How many times have we heard the notion that the Cincinnati Bengals aren't a proactive team in free agency? It's not a completely inaccurate notion either, as the team seems to prefer to "pick up the leftover scraps" and gloss over the big names that other teams get into bidding wars over. Most fans get impatient and frustrated with their lack of a proactive nature compared to other teams during this period, but they have managed to work some magic of late.
In the past few seasons, the Bengals have come up with a method to their madness. With their internal players, the Bengals show a lot of trust and usually sign them to long-term deals. The players that they end up scavenging for usually get one or two-year contracts as a band-aid of sorts, seemingly to ease to the transition of some unproven players at key spots. In the team's second renaissance under Marvin Lewis, this offseason plan has paid huge dividends.
Most that cover the team believe that this trend of careful spending will continue again this year. While there are exceptions to almost every rule, I would likely be on an island to completely dispute that notion, so I won't wholly go against it. However, an internal intuition of mine believes that the Bengals will follow their free agency pattern with a few more bigger moves than expected. Most will likely be allocated to in-house players, as it has been over the past few seasons, bit some other veterans could be on the team's radar that may not be expected by many.
I'm going to look at an outlined plan for the Bengals this offseason, in terms of free agency. I'll examine retention, potential cuts and contract numbers.
Cap Space: Approximately $30 million now that the salary cap has officially been set.
Players Set To Hit Free Agency: 13 -- 10 unrestricted, 3 restricted
Outside Free Agents Signed In 2013: 6
Inside Free Agents Re-signed In 2013: 17
Players That Had Contract Extensions Given in 2013: Two (Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap)
Rookie Pool Amount: Approximately $4.5 million
Injury Pool And Money For In-Season Free Agents: Approximately $5.5 million, conservatively
Salary Cap Space After Pool Amounts: Approximately $20 million
Potential Cap Casualties/Re-Structures And Their Savings:
Robert Geathers, Defensive End: Staunch Bengals fans may not like this move and with the potential of Michael Johnson leaving, it has the end group reeling if both are gone. Yes, Geathers is a great locker room guy and a Marvin Lewis favorite, but what he does as a player is replaceable. Geathers is known as being a solid run-stopper at end, but Michael Johnson excels at that. If Johnson and the Bengals are at odds over a few million, cutting Geathers could get them where they need to be. 2014 Savings: $2.7 million
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Running Back: All of the guys on this list are tough to put here because they are known as high-character guys that have molded the locker room into the great one that currently exists. The problem is that the money doesn't necessarily equal the production. I just have a difficult time rationalizing the payment of $3 million to a player who averaged 3.4 yards per carry on the year and whose position has been devalued around the league. Get a cheaper option in the mid-rounds of the draft and/or try and get some excitement in free agency. 2014 Savings: $2.3 million
Re-Structure/Extension Possibilities: Domata Peko, Defensive Tackle; Leon Hall, Cornerback; Andrew Whitworth, Tackle/Guard: Our own Scott Bantel did a nice breakdown on the possibilities and necessary cap numbers for Peko and Hall other day. Josh also relayed the news that the Bengals could be looking to "extend" Whitworth, which may end up taking care of the lineman financially, but also help in the cap space department. I don't know that I see all of these happening, as the Bengals likely don't need more space for another big fish and they don't normally get involved in the shopping spree. Overall, I maybe see a couple of these moves happening and not all four, so I'll conservatively add $5-$7 million to their space. 2014 Savings: $7-8 million
Leftover Cap Space After Internal Roster Moves: Approximately $25-$28 million
Negotiating With Their Own Impending Free Agents:
Michael Johnson, Defensive End: The thing about Johnson and the Bengals is that both sides need to realize that the best route for both parties going forward is for No.93 to stay in Cincinnati. Sure, Minnesota might seem tempting because Mike Zimmer is there, but Johnson has thrived in Cincinnati partly because of surrounding talent up front. He balked at the contract that Carlos Dunlap received last season, but after a three-sack campaign in 2013, the market might be just a little softer than some think.
Offer him a similar deal, perhaps with higher incentive clauses and that should be fair market value. Early reports showed that Johnson might be seeking $10 million or more per season, which I personally find outrageous for a guy that has averaged less than five and a half sacks per season in his five-year career. Take the money you would save by cutting Geathers, apply it to Johnson and offer him a little bit north of what Dunlap received. Do what the Bengals normally do and backload the deal as well. Giving him just $200,000 more per year than Dunlap is receiving in 2014 is fair and puts both in the top-ten for average salaries at the position in the NFL. Potential 2014 Cap Hit: $8 million
Anthony Collins, Left Tackle: Both the Johnson and Collins situations are tricky. If both get re-signed, it's limits the rest of the Bengals free agency period to an extent. If only on or neither get re-signed, the Bengals had better hope that they have already come up with contingency plans for their departures. Collins' contract will be a tough nut to crack because of where teams may value him (particularly the Bengals), opposed to his own view of his value, which may or may not be overblown.
