What Are the Bengals' Options with Their 2014 Free Agents?

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What Are the Bengals' Options with Their 2014 Free Agents?
Tom Uhlman/Associated Press
Linebacker Vincent Rey is one of the Bengals' highest-priority free agents for 2014.

The Cincinnati Bengals are one of the most financially prudent franchises in the NFL, which has helped them avoid the salary-cap pitfalls of other teams. That extends into 2014, when the Bengals are assumed to have $24 million in cap space—around $17 million based on their 2014 contracts (and a $126.3 million salary cap) and another $7 million in carryover cash from 2013. 

That means the Bengals have more freedom than most to re-sign their free agents, and they will have 15 when the league year begins in March (Spotrac lists running back Bernard Scott, but he was waived by the Bengals in September). Though they won't give new contracts to all of them, they do have enough cash on hand to retain the most important players.

Cincinnati Bengals 2014 Salary-Cap Situation
Expected 2014 Salary Cap $126.3 Million
Expected Bengals 2014 Cap Space $16,796,705
Bengals Carry-Over Cash from 2013 $7,199,907
Expected Bengals 2014 Cap Space $23,996,612

via Spotrac.com

Of their 15 impending free agents, the highest priorities are defensive end Michael Johnson, offensive lineman Anthony Collins, linebacker Vincent Rey, kick returner Brandon Tate and receiver Andrew Hawkins.

But will they all receive new contracts? Let's take a look.

 

Michael Johnson

Tom Uhlman/Associated Press
The Bengals won't be using the franchise tag on Michael Johnson this year. At $13 million, it would take up half of their cap space.

When defensive tackle Geno Atkins went down in Week 9, the entire Bengals front seven had to step up to fill the void. One of those players was starting defensive end Michael Johnson.

He handled the task well, ending his season with 56 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, three tackles for a loss, nine passes defensed, an interception and two forced fumbles. For his efforts, he was Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) fourth-ranked 4-3 defensive end on the year.

He is an integral part of the defense, but keeping him on the roster this year won't be easy. He is coming off a 2013 season that was played under the franchise tag, which gave him a one-year salary of $11.175 million—the biggest cap hit on the roster for the year. And he'll likely be looking for a contract worth around the same amount per season. 

Top-5 Salary-Cap Hits, 4-3 Defensive Ends, 2014
Rank Player Team Cap Hit
1. Mario Williams Bills $18.800 Million
2. Julius Pepper Bears $18.183 Million
3. Charles Johnson Panthers $16.420 Million
4. Chris Long Rams $14.900 Million
5. Will Smith Saints $13.902 Million

via OvertheCap.com

Looking at the salary-cap hits of the highest-paid 4-3 defensive ends in 2014 shows what the Bengals are up against. While Johnson would likely be willing to sacrifice a few million per year in salary for relative job security, the Bengals would still need to commit around $9 million per year in cap space to him.

With other players—A.J. Green, Vontaze Burfict and Andy Dalton—all in line for contract extensions in the next year or two, locking Johnson down to such a high salary could come at the detriment of the roster. The Bengals aren't historically a team that comes close to the salary cap and won't become one just to keep him around. 

Johnson had a good 2013 season, but it wasn't great. He's also 26 years old. And the Bengals have done an incredible job of building depth over the past few seasons, particularly on defense. Beyond Johnson, the team has defensive ends Carlos Dunlap, Robert Geathers, Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt under contract. All are talented, and none will command such a high paycheck in 2014 and beyond.

LM Otero/Associated Press
Instead of overpaying Johnson, the Bengals could develop younger players like Margus Hunt.

Johnson is good, but he's not an Atkins-type player. He's not the Bengals' defensive identity, though he does fit it quite well. He appears to be too expensive for the team to re-sign this year and the franchise tag, which is expected to be around $13 million this year, is also not an option. 

If the depth at defensive end were thin, the team would likely try to hammer out a deal with him and make the salary-cap situation work. But there's no need for the Bengals to keep Johnson this year.

