It’s becoming time for the Cincinnati Bengals to solidify their acquisition strategy for this offseason. With free agency beginning in five days and the NFL draft occurring in seven weeks, the Bengals need to decide which positions need to be improved via free agency and which positions can afford to be upgraded via the draft.
The Bengals have already been busy, signing LB Aaron Maybin from the Jets and applying the franchise tag to defensive end Michael Johnson. Maintaining a strong defense will be a priority, but with Geno Atkins still under contract and other leaders like Leon Hall and Johnson still around, the nucleus of the defense is still there.
Behind them, however, there are certainly questions to be answered, positions to be filled and opportunities to step up for some. The Bengals have prioritized their needs and established where, and how, they think they can improve prior to training camp.
Here’s my take on what that priority list looks like.
The Bengals have many positions they plan to upgrade via the NFL draft. Only a couple, however, can afford to solely resort to the draft for improvement. Linebackers and running backs acquired for the Bengals henceforth should only be rookies.
No one knows just how the Bengals will handle Rey Maualuga hitting free agency. Some say that he is worth keeping and others argue to get rid of him. Manny Lawson is also a free agent. Vontaze Burfict is the only linebacker who saw significant time in 2012 and is returning for 2013.
This means that the Bengals can afford to pay top dollar for at least one more linebacker from the draft. A linebacker could likely be taken first and it's also possible that more than one linebacker could be taken.
If a linebacker isn't chosen first, a running back could be. BenJarvus Green-Ellis eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in 2012 yet showed his age with a string of injuries and inconsistency late in the season. The Bengals are looking to complement Green-Ellis and begin to eventually phase him out of the offense as he gets older.
With one veteran running back already, the Bengals have no reason not to bring in a young developing ball carrier. While there are bigger needs on defense than offense, the Bengals may take a running back first if the value is there.
Regardless, expect the Bengals to leave New York with a running back, and a linebacker, come late April.
While some free-agent members of the 2012 Bengals team will find themselves on different rosters in 2013, there are others that the Bengals should keep together. The cornerbacks and backup quarterback positions are faced with dilemmas that can easily be solved by re-signing the players from the 2012 team.
Kirkpatrick has already gone on the record saying how much help Jones has been for him, "I haven't had anything negative from him. He doesn't want to see me follow in his footsteps."
The Bengals passing defense ranked in the top 10 of many statistical categories in 2012. The 16 passing touchdowns that opponents scored on the Bengals was tied for the fourth fewest in the league.
The Bengals also set a franchise regular-season record for sacks in a season with 51. While many of those sacks came courtesy of the defensive line, many of them were coverage sacks; sacks caused by receivers being covered so well down the field that the quarterback spends extra time looking downfield and gets hit.
Hall, Jones and Newman did a great job of this in 2012 and with the young talent still on the roster, there's no reason for the Bengals to look beyond last year's roster to fill the defensive back position.
Backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski is scheduled to hit free agency next week as well. The Bengals haven't decided whether they'll pursue a backup QB via free agency or the draft. Given that this year's quarterback class is a little weaker than in year's past, it seems to make the most sense to re-sign Gradkowski for another year.
Andy Dalton is the starter, so whoever the second quarterback ends up being must accept this fact. In finding quarterbacks willing to accept this role, free agents often require more money and rookies are often under-prepared.
The best way to avoid both of these issues is to keep Gradkowski, sign him to another one year, $2 million deal, and try again next year.
While some position groups can afford to focus on primarily free agency or primarily the draft, more often than not, teams are forced to do a combination of the two.
As for the Bengals, that's where they stand at many positions.
Defensive line was maintained by giving Michael Johnson the franchise tag. However, Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers are free agents. The Bengals could use some of the young athleticism exhibited by the defensive linemen in this year's NFL draft class; however, they could also use the experience of a veteran to come in and set a strong example.
NFL Network analyst Charles Davis has the Bengals taking a defensive end first in this year's NFL draft. With Michael Johnson receiving the franchise tag, this seems increasingly unlikely. However, don't be surprised if the Bengals select a D-lineman in the draft.
For safeties, the Bengals must make some moves. Nate Clements and Chris Crocker are both free agents. Clements was one of the most expensive Bengals last year, collecting $5.5 million in 2012. Crocker was a blessing considering he was signed midseason to help out with safety troubles and required less than a million dollars.
For 2013, if the Bengals are going to spend $5.5 million on a player, he better be a player. The fact that Nate Clements even played safety is an issue. Initially a cornerback, Clements made the switch in 2012 to help with the ailing position.
Youngster George Iloka and unproven Taylor Mays were expected to step up, but Clements won the job. For the price of Crocker, the Bengals could pay a 21-year-old, mold him into the player they want, and probably keep him for a couple years.
The question then becomes should they look for youth or experience at safety? The answer is both. The Bengals could use a veteran safety to come in, make consistent plays and get the younger guys on the right track.
San Francisco safety and soon-to-be free agent Dashon Goldson told Sirius XM Sports earlier this week that he wouldn't mind wearing stripes someday, "I like those guys down there. They have a good football team down there. I'm familiar with those guys and I like how they play."
Goldson is asking for around $8 million a year. The Bengals could take the $5.5 million from Nate Clements' contract, throw the extra $1.9 million that all teams got from the salary-cap increase, and offer Goldson a three year, incentive-laden, front-loaded contract.
With Crocker's $825,000 contract, the Bengals could sign a late-round pick or even a rookie free agent after the draft. This year's safety class is deep so it could happen.
Andre Smith is the Bengals' highest priority free agent now. According to NFLTradeRumor, he is one of the highest profile free agents in the league.
Smith is asking for around $9 million a year in his next deal. While the Bengals have the money to pay him that much, his questionable decisions and spotty productivity bring up the question of if he's worth it.
Some team will pay Smith top dollar and chances are it won't be the Bengals. Worse things have happened. Some reports say that teams are "scared" of taking the risk on Smith.
The offensive line will be fine. Rookies G Kevin Zeitler and C Trevor Robinson both made Mel Kiper Jr's NFL All Rookie team in 2012 (ESPN Insider). Andrew Whitworth, at the left tackle, made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2013 and this year's draft class has some players.
On top of all that, the Chiefs released Eric Winston recently. Winston, or any other promising free-agent tackle, could combine with a youngster and fill in for Smith if the situation called for it.
This list neglected to mention tight ends and kickers. The tight end position doesn't need to make any changes because Jermaine Gresham continues to show why he's one of the best young tight-end talents in the NFL.
The Bengals don't need both Brown and Nugent so one of them will get signed but don't be surprised if we see the other later in the season, similar to how Josh Brown made his debut this year.