Collins should be given a chance to land a starting role somewhere, but we have seen teams pass him over two different times in free agency while the Cincinnati faithful sat puzzled how they managed to retain him. This year will likely be different, but Collins won't and shouldn't receive top-line starter money. If you place him within the top-half of the league's left tackle salaries, you're looking at the $5.5 million to $6.5 million range per year. If a team were to peg him in the middle of that range, it would pay Collins higher than some prominent youngsters still on their rookie contracts (Matt Kalil, Tyron Smith), but sniffs other solid veterans like Donald Penn and Sam Baker. Potential 2014 Cap Hit: $6.25 million
Vincent Rey, Linebacker; Dane Sanzanbacher, Wide Receiver; Andrew Hawkins, Wide Receiver: These three players are lumped together because they are all restricted free agents and might be tendered by the club instead of going long-term with each. There is a about a $1.75 million cost or so for each. Potential 2014 Cap Hit: $5 million
Mike Pollak, Offensive Guard: Pollak is a valuable player that the Bengals would like to keep, but it would have to be at the right price. Pollak is a fringe starter, but might not be a great option in that capacity long-term. He may be depended upon heavily this year because of the negotiations with Collins and the rehab of Clint Boling. Still, the Bengals can't afford to overpay him. I would say that a contract similar to 49ers guard Adam Snyder, who has a similar background to Pollak, would be a fair deal. Potential 2014 Cap Hit: $1.3 million
Brandon Tate, Wide Receiver/Kick Returner; Taylor Mays, Linebacker/Safety; Brandon Ghee, Cornerback: The coaching staff loves the steady, but not flashy approach to the return game of Tate and may want to bring back Ghee and Mays back to round out the defense. Potential 2014 Cap Hit: $3 million
Breakdown Using This Route:
Players Retained: Nine
Cap Space Used: $23.55 Million
Cap Space Available After Moves: $1.45-$3.45 million
Other Free Agent Alternatives In Response To Player Departures:
Obviously, the Bengals spending $24 million and keeping nine in-house free agents would be both eye-popping and difficult to achieve. In looking at the players, the numbers and the demand on the free agent market, Johnson would appear to be the hardest to retain. That's good and bad, given the amount of space that would be freed up without his price tag. Some outside free agents could be brought in to ease the potential losses and/or cuts of players on the roster.
Dion Jordan, Defensive End: This would take a bold move from a very conservative franchise and has the potential to not go well, but it could very well be a franchise-changer if it pays off. Jordan, the No.3 overall pick in the 2013 Draft, is apparently on the trading block from the Dolphins and would likely cost a relatively high draft choice. If the Bengals could grab Jordan for a third round pick, they could get a young and athletic defensive end to replace Johnson at a cheaper financial price. Potential 2014 Cap Hit: $4.67 million
Darren McFadden, Running Back: This is another risky move, based on potential and a system fit. If healthy (a big if), McFadden could be a productive player in Hue Jackson's offense, as he was in Oakland. It would be risky to sacrifice Green-Ellis for a guy with injury issues, but a healthy McFadden would bring some needed sizzle in the running game. I would offer him near-top-20 money for the position and have him paid around Pierre Thomas of the Saints. Potential 2014 Cap Hit: Approximately $3 million
LeGarrette Blount, Running Back: This would almost have to be an either/or situation in terms of Blount or McFadden, and Blount would likely be a replacement option for Green-Ellis. Blount is younger than Green-Ellis and has almost one more yard per carry in his career. He has had two productive seasons out of the last three and could be a good "hammer" option in Jackson's offense. Potential 2014 Cap Hit: $2.5-3 million
Alterraun Verner, Cornerback: This would be a big splash in free agency for the Bengals, but Verner is still considered an upper-to-middle tier player. He might get overpaid by a desperate team, but Verner would be a solid addition to a Bengals cornerback group that may or may not be in need of a plug-and-play starter to push an already stout defense into the elite. Verner took advantage of being in a contract year, racking up a career-high five interceptions in 2013 and won't be 26 years old until the end of the 2014 season. Verner signing with the Bengals would only be a response to losing Collins and/or Johnson. My range on his salary would be a top-15 cap hit at the position in the league. Potential 2014 Cap Hit: $6.5 million
Aqib Talib, Cornerback: A bit more physical and larger than Verner, Talib also has had injury issues and off-field problems in his NFL career. Still, he has experienced a nice renaissance in New England and could be a good addition to the Bengals secondary. Potential 2014 Cap Hit: $5.5 million-$6.5 million
Knowshon Moreno, Running Back: Similar concerns for Moreno exist that are there with McFadden, but he ran hard in 2013. He is likely a better fit in a committee approach and that sounds like a solid fit with what Cincinnati is trying to do next season. Potential Cap Hit: $3-$4 million
Others: Stephen Gregory, Safety; Robert Ayers, Defensive End; Tarell Brown, Cornerback
Contract Extensions For Players Currently Under Contract:
I am not including Whitworth because if he receives an extension, it would be more of a re-structuring for cap purposes. As it stands, I only see two worthwhile possibilities for players under contract in 2014 who the team could look at extending. And, if you know my viewpoints on this subject, you'll note that Andy Dalton isn't one of the two players that the Bengals should and will consider for an extension this offseason. If the Bengals want to keep Dalton and the two players I'm going to list for 2015 and beyond, they'll need to lock up at least one of them to a long-term deal this offseason.