 

Anthony Collins

Michael Keating/Associated Press
Anthony Collins should be the Bengals' highest-priority in-house free agent in 2014.

Offensive tackle Anthony Collins was mostly a bit player until starting left guard Clint Boling tore his ACL in Week 13. Then-starter at left tackle Andrew Whitworth was moved to left guard, while Collins was given the left tackle job as a result, and he held up his end of the bargain well. According to Pro Football Focus' numbers, he gave up nine hurries, one quarterback hit and no sacks during his tenure as a starter.

He also did this at the relatively low price of $2.125 million for 2013. As a depth offensive lineman, a deal paying him a similar amount per year would likely be acceptable to Collins as well as affordable for the Bengals. However, few teams possess a reserve tackle with his abilities. Those in the market for an offensive tackle could bring him aboard by making him a starter and paying him accordingly. 

That means that for the Bengals to retain him, they'll have to increase his salary. As ESPN.com's Coley Harvey pointed out in December, a new deal could be similar to Whitworth's in 2011. He got a three-year deal, with salaries of $4.5 million for the first two years and, because of an extension, $5 million for 2014 and 2015.

David Kohl/Associated Press
Andrew Whitworth's deal could be a template for Anthony Collins.

This, too, is doable for the Bengals. It would be far smarter, both financially and for the health of the roster, for the team to focus on negotiating with Collins this offseason rather than trying to find a way to pay Johnson. Cincinnati has far more depth on defense than it does on the offensive line. 

Collins can play both right and left tackle and handled transitioning to a starting job on an offensive line that ranked second in pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus, or third, according to Football Outsiders.

It would cost the Bengals more on the field than it would on their pocketbook to give Collins a new contract and substantial pay raise. Look for him to be their biggest offseason priority. It would be surprising if they let him test the free-agency market.

 

Brandon Tate

Al Behrman/Associated Press
Brandon Tate is solely a return specialist, but that doesn't mean the Bengals can afford to let him leave.

Though billed as a wide receiver, Brandon Tate's value to the Bengals is as a kick and punt returner. He had just two receiving targets in 2013 and a lone, six-yard catch. However, he also had a combined 1,250 punt- and kick-return yards and graded out to be Pro Football Focus' third-best return specialist for the season.

He played on a one-year deal for the 2013 season, which was worth $715,000 in base salary and bolstered by a $251,000 bonus. It was a respectable sum for a specialist, but it's significant to note that he was signed for just a single season. Tate could thus be viewed as expendable this offseason, despite the advantages in field position that his returns have afforded the offense.

However, good return specialists are not a dime a dozen. Yes, the Bengals also have cornerback Adam Jones, who returned 11 punts for 88 yards in the 2013 season, and running back Cedric Peerman, who returned four kickoffs for 66 yards, but neither is on Tate's level.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Yes, Adam Jones can return punts, but he's also needed in the defensive secondary.

While the team has other, speedy players who could take over return duties, like receiver Marvin Jones and running back Giovani Bernard, they are so integral to the offense that having them return kicks and punts seems like an unnecessary risk. Peerman is one of the Bengals' leading special-teams tacklers, while Jones played 994 of a possible 1,048 defensive snaps. 

Therefore, having a true specialist like Tate makes sense for the Bengals. He's not so valuable in other areas that, if he were to be injured, Andy Dalton would be down one of his most important targets or the defense would be minus a veteran defensive back. But he's valuable enough as a kick returner to warrant another short-term contract. 

Perhaps a two-year deal could be in order for him this offseason, simply because he's been such a consistent contributor, even in such a niche way. What Tate lacks in usefulness as a receiver, he makes up for as a returner. Although it wouldn't be a huge surprise if the Bengals don't retain his services in 2014, it would still be a mistake.

 

Vincent Rey

David Kohl/Associated Press
Including the playoffs, Vincent Rey played only 353 snaps this season. But he also had three starts and four sacks.

