Before this past season, the Bengals hadn't made playoff appearances in back-to-back seasons in thirty years. Seeking a playoff three-peat in 2013, the Bengals' front office will be busy this off-season. Among the many topics discussed will be player personnel and how to maximize the salary cap.
The 2013 salary cap is predicted to be around $121 million according to NFL sources. The team with the most projected cap space, at $55.1 million, is the Cincinnati Bengals. With money to throw around and an emerging young talent on the field, the Bengals have a chance to make franchise-changing moves in free agency and the NFL Draft.
Several players have expiring contracts this year and owner Mike Brown and company have some key decisions to make. Finding the appropriate balance between experience, potential and compensation is what sets franchises apart and the Bengals have decisions to make at some key positions, starting at the quarterback...
Take a breath. I'm not implying that the Bengals should draft or deal for a quarterback. Dalton is the guy for the future. However, Bruce Gradkowski, the backup quarterback, will be a free agent.
Backup quarterback is one of the most important positions to have depth at in the game. While their names can sometimes be forgotten, their importance isn't. Backup QBs are one play away from taking over a franchise. Just ask Tom Brady or Colin Kaepernick.
However, unlike how a young Tom Brady took over for an aging Drew Bledsoe, the Bengals are going in the opposite direction. They have a young, growing quarterback in search of some mentorship.
With Andy Dalton as an emerging, still somewhat impressionable QB, it's necessary to keep a veteran mentor figure behind him. I don't think it would help Dalton to bring in anyone that could seriously contend for his starting position, he doesn't need that added pressure at this stage of his blossoming career.
However, a veteran quarterback still seeking a paycheck with the understanding that they likely won't play is what Cincinnati needs.
Of the QBs that will be free agents after this year, if not Gradkowski, the Bengals should target Rex Grossman or Derek Anderson. Grossman has played 10 years and Anderson eight. Neither player will require a lot of cap space. I'd love to see one of them in a role similar to the one we saw between QBs David Garrard and Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins on HBO's Hard Knocks.
I don't recommend the Bengals spend a lot of money on the quarterback position. I'm not opposed to re-signing Gradkowski. However they'll have to spend some on potential play callers. A backup quarterback with some experience and double digit wins as an NFL starting quarterback would love a one year $850,000-$1 million contract.
Andy Dalton will make $1.18M in 2013
Amount of cap space to Quarterbacks in 2013: $2M
Oregon's Kenjon Barner is someone that the Bengals could target in April's NFL Draft
Historically, the Bengals have struggled with the running back position. With the exception of Corey Dillon and maybe Rudi Johnson, Cincinnati has been laden with mediocre running backs the last 15 years.
Of the five running backs on the 2012 roster, only two of them are scheduled to return in 2013. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Dan Herron both have contracts through the 2013 season but Bernard Scott, Cedric Peerman and Brian Leonard do not.
Given the style of the Bengals offense and how it seems that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden will be returning to Cincinnati, the running back position is certainly one that needs to be addressed. And with the most predicted cap space in the NFL for 2013, the running back position is one in which they could certainly throw around some weight.
Green-Ellis still has two years left on his contract and considering he rushed for 1,000 yards in 2012, it’s not likely that he’s going anywhere. However, he was inconsistent throughout the whole season, had all of his career fumbles in 2012 and hurt his hamstring during warmups late in the season. It would be wise of the Bengals to address the running back position despite the fact that the Law Firm will account for $3 million in cap space in 2013.
Addressing this position can come in one of three ways: the NFL Draft in April, free agency or sticking with what they’ve got.
First off, what type of running back are they looking for? It seems that the Bengals' player personnel department has been much improved the last few years, making much more sensible drafts and trades; transactions that led to wins.
The type of player they should be looking for is a dynamic back that can run between the tackles when needed, has the speed to find the corner of the play and turn it up, and can catch the ball out of the backfield.
Draft TrackerShould the Bengals decide to look in the NFL Draft, there are a handful of players that would likely fit the mold. With picks 21, 37 and 55, the Bengals have the money to bring in a big time player in the first two rounds. Two players that stick out and would fit within the scheme of the offense are Oregon’s Kenjon Barner and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore.