Jermaine Gresham, Tight End: Yep, that's right. Ol' No.84--the object of both immense praise and unparalleled scorn. Regardless of the mind boggling gaffes that Gresham throws out there, he is also one of the most productive tight ends in team history for his brief career and has two (alternate designation) Pro Bowl berths. Someone, be it the Bengals or another squad, will want his services in 2015 and will pay well for them.
They would likely backload (all of the guaranteed money is prorated throughout the life of the contract with the base salary incrementally increasing every year -- presenting the appearance of being back-loaded.) a long-term deal to limit the cap hit in the first couple of years, but Gresham will hover around top-ten money for his position. Potential 2014 Cap Hit: $2 million (from a 4.8 million cap hit existing in 2014)
A.J. Green, Wide Receiver: No-brainer, right? Green is a top-five player at his position in the league and owner Mike Brown has shown a willingness to pay huge money to dominant players at skill positions. Green fits that bill. Still, I think that the Bengals throw huge money at Green to keep him around a surprisingly winning franchise for the foreseeable future.
Like other big-time extensions, I still think that the Bengals would backload another long-term deal and can see where certain yearly salaries could reach $15 million per year, but not in the first couple of years of the deal. The other option is that the team simply exercises a fifth-year option in Green's rookie contract which would result in a jump in salary next year. In all likelihood, the latter option is the one that they will choose. Potential 2014 Cap Hit: $0-$6.5 million (The $6.5 million number is added onto an already $6.3 million cap hit that currently exists in 2014)
Salary Cap Spending Minimum And Potential Rollover Of Funds:
With the record-setting $133 million salary cap comes a league-wide expectation that team's will spend a minimum (formerly known as the salary cap floor) of about $118 million or what will be 89% of the cap each year under the new CBA. Though the Bengals rolled over quite a bit of money from 2013 to 2014, they likely won't do the same in 2014. However, there is a possibility of the team still placing money aside for Green, Dalton and Gresham--their big trio of free agent-to-be's next year. Potential Rollover To 2015: $5 million
Overall Prediction/Breakdown Of Bengals 2014 Free Agency:
So, what does all of this add up to? I believe that the Bengals will once again focus on retaining their own key pieces, while potentially adding a couple of outside pieces to round out the rough edges of an otherwise solid roster.
Spend: $20-$23 million of Potential $27 million, after $4.5 million for rookie pool reserve, $5.5 million for in-season cushion fund and rollover of $5 million to 2015. Overall Cap Number: $125-$127 Spent.
Internal Players Retained: Six (Johnson, Tate, Pollak, Sanzenbacher, Hawkins, Rey), $14.5-$15.5 million: Call me crazy, but I think that the Bengals make a bigger push to keep Johnson over Collins. The Bengals have classically bent over backwards to accommodate Whitworth and would have no qualms having him play left tackle for the remaining few years of his career, while they draft a lineman who can play both center and guard. The Bengals' defensive front has been the biggest key to their success over the past three seasons and that's why I think they find a way to keep Johnson. While I actually think that the Jordan trade route while letting Johnson walk would be a good move over ally, the Bengals rarely go that risky. I realize that I am in the minority with this opinion.
They also value Pollak highly and love themselves some Rey and Tate. Sanzenbacher might have trouble making the final roster in 2014, especially if Cobi Hamilton gets more looks, but they like his slot abilities. According to reports, these six seem to be the team's top internal priorities.
Outside Players Signed: Three (McFadden, Gregory, Brown), $7-9 million: Marvin Lewis prefers veteran safeties over rookies and could look to provide capable depth with the departures of Mays and Chris Crocker--enter Gregory, a former Patriots contributor. It's unclear what Brown will be paid, as he is beloved by 49ers fans and is productive when healthy, but he may not be severely undervalued on the open market. He had zero interceptions on the year and is a surprising 29 years old, making his value difficult to determine. McFadden is the most probable outside free agent to come to Cincinnati because of the Hue Jackson connection.
Extensions to Players Currently Under Contract: None. Ultimately, I think that the Bengals exercise the fifth-year option on Green's deal and work on an extension next offseason with some of the rollover funds. Because of that, I believe that the Bengals will then use the franchise tag on Gresham to keep him around one more year in 2015 and then perhaps let him walk from there. Finally, my belief is that the Bengals should and will give Dalton one year to prove himself to be "the guy" beyond 2014.