Breaking Down Cincinnati Bengals' Salary-Cap Situation Heading into Free Agency

Sean ODonnellContributor IIIMarch 5, 2014

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 21: Vontaze Burfict #55 and Michael Johnson #93 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrate after a tackle against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game at Paul Brown Stadium on October 21, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

On March 11, we enter the next phase of the 2014 NFL offseason—free agency. Some teams will be looking to make a huge splash and revamp their rosters with some high-profile names. Others will be more content with sitting back and allowing the draft to bolster their squads.

The Cincinnati Bengals are a team that falls into the latter category.

Not known for being big spenders during free agency, owner Mike Brown and the Bengals brass tend to provide deals to in-house players rather than spending big bucks on outside players. If the Bengals do bring in any free agents, it will be mainly to deepen the roster with some quality backups.

Money wise, the Bengals are in great shape heading into this part of the year. They currently have the ninth-most cap space in the NFL with over $27.5 million, according to Spotrac.com.

Despite having a good amount of free space, most of it will be allocated toward signing the team's own players to extensions. After all, this is the guideline that head coach Marvin Lewis' Bengals have been following since his arrival in Cincinnati.

Let's take a look at a few key players who are in a contact year and could get an extension shortly:

Cincinnati Bengals' Key Players in Contract Year
PlayerAgePosition2014 Cap Hit
A.J. Green25WR$6,264,394
Jermaine Gresham25TE$4,832,000
Domata Peko29DT$4,165,000
Rey Maualuga27LB$3,828,125
BenJarvus Green-Ellis28RB$3,000,000
James Harrison35LB$2,034,375
Terence Newman35CB$2,000,000
Andy Dalton26QB$1,659,063
Clint Boling24OL$1,509,362
Andrew Hawkins27WR$1,431,000
Vincent Rey26LB$1,431,000
Dane Sanzenbacher25WR$1,431,000
Vontaze Burfict23LB$570,333
Emmanuel Lamur24LB$495,000
Spotrac.com

Some of these players are in line for a huge pay raise. Others will not be rejoining the team unless it is at a discounted rate. A few will test the waters in free agency and find homes elsewhere. Also, a few restricted free agents remain on this list after the team placed tenders on them on Wednesday:

The Bengals may have their hands full if they choose to re-sign all of the aforementioned players. Several heavy price tags—like the big one afforded to Geno Atkins—will be on the horizon.

A.J. Green and Vontaze Burfict figure to eat a good chunk of the cap when they are awarded new deals within the next year. Cincinnati must be cautious during this year's free-agency period and keep part of the salary cap allocated toward new deals for these high-profile players.

Not only are these players in for some new deals in the near future, but before the team looks to its 2015 free agents, dealing with impending 2014 free agents becomes top priority.

Here's a look at some of the key free agents who will hit the market this year:

Key Bengals' 2014 Free Agents
PlayerAgePosition2013 Cap Hit
Michael Johnson27DE$11,175,000
Anthony Collins28OL$2,125,000
Brandon Tate26WR$966,000
Taylor Mays26LB/S$645,000
Brandon Ghee26CB$630,000
Spotrac.com

Obviously, the big name here is Michael Johnson. The franchise tag period came and went, and the Bengals elected not to use it on their defensive end for the second straight year.

The aforementioned big-name 2015 free agents are one of the big reasons why, as Coley Harvey of ESPN.com explains:

Because of the high number and high caliber of 2015 free agents, the Bengals would like to hold on to some of their cash this year in order to start making those deals now before they get too backlogged. That's one big reason why even though Johnson and Collins avoided getting tagged, they still may not be wearing stripes this fall. The Bengals may just find that they don't have enough in their coffers to keep these two and re-sign this offseason the one or two others on the horizon. 

There is a good chance that both of these players will hit the free-agent market and find new homes. Both demand high price tags; however, with the looming contract extensions of A.J. Green, Vontaze Burfict and Andy Dalton, it just may not be possible to keep them all.

Pete Prisco of CBS Sports indicated that despite the high price tag, the Bengals were actually looking into re-signing Johnson:

Most expect the Bengals to let defensive end Michael Johnson walk after giving Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins big deals last year. But I hear the Bengals will actually try to re-sign Johnson. They felt he played at a high level last season, even if his sack numbers were down. Johnson is good against the run. If he hits the market, he will see a lot of activity. He is 26, which means he has a lot of good football in front of him.

That would be great for Cincinnati—with Johnson, the team boasts one of the most formidable defensive lines in the NFL—however, with all the money already tied up in that area, it seems highly unlikely.

If the Bengals are to use some big bucks on one of their own free agents, expect them to target Anthony Collins.

At just 28 years of age, Collins has quickly elevated himself to a starting-caliber offensive lineman. He was ranked as the league's 24th overall offensive tackle in 2013 with a rating of plus-14.0, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Andrew Whitworth is 32 years old and has been dealing with injuries that caused him to miss two games last season. He is still a high-caliber player; however, the Bengals may be inclined to keep Collins around as an insurance policy, versatile backup and future starter.

Luckily for the Bengals, they are one of the deepest teams in the league. Unlike many other teams, they will not be forced to spend big during free agency for a chance to contend. As long as the franchise makes smart decisions with its own players, Cincinnati should be looking good heading into the 2014 season.

There may be a contract or two that will be signed in Cincinnati over the next several weeks; however, the Bengals will look to the draft to continue their solid showings in the AFC North.