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2018 NFL free agency: Who might be on the Bengals’ chopping block?

After making a series of moves this offseason, the Cincinnati Bengals may be facing the tough choice of letting go of one of their trusted veterans. Who might be the victims?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason, most Bengals fans were resigned to the belief that the team wouldn’t be very active in free agency. But, while they haven’t necessarily landed the biggest names on the market, they have plugged some roster holes and improved at a couple of spots.

Since the Bengals picked up Cordy Glenn’s hefty contract in a trade with the Bills, we’ve heard many say that it would essentially take the Bengals out of any other significant moves in free agency. Yet, they’ve since inked subsequent deals to Tyler Eifert, Preston Brown, Kevin Huber and Matt Barkley.

Those five deals and the one for Chris Baker have eaten up a significant chunk of what once was around $35 million of free salary cap space this year. And because of those signings, the often-tight Bengals may need to look at trimming some of the financial fat, as they look to pool resources for their incoming rookie class and in-season injury windfall.

Additionally, the Bengals may continue to surprise us in the coming days with more contracts pushing them closer to the $177.2 million ceiling. While they don’t like to be anywhere close to anything resembling cap problems, they also like to have major positional flexibility in the draft.

Before free agency began, we looked at possible candidates for release in an effort for the team to free up space to make moves. We looked at veteran defensive lineman Michael Johnson, as well as embattled cornerback Adam Jones and wide receiver Brandon LaFell.

Only Jones has been relieved of his services to this point, as the team didn’t exercise the 2018 option in his contract.

However, calls for both Johnson and LaFell continue, whether it’s for signing more outside help, or to give the team a bigger cap cushion.

As of now, the information on the Bengals’ cap situation is a bit fluid. Of that $177.2 million worth of space teams are allowed to use in 2018, Spotrac projects the Bengals currently having $18,669,000 in space, but those figures don’t seem to include the numbers for Brown and Barkley.

What clouds things for the Bengals, aside from their beloved rookie pool and in-season windfall is the fact that they’d like to get extensions done for guys like Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. After all, when you talk about “free agency” with the Bengals, it almost always includes their extending of some of their own valued members before they hit the open market.

It’s unclear as to how much the Bengals are willing to give to Dunlap and Atkins as they both hit their ninth NFL season, but it surely will affect the cap. Might there be some veteran mainstays being shown the door?

Perhaps—but it depends on what those contracts to Pro Bowl defensive linemen look like and if the team is looking to add more outside help. Another factor in the equation is Russell Bodine.

The team’s brain trust has made it known that they have high respect for Bodine this offseason, but they have yet to sign him, as the center free agent market is rather astronomical. They may wait for the draft (a preferred option by many), but if they do intend to give him a new contract, they might need to cut some perceived dead weight.

The usual suspects:

Michael Johnson: The veteran edge defender is a valuable asset, in terms of stopping the run and being a great leadership presence and found a nice interior pass-rush niche last year, but Father Time is calling. He’s entering his 10th season and has just netted 13.5 sacks over the past three seasons since re-joining the Bengals.

Johnson has a $6.112 million cap hit this year, but the Bengals will only eat $1.125 million in an opt-out, should he be released. With Carl Lawson exploding on the scene in his rookie year with 8.5 sacks and the enigmatic Jordan Willis also waiting in the wings, nearly $5 million in cap savings could help in a lot of ways.

Wild Cards:

Dre Kirkpatrick: After getting fleeced of a lot of talent in 2016 and 2017 free agency, the Bengals made re-signing Kirkpatrick a high priority. After a nice season with 10 passes defended and three interceptions in 2016, Cincinnati rewarded him with a five-year, $52.5 million deal.

He slumped a bit last year, getting just one interception with 14 passes defended and becoming the most penalized defensive player in the league since 2015. The Bengals waived bye-bye to Jones, a guy who has manned the other starting corner spot, as they feel they witnessed enough growth from William Jackson and Darqueze Dennard last year.

Kirkpatrick’s overall cap hit and dead cap count both hover around the $8.6 million range for 2018, so cutting him wouldn’t be prudent. However, a trade could alleviate cap problems and free up space, should they feel desperate enough to need it.

