NFL Free Agency 2011: Analyzing All of the Cincinnati Bengals' Offseason Moves

Matt GrayContributor IJuly 31, 2011

NFL Free Agency 2011: Analyzing All of the Cincinnati Bengals' Offseason Moves

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    As the Cincinnati Bengals make their way down to Georgetown, Ky., this weekend, a number of questions still remain about where the team will go from here. With many of these questions unanswered and with some disappointing outcomes to address, what was previously regarded as a promising offseason for the rebuilding Bengals has produced a number of questions they might not know how to answer.

    For many Bengals fans, it had seemed as if Marvin Lewis had a new foothold on the team, seemingly breaking new ground with owner Mike Brown in 2011. Yet following the Bengals moves—or lack thereof during free agency—the number of fans ready to grab their pitchforks and storm Paul Brown Stadium shows that yet again very little has changed.  

    That's not to say it's all negative, however. With a number of signings and trades that have been widely regarded as smart moves and a roster chock full of young talent, there remains a glimmer of hope for the future.

Chad Ochocinco Traded to New England Patriots

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    It seemed (for a small moment at least) that the sports media had forgotten all about Nnamdi Asomugha on Thursday afternoon, and who other than the King of Social Media, Chad Ochocinco, to make it happen.

    After Twitter buzzed with sightings of No.85 flying out of CVG airport on his way to Boston, the news became official that the New England Patriots had traded a fifth-round pick in 2012 and a sixth-round pick in 2013 to acquire Ochocinco, who agreed to a three-year deal.

    So on the day that A.J. Green put pen to paper and became the Bengals' new No. 1 receiver, Cincinnati bids farewell to the long-tenured Chad Ochocinco. But is it a fond farewell or are Bengals fans happy to see the back of him?

    Only time will tell how Ochocinco is remembered by the Bengals faithful, though many believe his antics overshadowed his on-field talent, there are some who view Chad as a great football player who was often used as a scapegoat for an organization for which he was but a scratch on a rapidly sinking ship.

    Whether you love him or you hate him, Ochocinco is the most prolific and successful Bengals receiver of all time and his achievements will hopefully provide A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson with motivation and something to aspire to as their careers develop.

    In terms of whether trading Ochocinco was a smart move for the team, I believe it was.

    As much as I like Ochocinco as a person, his past three years in Cincinnati have seen a significant decline in production and in drive. While I believe he will see his best years in New England, he most certainly wouldn't have seen them if he had remained in Cincinnati.

    With the Bengals in a transition phase, this parting will prove mutually beneficial. With players like Andrew Whitworth and Domata Peko emerging as locker-room leaders and young talents such as Jerome Simpson ready to take the next step, Ochocinco's relevance had come to an end. 

Johnathan Joseph Joins the Houston Texans

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    In the past few months the Bengals organization and its fans have slowly but surely gotten over the departure of Carson Palmer, and with the arrival of Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and a new offensive coordinator, things were starting to look somewhat brighter. The Bengals' draft was seen as one of the league's most solid, and the coach seemed intent on continuing that stable and smart decision-making into free agency and beyond. 

    And for a second there, we did too.

    On Thursday night Johnathan Joseph, the man the Cincinnati Bengals had named their No. 1 priority to re-sign, signed with the Houston Texans. It proved to be yet another kick in the teeth for Bengals fans and another reminder that Mike Brown is still very much in charge, and is still very much Mike Brown.

    Joseph's deal has been reported as five years and $48.75 million, with $23.5 million guaranteed. While the Bengals aren't forced to spend until 2013 and are always modest with their purse strings, one would assume they would do everything to lock up a guy they labeled as integral to their 2011 team?

    At what point did Johnathan Joseph go from being the team's No. 1 priority to being not worth that amount of money? More to the point, how did we lose him to a team that goes 8-8 every year?

