It's shockingly hard to believe that we are already a month removed from the Super Bowl, and NFL Free Agency is quickly approaching—before you know it, the Cincinnati Bengals may have quite a new look.
With the team so close to taking the next step as a prominent AFC powerhouse, there has never been a better time for the Bengals to hit the free agent market—and hard. The Cincinnati football team could stand to learn a thing or two from its baseball counterparts: let's play to win now. The pieces for the future are already in place.
Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Vontaze Burfict are ready for a quality team. How should the front office address the issues at hand?
While I am nowhere near a Mike Brown supporter, I will tip my cap to him as it applies to his management of the team's payroll. The Bengals, according to Spotrac, have just over $10 million of cap room that will roll over from the 2012 season.
There are a couple of contracts that are questionable—Kyle Cook ($2.5M) and Jason Allen ($3M)—but overall, efficiency has been incredible in Cincinnati over the past several seasons.
With so much available cap room, there is no reason that the Bengals shouldn't use some of that cash to grab some quality veterans.
Rey Maualuga, LB: Let him walk. See Houston vs. Cincinnati in the playoffs.
Andre Smith, RT: Smith is coming off what was, by far, his best season in the pros. He solidified himself as a top 10 tackle in the league, and it has been reported by SB Nation that he's seeking a $9 million contract. Given how lazy and unwilling Smith has been to work in the past, will Cincinnati be willing to throw millions more at the massive man?
Manny Lawson, LB: After making $2.1 million in 2012 and not even managing 40 tackles, I'm not seeing a whole lot of reason to bring Lawson back unless he's willing to take a pay cut—and a big one. If Cincinnati does bring him back, it should be in a reserve role, as Lawson should be playing behind Vontaze Burfict, and likely a rookie.
Nate Clements, CB: Combining Clements' base salary and his signing bonus, he made over $5 million in 2012—that is absurd, considering the production Cincinnati got from him. He was put at a bit of a disadvantage playing safety because of injuries, but Clements isn't the defender he used to be. Freeing up that much on the payroll certainly helps.
Robert Geathers, DE: His time as a Bengal has been admirable, but Geathers is certainly no longer worth the $6 million he got last season. It may be worth bringing him back as some veteran depth on defense, but only if he is willing to take a massive pay cut. Collecting only 30 tackles is not going to get you a quality job in the NFL.
Thomas Howard, LB: Howard missed pretty much all of the 2012 season because of injury, but he has been a productive defender for his entire career, proving to be a good pass defender and tremendous tackler. Cincinnati would benefit tremendously from bringing him back.
Kevin Huber, P: He needs to be back in Cincinnati. Plain and simple.
Chris Crocker, S: Crocker's production in 2012 was surprisingly good, considering he was brought in as a replacement. He made $825,000 in 2012 for the 13 games he played and he made up for quite a few of the troubles Cincinnati was experiencing in the secondary.
Adam Jones, CB: He isn't quite the all-star he could have been at the beginning of his young career, but Jones proved to be a decent attribute to have in black-and-orange. Still, his price tag will likely be too steep for the team to bring him back.
Andrew Hawkins, WR (ERFA): He won't be going anywhere. After two productive seasons in Cincinnati coming out of the slot, he will take a deal from the Bengals that, hopefully, will keep him around for quite a while.
Is Michael Johnson worth $11 million? Probably not, but either way, it's a damn good thing Cincinnati will be able to keep him around for another season.
As a result of slapping the franchise tag on Johnson, Cincinnati will cough up $11.175 million to him this season. He has been a key part of a formidable Bengals' defensive line for four seasons now, and 2012 was his best.
He performed to the tune of 11.5 sacks and over 50 tackles—that's a guy worth keeping around.
Linebacker: One thing became obvious in 2012, and that was that Rey Maualuga was not the guy who can cover across the middle. With his subpar performances and the absence of Thomas Howard, Cincinnati really struggled across the middle of its defense. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that the team will draft a linebacker, but they will probably need to add a veteran to join said rookie, (hopefully) Thomas Howard, and Vontaze Burfict.
Running Back: BenJarvus Green-Ellis was good last season, but the absence of a viable backup became clear. The NFL operates under a two-back system these days (unless you're the Vikings), and that should be especially true in Cincinnati. Green-Ellis is not built to carry a team on his back, and he will need help next season.
Safety/Cornerback: Help in the secondary is a must at this point. Nate Clements, Terence Newman, Jason Allen, and Chris Crocker are all free agents this season, leaving the pickin's pretty slim in Cincinnati. Regardless, it was a weak system anyway. Now, the team is left with a good free safety in Reggie Nelson, a solid cornerback in Leon Hall, and second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who missed most of 2012. Cincinnati may have to make a couple of secondary investments.