Cedric Ogbuehi: The Bengals swung a massive trade with the Bills when they landed Glenn as their starting left tackle. There are questions with his recent health, but if he gets past those he’ll be a massive upgrade from what the team witnessed from Ogbuehi at that position last year.

Also hurting Ogbuehi’s future with the club is his inability to fortify the right tackle spot in 2016. So, is he nothing more than a swing backup lineman in the NFL?

It’s almost a certainty that the Bengals won’t be picking up Ogbuehi’s fifth-year option and cutting him could save about $1.3 million in 2018. Still, the right tackle position is open at the moment and cutting first round players in the affordable stages of their rookie contract doesn’t make much sense.

Jake Fisher: It’s essentially cut-and-paste with Fisher, in terms of what was said above about Ogbuehi. Last year’s struggles weren’t entirely his fault though, as he was battling an irregular heartbeat.

He’s since been cleared for offseason workouts, but he’ll be duking it out with Ogbuehi and a possible rookie for the right tackle job this year. Will he ever pan out and/or prove he’s healthy enough to contribute?

Between his cap and dead cap numbers, the Bengals could shave about $1 million off of the books with his departure. Again, this seems unlikely given his affordability and the fluidity of the line situation as we sit here before the draft.

Vincent Rey: As a coach, you love having guys like Rey on your team. He’s heady, does all that is asked of him and is a hard-worker. Rey does a lot of the dirty work on special teams and has stepped in when guys have gone down with injury, but just isn’t a viable, long-term starting solution.

He’s set to make $2.75 million in 2018, but, like LaFell, has a zero dead cap hit, if released. It’s a tough call here for the Bengals, as they need to weigh his versatility, special teams prowess and affable nature against his inability to be a true-playmaker on defense.

Vontaze Burfict’s impending suspension and the signing of Preston Brown make this call especially difficult. Rey seems to be a “Marvin Lewis guy” though, so he may find a way to stick around.

Vontaze Burfict: Oh, boy. Another start to the season and more impending missed time for the embattled linebacker. Still, if Atkins is the best player on the Bengals’ defense, then Burfict is the heart and soul of the unit.

After signing a lucrative extension last offseason, Burfict is set to have a cap hit of approximately $8.7 million, with a dead cap number of just $2.85 million. Throw in the fact that if he loses his impending appeal of the recent four-game suspension, he’ll lose $11.3 million in guarantees throughout the three-year deal he signed last year.

If the Bengals let go of Burfict, that money had better be used in a wise and immediately-producing way, otherwise fans may riot.

Ryan Hewitt: Cincinnati wanted to make a commitment to run the football, but even with the slew of talented backs they’ve drafted, it hasn’t come to fruition. Part of the plan was in extending Hewitt back a couple of seasons ago, but he’s in a year with a team-friendly opt-out.

He’s set to make close to $2.4 million this year, but his dead cap hit is just $750,000. While he’s a versatile, hard-nosed guy, the team just can’t consistently find snaps for him on offense. Will that change now that the offensive coordinator spot is solidified this year, or will the Bengals look at more of a traditional (and cheaper) thumper?

Likely Safe

Brandon LaFell: Another favorite target for the chopping block by many is LaFell. While his cap hit of $4 million isn’t huge by No. 2 receiver standards, no one can deny the big goose egg in the column of “dead cap”.

LaFell also just picked up a $1 million roster bonus on Sunday, so he’s likely safe for now. The Bengals can still save $3 million if they cut him this offseason. He’s another guy who is valued for his veteran leadership, and while he stepped up rather nicely in A.J. Green’s absence at the end of 2016, he’s not a guy who necessarily strikes fear into an opposing defense.

This is going to come down to two things for the Bengals: how big of a contributor they feel he is in Bill Lazor’s scheme, as well as how confident they are in the slew of young guys they have waiting behind him.

Is John Ross going to step up in a huge way after a waste of a rookie year? What about Tyler Boyd—a guy who had a nice rookie season, but struggled a bit last season? Might they be eyeing a receiver in a a relatively weak rookie class this year?

All told, expect LaFell to make the final roster this year.