    So once again the collective scorn of Bengals fans has found itself centered on Mike Brown, and it seems we're not the only ones left scratching our heads, as upon arrival to Georgetown, Ky., Mike Zimmer had the following to say: "I was under the assumption from all conversations that he would be back. I've been in the tank since six last night but I have to get out of it now."

    To say Zimmer's comments resonate with Bengals fans would be an understatement.

    It has become clear in the moments since Joseph signed with Houston that Bengals fans are not happy at all, and there has arguably been a dark cloud hanging over a team that was previously thought to be a newer, smarter and more professional Bengals.

    While the Bengals have since rectified this situation through signing Nate Clements, it seems as though they have somewhat scrambled to make up for a significant lapse in judgement.

Nate Clements Fills the Void

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    Pro Bowl corner and former Ohio State Buckeye Nate Clements came to terms with the Cincinnati Bengals Saturday evening on a day that the first practice of training camp was largely washed out both literally and figuratively by a storm we shall refer to as Storm Joseph.

    Whether or not Mike Brown was hoping that the Bengals would make do with the corners they already have on the team (Ghee, Wade, Jones and Trent), the media fanfare that chastised the Bengals for one of the worst moves of free agency, coupled with frustrated comments from the likes of Mike Zimmer (that one can assume were a lot less reserved behind closed doors) and a general team-wide disheartenment about Joseph's departure, may have contributed to the acquisition of the former San Francisco 49er.

    Selected by the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the 2001 draft, Clements has steadily stacked up 33 career interceptions and at one time or another has been considered one of the league's top cornerbacks. Released by the 49ers to free up cap room, Clements has spent his last four seasons at Candlestick Park, where last year he logged 82 tackles, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. 

    Clements will be the favorite to win out a training camp battle for Joseph's roster spot, with other main contender Adam Jones still in a neck brace and likely unable to practice at all down at Georgetown. During Saturday night's No. 1 defensive unit practice, Jonathan Wade played alongside Leon Hall (a telling sign that the Bengals needed some help).

    While one can be sure that Clements will bring a high level of skill to his position, he is three years older than Joseph, whose best years are arguably still ahead of him. Whether or not Joseph can be as good as Clements is yet to be seen, and the Bengals have taken a chance in letting things go the way they have. Right now, Clements is the better play, and Lewis & Co. know they have just pulled off a great save.

    The Bengals needed to bring someone in to fill the void, and Clements has gotten as close to making Bengals fans forget about Johnathan Joseph as anyone not named Nnamdi could. Coach Lewis had the following to say about the team's newest acquisition:

    “You watch him play and see how smart of a player he is. He’s a fine, fine player. He’ll be 32 at the end of December. He’s been a great cover player. A fine player up in Buffalo and then out there and continued it. He just wanted to get into a situation where he felt good and comfortable.”  

Antwan Odom Released

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    Early on Friday, news broke through Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer that the Bengals had released defensive end Antwan Odom.

    While Odom had his moments, most notably his franchise record-equalling five quarterback sacks against Green Bay in 2009, he will probably be remembered as having been one of the most disappointing free agent signings (well...except Antonio Bryant). The Bengals signed Odom to a five-year deal worth $29.5 million with $11.5 million guaranteed.  

    During his time in Cincinnati, Odom missed 26 of a possible 48 games due to a multitude of injuries, as well as serving a two-game ban for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

    While Odom is unlikely to be missed, his impact may well have been felt in other areas, such as within the Johnathan Joseph negotiations. Meaning being, Mike Brown is unlikely to hand over an even pricier five-year deal when the one he just handed to Odom went so utterly wrong.

A.J. Green Signs, Reports to Camp on Time

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    One piece of news emerging this week that went almost unnoticed was the signing of A.J. Green, the Bengals' first-round pick and No. 4 overall draft choice. Green agreed to a four-year contract worth $19.6 million in guaranteed money. It's also interesting to note Green was the first of the top-five 2011 NFL draft picks to sign on the dotted line. 

    It comes as welcome relief to Bengals fans as Green becomes the team's first first-round pick to arrive on time to training camp since Johnathan Joseph in 2006. 

