5 Key Free Agents the Cincinnati Bengals Must Re-Sign Immediately

Sean ODonnellContributor IIIMarch 16, 2013

5 Key Free Agents the Cincinnati Bengals Must Re-Sign Immediately

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    The Cincinnati Bengals have been very quiet thus far in free agency. They have stuck to their game plan, which consists of re-signing the core of their young talent.

    They started with special teams by re-signing Kevin Huber, Clark Harris, Cedric Peerman, Jeromy Miles, Mike Nugent and Andrew Hawkins.

    Later, they went to the defensive front by placing the franchise tag on Michael Johnson and re-signing Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry.

    However, certain holes remain in the Bengals lineup, and there are still key free agents who must be re-signed to bolster the roster.

    These moves are crucial because not only will they fill holes in the lineup, but they will allow the Bengals more leeway with the upcoming NFL draft in April.

    Let's take a look at five free agents whom the Bengals must re-sign before they are lost to another team. After analyzing each player, we will also look at a good replacement on the free-agent market.

Thomas Howard

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    Currently, the Bengals are most thin at the linebacker position. Only one starter from 2012 remains on the roster: Vontaze Burfict.

    Earlier this week, the Bengals lost Manny Lawson to the Buffalo Bills and Dan Skuta to the San Francisco 49ers.

    Currently, the Bengals have Burfict (who should be moved to the middle this season), Emmanuel Lamur and newly signed Aaron Maybin as the only experienced linebackers on the roster.

    Cincinnati could take an approach to allow Burfict to control the "Mike" position, use the speedy Maybin at the "Sam" spot and move Lamur to the "Will" position. However, this makes for a very shaky linebacker corps.

    If the Bengals were to bring Thomas Howard back into the fold—he has recovered nicely from injury—they would have an instant starter at the Will, allowing Maybin and Lamur to split time at the Sam.

    The Bengals would be able to go after a linebacker in the draft as well, but they would have two different options. First, they could wait to draft a linebacker until the late second or third round. Second, they could allow the rookie to learn under a veteran and limit the former's snaps instead of throwing him directly into the line of fire.

    Howard would not command too large of a salary, and since the Bengals are currently sitting with $33.1 million of cap space, it would not break the bank.

     

    Free-agent alternative: James Harrison

    Harrison is healthier than he was last season and could provide instant impact on the outside. He traditionally played outside backer in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense, but he could play the Sam in a 4-3.

    This would provide the Bengals veteran experience and versatility in this positional unit.

Terence Newman

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    Last season, aging veteran Terence Newman proved that he still has plenty left in the tank, as he provided a great complement to incumbent starter Leon Hall.

    Newman had one of his best seasons in years thanks to the tutelage of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer—the same man that coached him with the Dallas Cowboys.

    Even though the Bengals drafted Dre Kirkpatrick with the 17th overall selection in the 2012 draft, he played in only five games last season, mostly on special teams.

    Kirkpatrick vowed to get into the starting lineup next season, but having a veteran back in the fold—one who has proven to work in this system—is Cincinnati's best bet. Kirkpatrick is still a question mark at this point, and the Bengals do not want to head into the season guessing at cornerback.

    Newman can easily be brought back on a one-year deal at nearly the same salary he made in 2012—$825,000.

    This move would be cost-efficient and would provide depth at a position that proved to need plenty of it in 2012.

     

    Free-agent alternative: Antoine Winfield

    A 14-year NFL veteran, Winfield was released by the Minnesota Vikings early in the free-agency period. He is still very capable of playing a solid second corner position if he can stay healthy. He made $3 million last season but should settle for less after being cut and wanting the chance to play for a contender.

Andre Smith

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    Andre Smith was allowed to walk into free agency due to his insanely high demand of $9 million per season. Now that he has tested the waters and has not received so much as a nibble from another team, expect him to bring some perspective to his demands.

    Smith had a great 2012 campaign and was ranked as one of the best right tackles in the league. He is certainly a cornerstone on the right side of the line next to Kevin Zeitler.

    If Smith can keep up the same level of play he showed in 2012, he deserves a high pay day. However, many teams are concerned that he will not be able to be as productive as he has been in recent years.

    Bringing back Smith would be a bit of a gamble for the Bengals, but they do have the cap space to allow for a little bit of riskiness. If the Bengals were to re-sign him at a fair price—say $7 million per year—they would have a solid right side of the offensive line for years to come.

    This re-signing would also open doors in the draft, as Cincinnati would not have to look for a candidate at right tackle early on and can focus on other needs.

     

    Free-agent alternative: Eric Winston

    Winston is a very capable right tackle who was a salary cap casualty. He was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason, though his release had little to do with his performance in 2012. He made $4.9 million last season, which is a significant amount less than the asking price of Smith.

Adam Jones

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    Another great story at cornerback last season was the resurgence of Adam Jones. Not only did Jones admirably fill the slot corner position, but he also proved to be a valuable asset as a punt returner.

    Because the Bengals can use Jones at multiple positions, he should be a primary target to re-sign. Bringing him back into the fold reduces the need for not only a cornerback but also return specialist.

    With Brandon Tate unlikely to re-sign, the Bengals find themselves looking for a kick returner. Jones would be more than capable of doing so.

    Re-signing Jones also would help the Bengals narrow their focus in the upcoming draft. They would not have to target a particular running back solely because of his return capabilities. Re-signing a player who allows the Bengals more freedom in the draft and to develop their current core of talented, young players is a must.

    Jones would be another value signing as he does not demand a high salary. The fit is right and the price is right. The Bengals would do well to bring him back immediately.

     

    Free-agency alternative: Chris Carr

    Carr would be a great equivalent to Jones in this scenario. Like Jones, he also doubles as a punt returner and also would not demand a high price tag. Carr made $825,000 in 2012, which would not hurt the Bengals cap at all. 

Chris Crocker

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    The Bengals struggled throughout the 2012 season at the strong safety position. Four different players—Chris Crocker, Nate Clements, Jeromy Miles and Taylor Mays—were tried out at the position.

    Clements is currently a free agent and unlikely to be brought back. Miles has returned but is expected to have a prominent role only on special teams. Mays has not adjusted well to the NFL level, and coaches are still trying to figure out how to utilize him.

    Crocker was the one bright spot at the position in 2012. He had 41 tackles, one fumble recovery and three interceptions in limited playing time last season. He is a savvy veteran who is capable of leading a secondary.

    The Bengals are likely to draft a safety early this year due to the depth and talent at the position. Even if the rookie would be a starter from day one, Crocker would be an excellent backup and mentor at the position.

    With a very low price tag, Crocker should be brought back for the aforementioned purposes. He is very capable of stepping in and playing when needed but also has a great football IQ, which would allow him to serve a purpose on the sidelines as well.

     

    Free-agency alternative: Atari Bigby

    Bigby has a good amount of experience in the NFL and can easily step into a starting role and contribute when needed. He may have a slightly higher price tag than Crocker, but he is still easily affordable, having made $2.5 million in 2012.  

    Bigby would certainly be suitable in meeting the needs that Crocker until now has fulfilled.