Other running backs like Alabama’s Eddie Lacy could also be options however the Bengals need to get away from the “bruiser” type running backs. Lattimore could fall because of his knee injury in college, making him a steal in one of the middle rounds.
Should the Bengals decide to look at free agency, there are a few players that would also contribute immediately. The first, and most notable, is Reggie Bush. Bush’s contract with the Dolphins expires in 2013 and his abilities and skill set would work perfectly with Dalton and the offense. Also, Danny Woodhead and Javon Ringer are other NFL free agents that would be good additions.
All in all, the running back position is one where the Bengals need to be generous; especially given their financial wiggle room this off-season. If the Bengals were to keep any of the free agent running backs on the roster, I would keep Brian Leonard because he possesses that skill set to run the ball as well as receive, he’s been with the club since 2009 and he can help lead the young guys.
Green-Ellis and Dan Herron account for $3.48M in 2013. In order for the Bengals to make serious moves as a team, they need to make serious moves at running back. Last year they spent $5.5M at the running back position.
Amount of cap space dedicated to running backs in 2013: $8M-$10M
The young receiving corps of the Bengals might be its most impressive group of players. Led by two-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green, the wide receivers group is only going to get better.
Age is certainly on the Bengals' side here, as their oldest wide receiver is Andrew Hawkins, at 26. However, Hawkins’ contract was through 2012 and he is now a free agent. Hawkins’ numbers weren’t great in 2012 but his presence was certainly known. His tenacity, spirit and drive will certainly make him a target for front offices with openings at the receiver position. Brandon Tate is also a free agent in 2013.
With emerging talent like Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones showing promise early in their young careers, I don’t expect the Bengals to spend a lot of money at the receiver position. Jermaine Gresham earned a Pro Bowl spot and became the first Bengals' tight end with 50 catches in each of his first three seasons. The tight end position is solid as well.
In 2012, the Bengals spent just under $7 million on the receivers (Green, Hawkins, Tate, Ryan Whalen, Sanu, Jones). While most of that number was accrued by Green’s $3.2 million in bonuses, most of that money is still accounted for in 2013 as only Tate and Hawkins are free agents. They spent $3.1 million on tight ends.
While I don’t think it’d be smart to invest a ton more money in new receivers this year, with as much cap space as the Bengals have, they could. The only pieces potentially leaving are role players and there’s no reason a healthy Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones couldn’t fill those roles.
If the Bengals do make changes here, they should find a veteran slot receiver like Austin Collie or Julian Edelman, both of whom are free agents in 2013. If it were me, I’d sign Hawkins again and keep the entire group in tact, minus the unproductive Brandon Tate.
Tight end Richard Quinn is a free agent so the Bengals will likely replace him with an inexpensive tight end for scout team purposes. Other than that, the Bengals already have $2.9M scheduled to go to tight ends in 2013.
The receivers are scheduled to account for $7.1 million of the 2013 salary cap, not including incentives. That brings the total for wide outs and tight ends to an even $10 million. Anticipating that Green and Gresham rack up a few million in incentives again and Hawkins gets a contract extension and a raise…
Amount of salary cap dedicated to wide receivers and tight ends in 2013: $14 million
Of the Bengals’ seven highest paid players, three of them are offensive lineman. Tackle Andrew Whitworth with a salary of $4.55 million in 2012. Tackle Andre Smith is second earning $4.5 million and center Kyle Cook ranks seventh with a $2.5 million salary. Combining their salaries with their bonuses, these three players account for $17.6 million of the 2012 salary cap.
Andre Smith is a free agent in 2013 and, according to NFL Trade Rumors, he is the #4 ranked player in free agency. That’s consistent with the hype surrounding Smith coming out of Alabama. The Bengals will need to be generous to Smith in order to keep him in Cincinnati, not necessarily because Smith is so eager to get out of Cincinnati, but rather because so many other teams will be eager to get him out of there.
The good news for the Bengals is that they have the money this off season to entice Smith to stay. The question then becomes, is he worth it?
