The Cincinnati Bengals started the 2013 offseason in a great manner by keeping defensive end Michael Johnson via the franchise tag—making the biggest question remaining the future of right tackle Andre Smith.
Cincinnati entered the offseason with the most cap room in the league, which head coach Marvin Lewis stated would be used to retain the team's free agents (PFT).
Lewis and the rest of the front office did just that when it applied the franchise tag to defensive end Michael Johnson, which will cost the team $11.2 million (Rotoworld).
The move leaves Andre Smith as the biggest question mark. Smith was an important cog of one of the NFL's best offensive lines a year ago and is set to hit the open market. He was the No. 1-ranked right tackle in the NFL last year (ProFootballFocus),
Smith is going to cause quite the financial strain for whichever team wants to sign him. According to Pro Football Talk, Smith is looking to be paid around $9 million per year in a new deal.
Cincinnati certainly has the ability to meet those wants—that does not mean it would be smart to do so.
The Bengals have a bad rep when it comes to paying players; one that is largely unfounded in recent years. Cincinnati needs to continue taking that approach when it comes to Smith, because there are so many factors working against him.
For one, the money Smith is looking for is outrageous. One of the top-paid right tackles in the NFL is Tennessee's David Stewart, who is making in the neighborhood of $4-5 million a year over seven years (Spotrac).
Smith is asking to be the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL, which in most scenarios would seem fair for a man widely considered the best at his position in 2012.
Unfortunately for Smith, he isn't in a typical scenario.
Smith bumbled his way through his first few years in the NFL before exploding onto the scene last season. He struggled with weight issues and consistency before getting his act together. Typically, NFL players are rewarded with top contracts at their position after years of consistency—not one breakout year.
According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Bengals are intent on letting Smith test the open market, which will establish his market value and then allow the team to decide if he is worth the cost. Whether someone will take a risk on Smith and give him the money he wants is hard to determine at this point.
Cincinnati is playing the situation perfectly. The Bengals are intent on keeping their own core group of players, but Smith may not be a part of the plans for the future. Lewis and Co. will have to have money free to bring back key players over the next few seasons such as defensive tackle Geno Atkins and wide receiver A.J. Green, so throwing a lot of money at a risk like Smith is simply a bad decision.
If Cincinnati truly felt that Smith is an integral part of the offensive and cannot be replaced, he would have been hit with the franchise tag. The Bengals have plenty of draft picks and cap room to either bring in a replacement via the draft or free agency.
It is a big gamble to hope a rookie or free agent can be the best right tackle in the NFL next year like Smith was in 2012, so the Bengals have to gauge whether that or the risk that Smith represents is the bigger leap of faith.
If Smith hits the open market and finds no team wants to pay him what he wants, the Bengals could jump back in and pay him what the market has decided. This is the ideal scenario, as the front office could use picks and free agency to address areas of need or upgrade other positions.
Either way, the Bengals are handling the situation in a way most successful franchises would. Mike Brown and Lewis will make a fair offer to Smith if the market allows it. Properly handling the financial side of things with an eye on the future of the franchise is what sets apart the pretenders and contenders.
So far this offseason, the Bengals are acting like contenders in their approach to player personnel decisions.