NFL Team Report - Cincinnati Bengals - INSIDE SLANT
The Cincinnati Bengals won't be active in the free-agent market. The numbers may say they own $23 million in cap space plus rollover cash, but their primary concern isn't making a splash with another team's players. They likely won't even make a ripple.
The Bengals are focused on locking down their own players with extensions. They did so last year in paying out $139 million in cash to their own free agents - the third highest mark in the NFL. They plan on repeating the plan this year.
Wide receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Vontaze Burfict are both entering the first year they can sign an extension on their rookie contracts. As the only two Pro Bowl players from the 2013 AFC North champions, President Mike Brown would like to see them in stripes for the long haul.
Unfortunately for Bengals coaches, that means watching their two most visible free agents walk. Defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins will prove too costly for the team to pay with the increased market value thanks to the $7 million boost in the salary cap. At least, they couldn't pay them and still offer Green, Burfict and, possibly, quarterback Andy Dalton.
Johnson compiled 11.5 sacks in 2012 but saw the number drop to 3.5 in 2013. Sacks can be a subjective number, however, and that's the case when you consider his total pressures actually rose from 55 to 63. Plus, he tied for the NFL lead in batted passes (7) with teammate Carlos Dunlap.
The Bengals planned for this departure. Last year they offered a six-year, $40 million deal to Carlos Dunlap when Johnson's representation wouldn't take it. Dunlap signed, they unloaded $55 million to Geno Atkins, drafted athletic freak defensive end project Margus Hunt in the second round then re-signed versatile defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry.
Seven members of the eight-man line rotation from last year will return plus whatever the team adds in the draft. The ratio of talent falloff to money didn't make sense in the front office.
So, Johnson walked to Tampa Bay for five years and $8.75 million per year.
The same concerns over letting Collins go are met with depth, draft and foresight. Collins rated as the most efficient pass protecting left tackle in the NFL. He only started seven games, taking over the tackle position officially for the final five. During those games former Pro Bowl tackle Andrew Whitworth unselfishly moved to guard.
Assuming the Bengals let Collins walk, which seems a certainty, Whitworth would move back to tackle and the team assured depth at the guard position by re-signing Mike Pollak, who started four games there when guards Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling both went down.
For those fretting over letting Collins go, the Bengals point to the fact the team was 7-2 in games Collins didn't start last year and turn focus to a draft deep in tackle and guard options.
The Bengals have never been big spenders in free agency and this only continues the trend. They view all moves through a three-year window and Johnson and Collins just don't rank as high on the pecking order as Burfict and Green. In the past the large extensions have happened in training camp, so no expectations for a deal are in the immediate future. The team will likely see how much space is available after the draft and free agency determine the final space then begin negotiations with Green, their most valuable asset.
NFL Team Report - Cincinnati Bengals - NOTES, QUOTES
--The Bengals signed coach Marvin Lewis to a contract extension through the 2015 season, the team announced March 14.
"Marvin has earned this commitment for the job he is doing," team president Mike Brown said in a statement. "We are one of only five teams to qualify for the playoffs the last three years, and our prospects are bright looking ahead. Marvin is driven to achieve more, and we are happy to secure his leadership of our team beyond the coming season."
Cincinnati finished in the top 10 in the NFL in net defense (third), rush defense (fifth), pass defense (fifth), scoring (tied for sixth), scoring defense (tied for fifth), pass offense (eighth), net offense (10th), defensive third-down efficiency (second) and fewest sacks allowed per passing play (third).
"I'm blessed to continue to do a job I love here in Cincinnati, and with the Bengals organization," Lewis said. "I truly appreciate the commitment by our management to continue to enable us to build an NFL championship team."
--The Bengals offered the lowest tenders to restricted free agents WRs Dane Sanzenbacher and Andrew Hawkins, along with LB Vinny Rey. Two of them could be chased in free agency.
Nobody knows how good wide receiver Andrew Hawkins can be more than his former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden seeking weapons in the slot in Washington. Gruden loved utilizing Hawkins with jet sweeps and other running situations.
Hawkins caught 12 passes for 199 yards last year after missing the first half of the season with an ankle injury. He signed an offer sheet from Cleveland Thursday worth $13.6 million over four years and the Bengals have until March 18 to match.
Rey could elicit the interest of teams by virtue of his stint as starting linebacker when Rey Maualuga went down midseason. Rey averaged 12 tackles per game adding three sacks and an interception.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther liked the way Maualuga played last year, but wouldn't close the possibility a competition could occur at middle linebacker.