Smith’s rookie contract was for four years, $21 million guaranteed. While it took a long time for the Bengals and Smith to agree on a contract, at the time certain provisions of their agreement made headlines. Most notably, Smith’s weight clause. There was a clause in his contract stating that his game checks would be cut in half for any weeks his weight exceeded 350 lbs.
Smith went on to get injured just days after agreeing to a contract and has been in and out of the lineup with injury most of his career. Although Smith can’t seem to figure out how to contain J.J. Watt, at 25 years old with his skill set and physical attributes, the Bengals would be foolish not to try to resign him.
Smith, however, is an unrestricted free agent so should he decide to go elsewhere, regardless of what the numbers say, he can go. But money talks and the Bengals have a lot of money.
Smith’s backup Dennis Roland is also a free agent so the Bengals will certainly be spending money on the right tackle position.
NFL Trade Rumors also suggests that the Bengals need a change at Center. I like Kyle Cook and Trevor Robinson at Center, however, the Bengals interior line definitely needs some depth. Guards Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling are solid but beyond them, there’s no one.
The Bengals have the salary cap space to draft a high-potential lineman and there are plenty in the 2013 class: Alabama’s Barrett Jones, Louisville’s Mario Benavides or LSU’s Josh Dworaczyk to name a few.
Last year, the offensive line accounted for $23.2 million of the salary cap. So far, the offensive line is slated to earn $18.4 million in 2013 and that doesn’t include what will hopefully be Smith’s maximum contract.
Amount of salary cap dedicated to offensive line in 2013: $28M-$30M
The Bengals had a total of 1,121 tackles in 2012. Bengals’ linebackers accounted for 32 percent of those. Starting linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga finished first and second on the team, respectively, in tackles combining for 249.
Linebackers accounted for just over $8 million of the salary cap in 2012. Thus far, according to Spotrac.com for 2013, the Bengals have $960,000 dedicated to linebackers. Why such a small number? Of the Bengals’ seven linebackers on the 2012 roster, five of them are free agents in 2013. The two of them that aren’t are rookies Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur.
With the most projected cap space in the NFL this year, the Bengals should certainly put big money into the linebacker position this offseason. Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer will look to fill out his linebacker corps teetering along the line between experience and potential.
Because the only contracted Bengals linebackers for 2013 as of now are rookies, some experience is necessary. This will have to come from free agency.
Many people have been critical of Rey Maualuga’s performance since joining the Bengals (including Zimmer). Roughly halfway through the year, head coach Marvin Lewis honored him with the title of captain; a reward originally supposed to be determined on a weekly basis. Shortly thereafter, the Bengals defense rediscovered itself and fueled the 7-1 finish.
The Bengals should try to keep Rey up to a certain point. Rey accounted for $1.149 million of the salary cap in 2012. As long as they can get Rey for less than $2.5 million a year, they should. It’s possible, however, that Rey will entertain other teams who will likely be willing to pay more.
The big money for linebackers needs to go into the draft. The Draft’s biggest named linebacker is Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o. He, in all probabilities, won’t be around for the Bengals’ first pick at 21.
Amount of salary cap dedicated to linebackers in 2013: $12M-$18M
The defensive line accounted for 43 of the Bengals franchise record-setting 51 sacks in 2012.
The Bengals were full of surprises in the 2012 season, however the emergence of the defensive line has to be the biggest. Of their franchise record-setting 51 sacks, 43 were earned by the defensive line.
Led by DT Geno Atkins (12.5 sacks) as well as DE Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks), the defensive line was the foundation of the Bengals’ success in 2012 so maintaining this group will be key for the front office.
The defensive line accounted for just under $18.5 million in 2012. For 2013, they are scheduled to earn just over $11.5M and Robert Geathers, Michael Johnson, Wallace Gilberry and Pat Sims are all free agents.
Of those four, the Bengals need to keep at least Michael Johnson. Johnson, in his fourth year, has 23 career sacks. Half of those sacks came in 2012 and at 6'7, Johnson possesses too rare of a body type and athleticism to let go. Keeping him won’t be cheap, though. His rookie contract was four years, $2.6 million. He’ll certainly be able to demand more value this year.
