When it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals and participation in outside free agency, the relationship is akin to oil and water. Even so, the team does make the occasional “splash”, in terms of bringing in outside help.
Marvin Lewis took over as head coach back in 2003, and for the ensuing 16 offseasons, the team had varying degrees of impactful signings. However, more often than not, the Bengals did the bare minimum in the March festivities.
In receiving a lot of communication recently from other Bengals fans, it got us to thinking what the team needs to do to begin to right the ship. It isn’t expected that Zac Taylor’s takeover of the team will net great immediate results, but the following moves could ensure a path to quick competitiveness, at the very least.
Keep in mind that when we come up with this blueprint, there are a number of variables to consider. One is that official cap numbers and amounts to spend vary, depending on who you ask. This is in part because the official 2019 salary cap number hasn’t been announced (between $189-$193 million), and other factors.
There are other issues, as well. Rollover possibilities and so much more could occur that makes some of the moves moot. Still, this is a mile-high view of what the team should be looking at doing next month.
Also, when we play this game, it must be within the confines the Bengals give us. They aren’t huge players in outside free agency, usually hang around the cap minimum and mostly rely on the draft.
The players they bring in from outside free agency have a frequently-used profile. They are former big names that come on cheaper rental-type deals, and are often ones who are cut by other teams to avoid messing with their beloved compensatory draft pick formula.
We must also understand that this isn’t “Madden franchise mode”. Financial constraints exist, and, in truth, the amount of transactions listed here (particularly outside signings) is probably a little bit of a reach.
All of that could change with Taylor’s arrival, but we’re not going all in on that possibility quite yet. This is what we think they should do, while also operating in a reality in which they’ve resided in the Mike Brown free agency era.
The figures, while accurate, in terms of data provided by salary cap websites, could obviously fluctuate, given layouts of contracts, etc. That being said, here’s our shot in the dark for the spring.
2019 NFL salary cap number: $190 million (approximate)
2019 salary “floor” (minimum spend): $169,100,000 (approximate—89 percent of salary cap)
Bengals’ current salaries: $146,923,668
Bengals’ overall salary cap space: $59,298,211 (per Spotrac)
Bengals’ dead cap number: $2,138,111
2019 salaries dedicated to rookie pool: $9,712,863 (per Over The Cap)
2019 approximate in-season injury windfall*: $4 million
Actual approximated open salary cap space: $45,585,348
2019 Bengals players with the top-five cap hits: Andy Dalton ($16.2 million), A.J. Green ($15.2 million), Geno Atkins ($14.6 million), Dre Kirkpatrick ($11 million), Carlos Dunlap ($10.35 million), per Over The Cap.
(*Denotes the team designating a financial cushion for in-season injuries. This money is used for veterans filling spots opened up with I.R. placements. While most teams use this, the Bengals are an exception, in that they openly talk about this windfall going into free agency, whereas most other teams do not.)
2019 impending Bengals free agents
2019 releases/contract re-structures
Dre Kirkpatrick, cornerback (re-structure): Kirkpatrick has a lot of tools that teams covet, but he hasn’t had a season in which he has truly put them all together. From 2013-2016, Kirkpatrick had nine interceptions, with two being pick-sixes. After that 2016 season, the cornerback was rewarded with a lucrative five-year deal.
However, since the contract, Kirkpatrick has had just one interception and zero pick-sixes. He’ll also be on his third different defensive coordinator in as many years, so time is limited. This “restructure” could be one of those extensions that spreads the money out a bit more in the form of other classic veteran contracts the Bengals give out. Cap savings: $2 million
Vontaze Burfict, linebacker (release): Burfict was one of Marvin Lewis’ darlings and hasn’t been the same since his 2013 Pro Bowl season. Fines, suspensions and an alarming amount of concussions have kept him sidelined for 38 games of a possible 82 contests from 2014-2018 (including playoffs).
It’s a shame because Burfict was a top-five player at the position in the past when he was healthy and his head is on straight. Unfortunately, that has become a rare occurrence. Cap savings: $6.5 million
Mark Walton, running back (release): Personally, I had high hopes for this kid when they drafted him, but he’s put himself in a precarious position with the new staff. As is often the worry when players aren’t near their building of employment during the late winter months, Walton was arrested for battery on February 16th.
We don’t want to jump to immediate conclusions that his Bengals career is over because of this issue, but the incident did reportedly involve his getting physical with a female. As for on the field, Walton is coming off of a terrible rookie season, in which he only netted 75 total yards from scrimmage (34 rushing, 41 receiving). This isn’t so much about saving money, as it is sending a message from Taylor. Cap savings: $227,325
Updated approximate open cap space: $54.34 million (Additional $8.73 million in savings towards open cap amount)
2019 Bengals re-signings/extensions
Tyler Boyd, wide receiver (extension): There’s no doubt that Boyd will play a big role in Taylor’s offense in the future, but he’s entering the last year of his rookie deal. For valued players, Cincinnati likes to extend players the offseason before they are set to hit the open market.
To his credit, Boyd recently told us that he wants to stay with the Bengals, but they’ll need to show him the money. It’s hard to say where he should land as one of the leagues best No. 2 receivers, and if he’ll be looking for No. 1-type of money, but we would like to think the Bengals have a good shot at retaining him.
Numbers: 4 years, $24 million ($4.7 million additional 2019 cap hit; $1.3 million from original rookie deal built-in to total $6 million salary and cap figure); Mohamed Sanu’s deal as baseline (top-30 salary at position).
Darqueze Dennard, cornerback: From 2012-2016, the Bengals invested three first round picks at cornerback (Kirkpatrick, Dennard and William Jackson). Last year, those three combined for zero interceptions, so there is an argument to be had if it’s even worth keeping both Kirkpatrick and/or Dennard.
