Last week, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk said that soon-to-be Cincinnati Bengals free-agent right tackle Andre Smith will be looking for a contract in the $9 million-per-year range now that the team opted to use the franchise tag on defensive end Michael Johnson.
With Smith the fourth-best offensive tackle in the league according to Pro Football Focus—and the NFL's best right tackle—it's not surprising that Smith is looking to be among the highest-paid players at the position. But do the Bengals want to tie up that much money with him in 2013 and beyond?
The Bengals have the most salary cap room to work with—it was around $55 million prior to Johnson receiving the $11.175 million tag last Friday—which makes it relatively less painful to pay Smith such a high asking price.
However, the Bengals aren't well-known as a franchise willing to part ways with large chunks of cash, and with the arguably more valuable left tackle Andrew Whitworth (in the historical "left-tackle-is-more-valuable-than-right-tackle" sense) having a cap hit of $6.75 million in 2013, one can see why they may be reluctant to give Johnson $9 million per year.
Smith was a strong pass-protector in 2012, giving up seven sacks, two quarterback hits and 24 hurries in his 1,073 snaps, and he performed even better as a run-blocker. But Smith has had only two true seasons contributing in Cincinnati—he played in just six games in his rookie season after fracturing his left foot and seven in 2010 with another broken foot—and concerns linger that he may again fall prey to injury, not warranting him such a high payday.
However, high-level offensive tackle talent doesn't grow on trees. There isn't another available free agent with Smith's skill level, and, if there were, certainly none who would be asking for much less than Smith. The draft could be an option for the Bengals, but with other more pressing needs (like safety), it doesn't make sense for Cincinnati to use a first-round draft pick on a position they could address in a week's time.
And when looking at the payouts due both the top tier of tackles around the league as well as what kind of money is due other members of the Bengals roster, it's no wonder why Smith would be asking for as much cash as he is. Granted, all of the highly-paid offensive tackles on that list play on the left, but that still doesn't speak about Smith's particular value to the Bengals. Compared to their other options, he's just as important as one of those elite pass-protectors.
The main key, however, is the comparison between the 2013 salaries of Smith's fellow Bengals. Johnson's franchise tag payout aside, the next-highest paid Bengal this season is cornerback Leon Hall, who has a cap figure of $8.4 million and ranked 25th overall at his position in 2012.
Apples-to-oranges comparisons aside, it's not difficult to say that Smith has been and would be more important to the Bengals and as a result is worth more money—at least more than what Hall is set to be paid.
Further, though the Bengals are generally not a high-spending team, there does seem to be some historical willingness for them to give Smith a large salary. In 2012, Smith made a total of $7.51 million (the Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy has it listed at $8.02 million), and in 2011, that number was even higher, at $9.69 million—more than what he's asking for now, at least in terms of base pay.
Precedent says that the fact they've already given Smith at or around what he's looking for now in past seasons, combined with Smith playing extraordinarily well in both 2011 and 2012, means it shouldn't take the wringing of hands and rending of garments to convince team owner Mike Brown that Smith is worth a $9 million-per-year salary.
Like much of the Bengals' roster, Smith is young—just 26 years old—and clearly hitting the peak of his career. To give Smith star left tackle money isn't as much of a risk considering his talent level puts him above some of the most expensive left tackles in the league. Further, the Bengals have the cash to keep Smith from hitting the free-agency market next week and have no better, cheaper options.
Though the Bengals aren't a throw-money-at-it type of team, they wouldn't be overspending to give Smith the deal he's looking for, and as long as the right combination of salary, bonuses, escalators and out-clauses are built in, they should be able to comfortably protect themselves should Smith's injury issues resurface.
For the Bengals to take a leap forward in 2013, they need their offense to do two things: Keep quarterback Andy Dalton protected and have a more dynamic run game. Though Dalton and the running backs are a major part of that equation, neither is possible without a good offensive line doing the protecting or the blocking.
To do this, the Bengals must keep as much of their 2012 offensive line intact in 2013. This means digging deep into the coffers and paying Smith the $9 million per year that he wants, and most importantly, he's worth.