"(Rey) really understands the defense," Guenther said. "Really, all of the guys understand it but he went in there and made a couple of plays, got confidence and that confidence has sky-rocketed. Sometimes the light just goes on for a guy and you get to see what he can do."
--A name mentioned in association with the Bengals during free agency has been running back Darren McFadden. His last two seasons in Oakland were subpar.
He averaged 3.3 yards per carry each of the last two seasons. Those came on the heels of his two best years as a pro. In 2010, he averaged 5.2 yards per carry rushing for 1,157 yards. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry despite an injury in 2011.
The common thread during those two seasons? His offensive coordinator and then head coach was new Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
The possibilities that happens remain doubtful. The Bengals aren't interested in spending much of anything in free agency and certainly not at a position where they already have Giovani Bernard, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and a slew of young backs they like.
If his market value drops to a bargain basement, maybe Jackson convinces the organization to take a chance but that seems highly unlikely.
NFL Team Report - Cincinnati Bengals - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
After releasing linebacker James Harrison, head coach Marvin Lewis said, "It was great for our coaches, players and fans to have James on our team last year. He's a player everyone looks up to because of his ability, his accomplishments and his drive to be the best. He helped us win a division title with his play and with the example he set.
"It's time for us to go a different direction now, with some younger guys, but we will all still reap benefits from having had James with us as a Bengal last year."
--CORNERBACK: The Bengals aren't getting any younger at corner. They have two plus-30 corners (Adam Jones and Terence Newman) along with another coming off a second Achilles injury.
--OFFENSIVE LINE: With Anthony Collins having bolted to Tampa Bay and with the release of center Kyle Cook, they will be searching for depth to fill out the line. Any of the three positions would be in play.
--BACKUP QUARTERBACK: Expectations are the Bengals will take care of this in the middle rounds of the draft, but could grab a veteran free agent later in the summer if the draft doesn't fall their way.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--LB Michael Boley joined the team midseason when a rash of injuries hit. He only collected eight tackles. His return is unlikely with a new crop of drafted linebackers along with Emmanuel Lamur and Taylor Mays returning from serious injury.
--S Chris Crocker lived on the fence between retirement and return the last two seasons, joining the Bengals following Week 3 each of the last two years. He spent most of last season covering in the slot once Leon Hall went down. He's started to look into post-career possibilities and would be more likely to retire than return.
--S Taylor Mays found his niche last season playing as the coverage linebacker moved down from the safety position but he dislocated his shoulder in Week 8. He'll probably be back. After two years, he'd serve as a nice depth piece on special teams, linebacker and safety. Plus, he'll likely come at a bargain.
--P Zoltan Mesko joined the team after Kevin Huber went out for the year and Shawn Powell was cut. Huber is fine so no need for Mesko. He won't be back.
--OT Dennis Roland was let go and brought back Dec. 3 when offensive line injuries crept up. The versatile move tight end has spent six years with the Bengals but making the 53-man roster will be an uphill battle.
--TE Alex Smith will be entering his 10th year and that age probably dooms him. If the Bengals add a tight end in the draft he'll likely land elsewhere since Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham have the top two spots locked down. A developmental project would be better suited for that spot.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--WR Andrew Hawkins (tendered at $1.431M with no compensation) missed the first half of the season with an ankle injury, but returned to contribute much more over the final five games with 10 receptions for 183 yards in that span. The Bengals love what Hawkins can bring but with Dane Sanzenbacher and Mohamed Sanu able to play in the slot, the Bengals likely won't match an offer from the Browns. The offer is worth $13.6 million over four years and the Bengals have until March 18 to match.
--WR Dane Sanzenbacher (tendered at $1.431M with no compensation) played well in the preseason and made most of limited opportunities last year in the slot. His limited role will keep teams at bay from offering him much and the Bengals always indicated an affection for the way he plays.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
--G Mike Pollak: Potential UFA; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Vincent Rey: RFA tendered at $1.431M with no compensation); terms unknown.
--WR/KR Brandon Tate: Potential UFA; terms unknown.
--QB Greg McElroy: FA; $495,000/1 yr.
--DE Dontay Moch (waivers Cardinals).
--T Anthony Collins: UFA Buccaneers; $30M/5 yrs, $15M guaranteed.
--C Kyle Cook (released).
--CB Brandon Ghee: UFA Chargers; $1.65M/2 yrs.
--LB James Harrison (released).
--DE Michael Johnson: UFA Buccaneers; terms unknown.