Guard: Clint Boling was less than impressive in 2012, and it's unclear what the team will do with Travelle Wharton after he missed the entire season. Drafting a guard may be the best option, but an upgrade at left guard is a must.
Second Wide Receiver: Okay, I don't call this a "need" per se, but it's worth taking a look at. A lot of decent receivers are on the market this year, and even though I'm a huge Mohamed Sanu fan, it wouldn't hurt the Bengals to look on the market for a potential (and proven) second receiver.
After seven seasons in the NFL, Chase Blackburn finally exploded as a Giant in 2012, collecting 98 tackles, three sacks and an interception in 15 games.
Blackburn proved to be quite the brute force both against the run and even against the pass. While he isn't all that quick, he is able to make solid open-field tackles and shut down opposing offenses with good field vision.
Cincinnati could certainly use a guy like Blackburn to rotate in and out with what linebackers they will have. He would be effective alongside another brute force like Vontaze Burfict.
The only issue is that Blackburn will likely want a big pay increase—he made only $825,000 last season.
Combining two powerhouses like Jacobs and BenJarvus Green-Ellis would give opposing defenses fits.
Jacobs hasn't been the Pro Bowl-caliber back that he used to be for a few seasons, but if the Bengals could sign him for a year with a sub-$1 million price tag, it could give them a viable power-running game to complement an already developed passing game.
Reggie Bush would be a more expensive option than Brandon Jacobs, and he's more than likely going to want more than a one year deal, but it's much more feasible that the Bengals go after him.
Bush's speed has been his prominent feature since his days at USC. People formed doubts about Bush throughout his tenure in New Orleans, but he has managed to turn some of those away as a Dolphin.
Has he proven to be a prime-time running back? Not at all, but there have been signs of a solid NFL back. Bush managed to rush for more than 1,000 yards in 2011 and had better than four yards-per-carry in 2012.
Combining the power of Green-Ellis and the speed of Bush in the Queen City would be a good blueprint for a championship.
With Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram running the show in New Orleans, Chris Ivory has been largely overlooked in his three seasons.
No more. It should be noted that Ivory has averaged over five yards-per-carry throughout his brief NFL career, but he really has never been given a proper opportunity.
Like Bush, Ivory could add an incredible speed game to Cincinnati, and at a much smaller price tag. I would be shocked if he asks for more than a $1 million per season.
All things included, the New York Jets used LaRon Landry at quite the bargain during the 2012 season, as his contract with them was good for under $2 million.
He will probably want at least that after a solid bounce-back season, one in which he totaled 99 tackles, four forced fumbles and two picks—one of which he took back for a touchdown. Throughout Landry's career, he has struggled with injury, but he also has shown that he can be one of the best safeties in the league.
If the Bengals could get Landry, they wouldn't have to use an early pick on safety, thus being able to use those picks on other concerns. He'd be a tremendous addition to a struggling Cincinnati secondary.
Mike Wallace is one of the top free agents on the market this offseason, and rightfully so—he has made a good name for himself in his time in the Steel City.
Last season, in a down year for a guy like Wallace, he caught 64 passes and caught eight touchdowns. Cincinnati would need to cough up at least $2.5 million per season, and my thought is that Wallace will want a multi-year deal.
It may be worth the investment—pairing A.J. Green with a perennial superstar like Wallace would give the Bengals a receiving corps that no secondary could handle. You remember when Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald went to a Super Bowl?
This would be better.
After a rough two-year patch in 2010 and 2011, Donnie Avery burst back onto the scene in 2012 as a Colt, managing to bring his career back to life. His campaign wasn't great by any means, but coming back to the tune of of 781 yards and three touchdowns will turn some heads.
Avery is definitely a risk since much of his time away was due to a knee injury. However, he proved that he could develop and produce even with a rookie at the helm—no, Andrew Luck is no regular rookie, but a rookie all the same.
It's unlikely that Avery will ever be a superstar, but he would be another good target for Andy Dalton who isn't named A.J. Green, and he probably won't be asking for more than $1 million.
In 2009, Steve Smith accumulated 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns as a member of the New York Giants.
It was the last time that he played in more than nine games in a single season, the last time he totaled more than 529 yards, and the last time he caught more than three touchdowns.
Smith has had a bad fall from grace, but in his defense, he isn't hugely to blame. He has struggled with injuries since that time, and had an erratic Sam Bradford as his quarterback in St. Louis.
Should Cincinnati bring him in, it's perfectly feasible that he could bring back some of that 2009 magic, even if he doesn't quite match it. He could definitely take some attention away from A.J. Green, and not at an enormous price tag.