NFL Team Report - Cincinnati Bengals - INSIDE SLANT
As the free-agency period came and went, the Cincinnati Bengals quietly minded their business by choosing to use money for extensions on their own young stars rather than pay cash to others on the market.
Attempts to bring back defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins were both trumped by large deals with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Johnson pocketed five years, $43 million and Collins six years at $30 million.
Cincinnati points to the fact those will be the only two major pieces not returning to a team that made the playoffs for the third year in a row. But they will be more dependent on the draft to refurbish the team's depth after a few complementary pieces such as wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, linebacker James Harrison, center Kyle Cook and nickel corner Brandon Ghee all were either released or signed with other teams.
The hottest topic of the offseason was the team's extension talks with quarterback Andy Dalton. He enters the final year of his contract amid questions whether the team should invest in a guy who led them to three straight playoff berths for the first time in franchise history or dump one who served as a major reason they lost all three and has become a lightning rod for debate.
In order to make Dalton feel more comfortable the Bengals were able to add veteran backup quarterback Jason Campbell to mentor him as well as one of the quarterback's best friends in former TCU teammate and Packers backup tackle Marshall Newhouse. Cincinnati even took a flier on discarded Texans third-round pick from last year Sam Montgomery, who was kicked off the team for disciplinary reasons.
All these leave the Bengals roster still among the deepest in football, so they won't be facing a glaring need when the first round begins on May 8 at Radio City Music Hall. If any single position went without being addressed, doom and gloom wouldn't suffocate Paul Brown Stadium. Planning for the more distant future will be more the focus when the Bengals use their nine picks.
The most important position the Bengals must address would be cornerback. Age is advancing to the point of concern at a position that has served as a strength in recent years. Terence Newman is now 35 years old and despite playing some of the best football of his career the past two years, he will be entering the final year of his contract in Cincinnati. Leon Hall is 29 years old and one of the premier technicians at corner in the league, but how much can the Bengals count on a player who saw two of his last three seasons shortened with Achilles injuries?
Third corner Adam Jones recently crossed the 30 threshold. He played well in Cincinnati and, most important, did not get in trouble with the law. That said, Father Time ticks loudly on corners.
The team attempted to address the need for youth in 2012 spending a first-round pick on Dre Kirkpatrick, but in two years he's yet to show the first-round production the team hoped for. The word bust now begins to hover around his name entering his third season.
Considering five cornerbacks rank at or near first-round talent and a slew more at the second tier, it would be a shock if the Bengals didn't address the corner position in the first two rounds, more than likely with their first pick at No. 24.
Maybe the most important question in relation to this draft is how big of an insurance policy will the Bengals take on Dalton as he enters the final year of his deal. Quarterbacks could be abundant on Day 2 of the draft and Cincinnati will be looking at them. The earlier the round, the more they hedge their bets in case negotiations break down or they decide to let the quarterback walk after next season.
NFL Team Report - Cincinnati Bengals - NOTES, QUOTES
--Michael Johnson led the Bengals' defensive line in tackles last season (74) and contributed 20.5 sacks the last three years before cashing in with Tampa Bay. The Bengals need to move on without him. Easier said than done.
As the offseason program began, players have begun saying what they'll do. Chief among those is his old partner in pressure, defensive end Carlos Dunlap.
"Me personally, I am going to take on some more responsibility," said Dunlap, who tied for the team lead with seven sacks last year. "We rotate a lot as is, so you are always out there with different personnel more so than just out there with Mike. Me and Mike developed this new era of pass rushing for Cincy so it feels like no more ownership with him, but we got a great group we rotate with that all bring pass rushing to the table."
Along with 2013 second-round pick Margus Hunt, the top player projected to fill in for Johnson would be Wallace Gilberry. He contributed seven sacks off the bench last year. He's played with a chip on his shoulder ever since not being re-signed by the Chiefs three years ago and later being cut by Tampa Bay in the preseason.
Even though he'll enter the offseason likely perched at the top of the depth chart, he laughs at the idea of being dropped in as a starter.
