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2018 Bengals salary cap casualty candidate: Wide receiver Brandon LaFell

The veteran pass-catcher has brought a nice semblance of steadiness to the receiver group since Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu left. But, with young players waiting in the wings, could LaFell be on the chopping block?

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals didn’t do any favors to their team, its quarterback or its fans over the past two offseasons. Cincinnati seemed to be content resting on its laurels, allowing Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, Reggie Nelson, Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler and others walk in free agency in 2016 and 2017.

As a short-term remedy for the losses of Jones and Sanu, Cincinnati picked up veteran receiver Brandon LaFell in the spring of 2016 on a one-year deal. He ended up being second on the team in receptions (64) and yards (862), while leading the team in touchdown grabs with six.

He earned himself another two-year contract with the Bengals this past offseason because of his 2016 performance. He didn’t follow it up with as strong of a year in 2017, finishing with 52 catches for 548 yards and three touchdowns.

LaFell is still under contract this year, but he might be someone the team looks at releasing or re-structuring—particularly if they get enamored with someone on the open market.

Financial figures:

2018 salary: $4 million

2018 cap hit: $4 million

2018 dead cap number: $0

Why it makes sense to release him:

Heavy investments and upside in youngsters: Whoever it was truly calling the shots in last year’s draft made it known that they wanted the Bengals to get younger and faster. And, no one in the class, or the history of the NFL Combine for that matter, was faster than John Ross.

Cincinnati used their No. 9 overall selection to grab him, with the hope being that he would immediately spark an offense that struggled in 2016. Unfortunately, Ross’s rookie season was all but a waste and everyone is waiting to see what he’ll do in year two.

The Bengals also spent a fourth round pick on Josh Malone, who flashed a little bit in 2017. He has good straight-line speed, as does Cody Core, who the team apparently likes a lot. Tyler Boyd came on strong at the end of the year and is effective when used properly.

Throw in the possibility of adding someone in free agency and/or the draft and that position room gets awfully crowded.

Is he worth the dough?: Essentially, at a $5 million salary in 2017, LaFell received $1.67 per touchdown catch, or about $1 million per 100 yards receiving. That isn’t how you’re necessarily supposed to look at a player and their contract, but the point still kind of stands.

If he was making the $4.5 million per year average he’s currently signed at while bringing in 2016-type of numbers, that would be all well and good. But, he isn’t, and we must not forget that A.J. Green was hurt at the end of that year, pushing LaFell into a more prominent role. Thus, the 2016 spike in production through his relatively pedestrian NFL career.

Zero dead cap hit: If you can release a player to free up space while not getting penalized, that’s a plus. Currently, that’s the situation the Bengals are in with LaFell and his contract.

If the Bengals need space to re-sign Tyler Eifert, extend other internal guys and/or go after an outside target, shedding LaFell’s penalty-free contract would likely be one of the first places to look.

Why he should stick around:

Manageable salary and numbers: Really, in the grand scheme of things, $4 million isn’t a lot for an NFL team to swallow in this day and age. And, though many feel that other options would be more productive opposite of Green, LaFell’s salary is in the range of high draft picks still in their rookie deals, as well as veterans like Chris Hogan, Seth Roberts and Rishard Matthews.

And, if the Bengals sit on their hands in outside free agency again, which many suspect they might, hanging on to LaFell and his contract won’t be a big deal. It might not sit well with fans, but the front office will likely once again keep the team out of cap hell.

Marvin Lewis loves his veterans: For better or for worse, Lewis loves to play veterans with lower upside than youngsters. He wants to make sure his rookies know “how to practice the right way”, while not preferring the possible mental mistakes that young players sometimes provide.

John Ross was Lewis’ example from last year, while even current stars like Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap weren’t immune to Lewis’ preferential treatment of the older guys back in 2010. It’s an irritating trait of the old-school head coach and one that usually gives more minuses than plusses.

By all accounts, LaFell does everything asked of him, is a team player and is a great presence in the receiver room. Throw in some production and it’s easy to see why Lewis likes the veteran wideout on his roster.

Unknowns with the youngsters: We can sit here and second-guess the coaching staff’s decision to bench Ross, Malone and Core, but the truth is we’re not on those sidelines, nor are we witnessing their habits on a daily basis. Obviously, when a season is heading down the tubes, it would be beneficial for the club to get these guys on the field more often, but, for various reasons that wasn’t the case in 2017.

Ross still appears to be in Lewis’ doghouse and no one knows how long he’ll be in there, or how crushed his confidence is at the moment. Malone really had one nice play last year (touchdown versus the Colts) and Core has largely been relegated to special teams.

Yes, the team has Green, the All-World receiver out there, but we can’t say for absolute certainty that any of these young guys can step in and immediately provide a better alternative to LaFell. Not without getting them on the field that is, and that would take Lewis eschewing his above-mentioned preference to do so.