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

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Breaking Down Cincinnati Bengals' Salary-Cap Situation Heading into Free Agency
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
Player Age Position 2014 Cap Hit
A.J. Green 25 WR $6,264,394
Jermaine Gresham 25 TE $4,832,000
Domata Peko 29 DT $4,165,000
Rey Maualuga 27 LB $3,828,125
BenJarvus Green-Ellis 28 RB $3,000,000
James Harrison 35 LB $2,034,375
Terence Newman 35 CB $2,000,000
Andy Dalton 26 QB $1,659,063
Clint Boling 24 OL $1,509,362
Andrew Hawkins 27 WR $1,431,000
Vincent Rey 26 LB $1,431,000
Dane Sanzenbacher 25 WR $1,431,000
Vontaze Burfict 23 LB $570,333
Emmanuel Lamur 24 LB $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
Player Age Position 2013 Cap Hit
Michael Johnson 27 DE $11,175,000
Anthony Collins 28 OL $2,125,000
Brandon Tate 26 WR $966,000
Taylor Mays 26 LB/S $645,000
Brandon Ghee 26 CB $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).

Which player should be the Bengals' top priority?

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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.

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