Before the 2013 season began, 2010 undrafted free-agent addition Vincent Rey had played just 114 defensive snaps, spending most of his time on special teams. In 2013, however, his role expanded. He had 353 total snaps and three starts in relief of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga while he recovered from an ACL sprain.

Even with minimal playing time, Rey notched four sacks and was the team's sixth-leading tackler with a total of 57. He even graded out as Pro Football Focus' ninth-best interior linebacker, ranking higher than the likes of Indianapolis' Jerrell Freeman and Seattle's Bobby Wagner.

He made just $630,000 in 2013 and is a restricted free agent in 2014. The Bengals can opt to tender him at a first-round rate, second-round rate or original-round rate.

Because he was an undrafted player, however, an original-round tender means the Bengals would receive no compensation if another team matches or beats the offer. A first-round tender is just too expensive relative to how much involvement Rey is projected to have in 2014. Thus, the second-round tender is the most reasonable option this year.

In 2013, a second-round tender gave a player a $2.023 million single-season salary. That's a significant increase on what Rey made in 2013 and not too far below the $3.875 million that Maualuga is set to make in 2014. That's also a lot of money for a backup, rotational linebacker and special-teams contributor.

But it may be worth it to the Bengals.

David Kohl/Associated Press
Rey Maualuga is an unrestricted free agent in 2015; Vincent Rey could replace him as starting middle linebacker at that time.

By giving Rey a second-round tender this year, they retain insurance for Maualuga as well as proven depth. Rey would get a respectable amount of money in return for no guaranteed job security.

In his favor is the fact that Maualuga is an unrestricted free agent in 2015. The Bengals may not be interested in paying him what he wants in 2015, and Rey provides them with leverage in would-be negotiations. Maualuga can either take a Bengals-friendly offer or move on, and the team would then have a chance to hammer out a deal with Rey, which should be a relative bargain.

Ultimately, $2 million-plus isn't an exorbitant price to hold onto Rey for 2014. He'll be a useful bargaining chip in any negotiations with Maualuga in 2015, and he has the potential to be his replacement. And his productive 2013 deserves at least the reward of the pay raise that comes with the second-round.

 

Andrew Hawkins

David Kohl/Associated Press
Andrew Hawkins didn't play until Week 9 of the 2013 season, and made $555,000 on the year.

Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins is also a restricted free agent in 2014. Like Rey, he's also an undrafted free agent, which means that an original-round tender would leave the Bengals vulnerable to losing him to another team without receiving any compensation in return.

Giving him a second-round tender, however, could be risky from a financial standpoint. He suffered an ankle injury in training camp in 2013 that he didn't return from until Week 9. He played just 175 snaps as a slot receiver, catching 15 of 19 passes thrown his way for 217 yards, 140 yards after the catch and no touchdowns. 

Is that worth more than $2 million to the Bengals in 2014? Probably not. The other option is to give him a multi-year contract that pays him closer to the $555,000 he made in 2013. Even $1 million per season in a cap hit in order to lock him down for a year or three would be a better financial decision than just tendering him in the spring.

The Bengals could also not give Hawkins a tender or a contract and let him leave in free agency. In that event, they would have to replace him in the draft. Or they could instead sign receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, who is also a restricted free agent this year and made $555,000 last year.

But if the Bengals prefer Hawkins to remain their slot receiver for 2014, a contract would be more affordable and make more sense than a tender. 

 

Other Free Agents

Here's the list of the Bengals' other 2014 free agents and whether they are restricted or unrestricted:

The Rest of the Bengals 2014 Free Agents
Player Position UFA/RFA
Tank Johnson DT UFA
Taylor Mays S UFA
Brandon Ghee CB UFA
Mike Pollak G UFA
Alex Smith TE UFA
Dane Sanzenbacher WR RFA
Chris Crocker S UFA
Dennis Roland OT UFA
Zoltan Mesko P UFA
Ogemdi Nwagbuo DT UFA

via Spotrac.com

Note: Salary information courtesy of Spotrac.

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