Good news is, the Bengals have a lot of money to spend. The Bengals should spend what they need to keep Johnson and build around him and Atkins.
One potential spotlights for the Bengals in the NFL Draft is Oregon’s Dion Jordan. However, if the Bengals can manage to get by another year, South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney will be eligible for the draft in 2014 and, if they play their cards right, they could easily have enough pawns to get him. Don't remember him? This should jog your memory.
We’ll measure that spot when the ball is placed but for now, the Bengals need to make sure that the defensive line is the enforcing unit of the team.
Amount of salary cap dedicated to defensive line in 2013: $18M-$22M
Defensive backs were the Bengals’ most expensive position group in 2012 earning just under $29 million. CB Leon Hall cost the Bengals more than any other player this year accumulating $8.5 million in earnings. Nate Clements and Reggie Nelson rank fifth and sixth on the Bengals in earnings, combining for just over $10 million.
It’ll be hard to justify resigning veteran Nate Clements. At $4.3 million, his salary was the third highest on the team in 2012. Including bonuses, he earned the fifth most on the team at $5.5M. At 33 years old, he’s jus too old. R-esigning three of the remaining four free agents will ensure the depth of the secondary.
With rookies Dre Kirkpatrick and George Iloka, as well as emerging players like Taylor Mays, following the leadership of a rediscovered Adam Jones and Leon Hall, the Bengals shouldn’t need to change too much to their defensive backfield.
Amount of salary cap dedicated to defensive backs in 2013: $26M
Special teams is often an afterthought for most self-proclaimed NFL fans. However, this year, the Bengals certainly showed just how crucial special teams can be.
Kicker Mike Nugent started the season off well completing all of his kicks under 40 yards and even managed a 55-yarder.
Kevin Huber spent much of the year near the top of the NFL in net punt yardage and finished the year ranked third in the NFL in punts inside the 2- yard line.
Josh Brown didn’t join the Bengals until after Week 13 when Mike Nugent was injured. In the final five games of the year, Brown was 13 of 14 with his only miss being from 50+ at Heinz field in Pittsburgh.
Huber’s contribution was noteworthy and, at times, God-sent. Being that he is a Cincinnati native having played his high school and college ball in the Queen City, keeping Huber around shouldn’t cost a large chunk of change.
However, if it does, I’d pay it. Last year the Bengals used their franchise tag on kicker Mike Nugent, this year Kevin Huber is a viable candidate for the tag.
Amount of salary cap dedicated to kickers and punters in 2013: $4M
For the off season leading into the 2013 season, the Bengals have the ability to make some serious moves. With the salary cap expected to be around $121 million, the Bengals have over $50 million to play with. Certain areas for concern for the Bengals are at linebacker, right tackle, running back and defensive end.
Expect owner Mike Brown to focus his financial efforts on those positions this offseason. Below is a breakdown of each position group and how much cap space the Bengals should dedicate to each position group for 2013.
The total below comes up to anywhere between $109 million to $123 million. The cap is expected to be set around $121 million, so they can't spend the suggested maximum for each position or they'll be in trouble. However, if they can stay within the ranges provided, they should get the most bang for their buck.
Running Backs: $8M - $10M
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: $11M
Offensive Line: $28M-$30M
Defensive Line: $18M-$22M
Defensive Backs: $26M
Special Teams: $4M
Total: $109M - $123M
My trust in the player personnel department for the Bengals has certainly increased the last few years. With the selections of A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, Vontaze Burfict and Mohamed Sanu in the draft, they've shown that they can identify young talent that can contribute quickly.
By bringing in veterans like Wallace Gilberry and Chris Crocker, they've shown that they can acquire talent through free agency rather effectively. By signing gems like Andrew Whitworth and Leon Hall to maximum contracts, they've shown that they can shell out the cash to deserving players in the right situations.
I don't know what Mike Brown, Katie Blackburn and Marvin Lewis have planned for the off-season, but I'll trust that they're in their positions for a reason and that they have a plan. Will it work? I guess we'll just have to wait and see.