"The jury's still out," Gilberry said. "That's cool. At the end of the day I'm comfortable with what I can do and what I can contribute. I'm ready to turn it up this season and this offseason, so we'll see how it goes."
--The Bengals cost themselves a slot receiver and helped out a division rival by misreading the market on their tender offer for wideout Andrew Hawkins.
Hawkins signed a four-year, $13.6 million contract with the Browns. Cincinnati tendered him at the lowest level of $1.431 million as a restricted free agent, but since Hawkins was undrafted there was no compensation received if he bolted for another team. When the Browns front-loaded an offer sheet to make it almost impossible for the Bengals to match, they had to let him walk.
It would have cost just $756,000 more for this year had they tendered Hawkins at the second-round compensation level.
"We're fortunate to have a lot of depth at wide receiver, and we're excited to move forward," coach Marvin Lewis said. "Our leading receivers from last year will all return, and we have another group who know our system and have earned our confidence that they are ready to see more action."
--Andy Dalton said one of the biggest reasons quarterbacks are being paid such astronomical amounts of money is because they are asked to be the face of the franchise. For a player at a crossroads of contract negotiations in his Bengals career, it begged the obvious question: Do you think you're the face of the franchise?
"I do," Dalton said. "I feel like in everything that Marvin has said, that (offensive coordinator) Hue (Jackson) has said and everybody here has told me that and has told everybody that. I'm confident with that. I hope to spend a lot of my career here. Hopefully, we can get something done."
The team is currently in talks with Dalton as well as linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Burfict led the NFL in tackles last season (171), but since he was an undrafted player in 2012 hasn't even made $1 million yet. The Bengals plan on changing that.
But first, they hope to strike the deal with Dalton. And for Dalton, he hopes to answer the critics that have bombarded his career potential from seemingly every national television, radio and Internet outlet in the country.
"I'm very confident in what I've done," Dalton said. "The people who are the critics, they look at all of the negatives. They don't look at all of the stuff that I've accomplished. They don't look at that I'm one of three quarterbacks in the history of the NFL to do certain things. They don't look at that kind of stuff. They want to find ways to tear me down, but I'm not worried about that. They can say whatever they want. All that matters is what everyone believes in this organization and what I believe in myself. That's how I go about my business."
NFL Team Report - Cincinnati Bengals - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--CORNERBACK: The Bengals' corners are aging. Terence Newman and Adam Jones are both over 30 and Leon Hall is coming off his second Achilles injury in two years. The Bengals must plan for the future of the position.
--DEFENSIVE LINE: Michael Johnson led the Bengals in pressures last season. They must find a way to fill his pursuit. They planned with last year's pick of defensive end Margus Hunt, but the defense thrived off the depth and rotation of the front line the last three years and adding another face to secure depth will be imperative.
--QUARTERBACK: What will the Bengals do if they can't secure Andy Dalton? What if he plays out his final year and walks? What if he crumbles under the pressure as Matt Schaub did and the Bengals are left wondering about the future? They must find a quarterback in the middle rounds to develop as an insurance policy.
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.
--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: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
--S Taylor Mays: UFA; terms unknown.
--G Mike Pollak: Potential UFA; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Vincent Rey: RFA tendered at $1.431M with no compensation); 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--WR Dane Sanzenbacher: RFA tendered at $1.431M with no compensation); $1.2M/1 yr, $200,000 SB.
--WR/KR Brandon Tate: Potential UFA; terms unknown.
--QB Jason Campbell: FA Browns; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--S Danieal Manning: FA Texans; terms unknown.
--DE Dontay Moch (waivers Cardinals).
--OT Marshall Newhouse: UFA Packers; terms unknown.
--CB R.J. Stanford: Not tendered as RFA by Dolphins; terms unknown.
--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).
--WR Andrew Hawkins: RFA Browns (tendered at $1.431M with no compensation); Bengals didn't match offer of $13.6M/4 yrs.
--DE Michael Johnson: UFA Buccaneers; $43.75M/5 yrs, $16M guaranteed.
--QB Greg McElroy (released/retired).
--QB Zac Robinson (released/failed physical).