though the Bengals have favored their star players, they also love the depth they have built across their roster.
When you look at the most successful teams in the NFL, a star receiver is lacking from some recent championship rosters. The Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots have won the last two Super Bowls, respectively, and their receiving corps don't have the star power of the Bengals' top three. The Detroit Lions haven't won a playoff game with Calvin Johnson, usually the consensus top receiver in the NFL, and it begs the question if a star wideout is truly needed to success in the NFL.
While the team has been shrewd with free agency and the rolling over of salary cap space, a potential problem still looms. The truth of the matter is that the Bengals might be forced with a tough decision, especially if they are to truly look at keeping both sides of the football well-rounded. The choice could come down to the team keeping the one star wide receiver, or the two solid, but somewhat questionable wideouts behind him.
The Pros With Green:
He's A Star: Four straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, four Pro Bowls and the cusp of breaking franchise single-season receiving records in four short seasons. Even last year, while missing what basically equated to six games with a toe/foot injury and a concussion, he still managed to crack 1,000 yards and make the Pro Bowl. If he stays even remotely healthy in 2015, the pattern should stay intact and continue to build a Hall of Fame-track resume.
Aids A Limited Quarterback: Andy Dalton has done some good things in his own four years for this franchise, but facts are facts: he isn't currently on the same plateau as Tom Brady and/or Russell Wilson (yet?). Dalton deserves a huge amount of credit for coming into an awful situation in 2011, both with the team flailing because of a quarterback who quit on the team and a league lockout, and has gotten the team to four straight postseason berths. However, aside from certain metrics that might point elsewhere, Green has greatly helped in building Dalton's resume and making the Bengals a perennial playoff team. The stats and opposing defenses prove it.
Takes Heat Off Of Other Weapons: Jones exploded onto the NFL scene in 2013 with 10 receiving touchdowns and became a bonafide No. 2 NFL wideout. With a dominant force requiring constant double-teams from opposing defenses, as Green does, undoubtedly it opens things up for other targets like Sanu, Jones, Tyler Eifert and others.
Mike Brown Likes Paying Skill Positions, Especially Wide Receivers: This isn't so much something Green provides, as it is playing into the team's historical culture. Brown gave a couple of big deals to Chad Johnson and also paid the disgruntled Carl Pickens, the much less abrasive Green should be a shoe-in for a big deal. Given that his father was a pioneer of the modern passing game, Mike likes to pay certain offensive skill positions quite a bit of money.
The Cons With Green:
The Inconsistency: Even Randy Moss had his mental lapses and some could argue that Green is the closest thing to a Moss-clone in today's NFL. However, like the rest of the Bengals team, Green gets stung by the "primetime bug". Drops, fumbles and other issues have shown up on the big stage with Green, and the 0-4 playoff record in the playoffs doesn't help the pro-Green camp. He's made big plays against all of the AFC North teams, but has also had his share of gaffes in big games. Do those mistakes predicate a mega-deal?
The Cost: "Megatron" averages $18 million/year while other big players at the position under him get about $12 million/year or so. With other players aside from Jones and Sanu set to hit free agency, like George Iloka, does paying about $14 million-plus a year make the most sense to keep this team's championship window open?
Difficulty In Negotiations And The Bengals' "Wait And See" Nature With Contracts: It's no secret that Brown and the Bengals' front office approach contract negotiations with the mindset of structuring them based on other recent deals. While Brown and the team have turned a corner in a big way on a number of fronts, "innovation" is still not something that exudes from The Queen City's football team. Even though Green appears to be far more easy-going with the future negotiations as opposed to Johnson and Pickens, the franchise tag in 2016 and hardball tactics could be on the horizon for the near future. Does the team need that distraction?
The Pros With Jones And Sanu:
Two Players Instead Of One: It's pretty obvious here. There is only one large roster hole to fill instead of two pretty big ones. Signing multiple players at the position could help to open up free agency and the draft for the team instead of putting all of their eggs in one basket.
Jones' And Sanu's Skill Sets Complement Each Other: Sanu is the possession guy, while Jones can take the top off of a defense. While Green can do both, these two can theoretically pick up the slack by doing both if Green leaves. Both also have yards-after-the-catch ability to take short passes a long way.
Versatility: Jones has shown a penchant to be very effective on reverses and other run plays, while Sanu has somewhat-jokingly been tabbed as the team's second-best quarterback because of his ability to complete long passes as a wildcat signal-caller. Even though this isn't the top job duty for either, it provides value--especially in Hue Jackson's system.
Two Might Be Cheaper Than One: While Jones and Sanu could be highly-sought after in free agency, the 2016 cost to keep both, especially if the contracts are back-loaded, could be more manageable than that of a star wideout. If Sanu can continue to become a red zone target and Jones can reclaim his touchdown-making prowess from a couple of years ago, they could pick up the slack left by Green.
The Cons With Jones And Sanu:
Who's The Immediate Threat?: If the two blossom into the next great NFL wideout tandem, great, but it might not be overnight. Without Green, respect won't be given to these two, without them earning it. If the worst case scenario happens and Jones, Sanu and/or Eifert can't prove to carve a defense without Green, then this offense would be extremely downgraded.
Injuries And Inconsistency: Jones has been injury-plagued in his first three years, missing 22 games so far (including playoffs). Sanu has been a good slot and red zone guy, but struggled at times as a receiver tasked with big responsibilities. Are these two trusted enough to continue to make this a scary offense without Green?
Relying On Other Offensive Players: While the running game picked up at the end of 2015, it has been a point of inconsistency in the Dalton era. Eifert, while talented, kind of falls into the Jones and Sanu category, in terms in proving his worth. Jeremy Hill would need to break the "sophomore slump" and others would need to show they're great enough that a dominant No. 1 wide receiver can walk.
Rolling The Dice On Other Outside Players: Green was known as the safest pick in the 2011 draft and has since lived up to that billing, even with guys like Tyron Smith, Aldon Smith and the NFL's media darling, J.J. Watt in the same class. If Green leaves and the others falter, the Bengals will need to strike gold, likely in the draft, once again. Given the overall talent on Cincinnati's roster, a No. 4 pick won't be accessible, so they'll need to get lucky.