As the Cincinnati Bengals fully transition into offseason mode it’s natural to start looking ahead to the draft. Teams like the Bengals, who do not traditionally dip heavily into free agency, value the draft as the primary source for building their team.
But the Bengals have several questions that they will have to answer in the coming months, namely what to do about their own free agents and how to maximize the talent on their roster the most efficiently.
What follows are five cost-effective moves the Bengals can make in order to improve their team. Some may seem like no-brainers while others are the kind of outside-the-box thinking that Cincinnati doesn’t normally employ.
The Bengals have been very happy with kicker Mike Nugent over the past few years. He helped fans forget about the sour ending to the Shayne Graham era while providing some big moments.
Nugent got hurt late in the season and veteran Josh Brown was signed to replace him. He performed better than anyone imagined. He went 11-of-12 on kicks, including 4-of-5 from 40-plus yards with the only miss coming on the sand-like substance that passes for grass at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field.
By comparison, Nugent was 29-of-33 overall with all four misses coming from 40-plus. It’s not necessarily fair to compare the two, however, since Nugent had many more opportunities.
But the comparison between the two isn’t just performance-based. Both are free agents and while Nugent made $2.7 million last year, Brown signed for $825,000. While Brown will certainly get a raise, he should still make less than Nugent will. That makes financial sense for the Bengals.
Michael Johnson emerged as one of the best pass-rushers in the league after an impressive 11.5 sacks this season. Re-signing a pass-rusher of that caliber certainly seems like a no-brainer.
But is it a cost-effective one? Other than quarterback, there is no position on the field that commands higher salaries than pass-rushers. Double-digit sackers like Johnson tend to get big money.
For that reason it would be easy to say that not re-signing Johnson is the way to go, but I tend to disagree.
For one thing, the Bengals will have to replace Johnson one way or another, either through free agency, the draft or from within. The chances of getting a talent like Johnson, who can step in and contribute at that level for a championship-caliber defense at a cheaper cost, is highly unlikely.
Re-sign Johnson, give him a multi-year deal and save money down the road.
Like Michael Johnson, Geno Atkins had a breakout year this season with 12.5 sacks, a second Pro Bowl appearance and possibly a spot on the All-Pro team.
While Johnson is a free agent, Atkins has one year left on his original four year, $2.3 million deal. The cheapest thing to do is to sit on Atkins for another year, franchise him and save that money for this season.
But is it cost-effective? Atkins could easily be even better next season and commanding one of the richest salaries in the league. If the Bengals want to keep their budding superstar – and not pay through the nose—they need to lock him up for the long term while his value is relatively low.
Hawkins had a terrific season, catching 51 passes for 533 yards and four touchdowns. Considering that he made less than $500,000, it was one of the best steals in the league.
What’s dangerous for the Bengals is to think that Hawkins will develop into an elite receiver. It’s highly doubtful that he will ever match Wes Welker in terms of production, but considering what he could mean to the Bengals’ offense, he is very valuable.
The Bengals still need to find a legitimate second receiver but Hawkins can man the slot better than anyone has since Kevin Walter left. And it shouldn’t break the bank to re-sign him.
Jamaal Anderson was signed to provide depth for the defensive line but tore his quadriceps in the third game and was lost for the season. He has one more year left on his contract and will make over $2 million next season.
Gilberry was signed to replace Anderson on the roster; he responded with 6.5 sacks and got better as the season wore on. Gilberry fit perfectly into the Bengals’ scheme and did so for just $700,000.
Gilberry is a free agent and will likely get a big raise, but with the money saved from letting Anderson go, the Bengals can afford to bring another piece back from their franchise-record sacking unit.