Still, Dennard is solid in the slot and in today’s NFL, you need multiple capable coverage men. He might chase big money offered elsewhere, but Cincinnati could retain his services.
Numbers: 3 years, $15 million ($5 million 2019 salary/cap hit); 32nd-highest NFL cornerback contract.
Trey Hopkins, interior offensive line: It’s been a long and tough road for Hopkins, but things have started to pay off for him the past two seasons. He had his most significant playing time as a pro in 2018, suiting up for all 16 games and starting nine of them.
Hopkins is versatile, as he can play guard and center, which creates roster value and flexibility. He shouldn’t be that expensive to retain, even though he played well in spot duty last year.
Numbers: 2 years, $4 million ($2 million 2019 salary/cap hit); Tied for 40th-highest 2019 salary at position.
Preston Brown, inside linebacker: Brown was off to a nice start in 2018 until injuries hit him for the first time in his pro career. He seemed to have been fond of Marvin Lewis, but he’s also a local guy who played college ball at Louisville. Cincinnati needs steadiness at the position and they may take another low-risk shot at retaining Brown.
Numbers: 2 years, $8 million ($4 million salary/cap hit in 2019); 2018 contract with Bengals as baseline.
C.J. Uzomah, tight end: Tight ends aren’t featured very heavily as receivers in Taylor’s supposed Rams-like offense, so it’s possible the team opts to bring back only one of the four impending free agents at the position. Uzomah had a nice year with the Bengals, as both Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft battled injuries.
Numbers: 3 years, $6.5 million ($2.25 million 2019 salary/cap hit); top-25 2019 salary at position.
Jake Fisher, offensive tackle: Signing Fisher doesn’t even mean that he’ll make it through training camp, but the Bengals need bodies. They can’t lose Fisher, Cedric Ogbuehi and Bobby Hart all in the same offseason, even if their track record shows that they don’t deserve a roster spot.
In truth, Fisher has the highest ceiling of the group and he may be able to salvage his career in Taylor’s system. He’ll just need to stay healthy for a possible renaissance.
Numbers: 2 years, $4.5 million ($2.2 million 2019 salary/cap hit); lowest veteran amount—above tackles still on rookie deals.
Brandon Wilson, safety: He’s valuable on special teams, and with Darrin Simmons sticking in Cincinnati, it would be wise for the Bengals to hang on to one of their better players on the unit. He won’t be expensive to retain and can continue to be a linchpin in that group, along with Clayton Fejedelem.
Numbers: 1 year, $1.5 million salary and cap hit; veteran-low amount above safeties still on rookie deals
Other in-house free agents to consider re-signing: Tyler Eifert, Michael Johnson, Tyler Kroft, Vincent Rey and Josh Tupou.
Updated approximated open space number: $32.69 million ($21.65 million subtracted from $54.34 million of open space from releases/re-signings).
2019 potential outside free agent acquisitions
Brandon Marshall, linebacker: He was recently-released by the Broncos, but claims he doesn’t want to stop playing football. This type of signing screams “Bengals”, AKA a star player at the end of their career on a rental-type of contract, at a position in which they usually dole out those deals.
He’d bring Super Bowl leadership and production to a position group that sorely needs both. Marshall has played a lot of outside linebacker for the Broncos, so he would flank Brown, who would be manning the inside, and he doesn’t hurt the compensatory formula.
Numbers: 1 year, $5 million salary/cap hit; Preston Brown’s contract as baseline.
Roger Saffold, offensive guard: This may be a swing-for-the-fence signing, at least in terms of Cincinnati operating in outside free agency, but there is still some logic. First and foremost, Cincinnati still needs offensive line help for the third offseason in a row—just ask Lewis about it.
Second, there’s the whole Saffold-Taylor connection thing again, making his fit in the Bengals’ new offense a natural one. He’ll be 31 years old when the season starts, so he’ll be “affordably expensive”. Yes, Cincinnati already has a solid left guard in Clint Boling, but he has proven to be versatile, while Saffold has played games at right guard during three different NFL seasons.
Numbers: 3 years, $22 million ($7.3 million salary/cap hit in 2019); roughly $2 million raise from 2018 salary, 12th-highest number for guards in 2019 (No. 8 in 2018 for guards at $5.38 million in 2018).
Landon Collins, safety/linebacker: This one may be out of left field, but hear us out on this one. The league is moving towards NFL defenses needing more hybrid players at the second level of the defense and Collins was an in-the-box safety for a bulk of snaps last year.
Additionally, Taylor comes from a Rams team that employed Mark Barron, a former safety (and fellow Crimson Tide defender) as an inside backer. Also, Pro Football Focus thinks he’s a good fit for Cincinnati and he just turned 25 years old.
Numbers: Four years, $36 million ($9 million salary/cap hit); 7th-highest cap hit in 2019 for safeties.
Sean Mannion, quarterback: Again, we’re tapping Taylor’s network and past connections here, as Cincinnati needs options at backup quarterback. Jeff Driskel was brought in by the previous regime and went just 1-4 in his 2018 starts, while also having a league-low 5.5 yards per attempt average.
Mannion hasn’t had much NFL experience, in terms of snaps, but he’s a guy the Rams trusted as Jared Goff’s backup for the past three years (four total). He’s also massive at 6’6” and 225 pounds.
Numbers: Two years, $5 million ($2.5 million salary/cap hit in 2019); 28th-highest base salary for position, in line with other backup veterans and above signal-callers on rookie contracts.
Other outside players for consideration: Greg Robinson, offensive lineman (Browns); Benny Cunningham, running back/special teams (Bears)
Updated salary cap numbers: $8.9 million remaining cap space ($12.9 million without counting in-season windfall); $23.8 million of $32.69 million spent on outside free agents.
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