    It seems A.J. is making all the right moves here, and although we haven't seen enough of him to conclusively judge his character just yet, what we have seen of him has been decidedly positive. He is certainly conducting himself professionally. 

    Through such avenues as NFL.com's Everything to Prove series and his press conferences at Paul Brown Stadium, Green has appeared humble, hard-working and reserved. In other words, Green is worlds away from a certain big-name receiver who just left the Bengals ranks, and that's just what the team needs going forward.

    Did I forget to mention he's a damn fine football player? Green is one of the few aspects of the 2011 Cincinnati Bengals that has us fans genuinely excited, and rightly so. 

Howard Added to Bolster Defense

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    In the wake of Johnathan Joseph's departure, the Bengals added up-and-coming linebacker Thomas Howard, who, like most Bengals signings, had fallen out of favor with his old team (Oakland Raiders). Howard needed a fresh start and the Bengals are the perfect place for him to get it. 

    With a contract worth $6.5 million over two years, Howard is expected to compete for a starting position right away. He's a physical and durable guy and will be incredibly valuable to a Bengals defense prone to injury, having started all but two games of his first four seasons as a Raider.

    Criticisms are often levied at his difficulty in shedding his blockers and a general uneasiness at the point of attack, as well as his tendency to over-pursue and taking himself out of plays, but new scenery often heralds new results and the hope is that Howard can improve and establish himself in Cincinnati and become the defensive fixture that the Raiders hoped he would be. With undeniable natural attributes, the Bengals could place Howard on the strong or weak side, it's likely that this is something that Mike Zimmer will play around with in camp.

    Howard's signing is a respectable move on the part of the Bengals front office.

    It will be interesting to see how he takes advantage of the opportunity to start once again and become as big a part of a defense after spending a large proportion of 2010 on special teams. Howard has all the tools to make his way into the starting lineup and will be an interesting prospect to watch over the coming weeks.

Bruce Gradkowski Brought in to Play Mentor

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    Another solid move came early in the process, with the Bengals agreeing to terms with Bruce Gradkowski. You would struggle to count the amount of times Lewis & Co. have used the phrase 'due diligence' in reference to the possibility of the Bengals adding a veteran QB this offseason, and add one they did.

    The Bengals made an unsurprising, safe and smart move by bringing in Gradkowski, a man who new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden described as "reliable and mentally tough and ready to go every week. I think he's a great role model (for Dalton)." 

    Gradkowski is familiar with the Gruden offense having played under Jon and Jay in Tampa Bay, and this knowledge will prove to be an invaluable resource to the rookie.

    Whether Gradkowski sees any playing time or not is something for a later date. He's certainly got the toughness to lead a football team and has proved so on several occasions, and let's not forget the two victories against Marvin Lewis' Bengals that he was responsible for.

    Either way Gradkowski is a great quarterback to tutor Andy Dalton. He's a guy that has had to fight for every chance he's had in the NFL, and that in itself is something for Dalton to take on board and learn from. It also helps that Gradkowski is new to Cincinnati too, meaning (for the cynical crowd) he hasn't endured years of disillusionment and frustration in the Queen City that would be detrimental to the grooming of a new quarterback. That would be something that would cause concern if Carson Palmer were to be playing the role of tutor.

    To summarize, Gradkowski is a solid backup, a great character guy and he knows the Gruden Way—all in all, a smart move from the Bengals.  

Every Draft Pick Signed

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    It is commendable that the Cincinnati Bengals have managed to get every one of their 2011 draft picks signed and on their way to Georgetown before the weekend is over. With a relatively drama-free free agency/signing period, it was left to the weather to bring the drama on the first day of scheduled practice. 

    While it's impossible to give a definitive reason for the Bengals' relative ease at bringing their picks on board, one can point to the labor dispute and player frustrations that came with it, as contributing to a desire of wanting to get back to football as quickly as possible when the time came. While there isn't a league-wide consensus on that, it certainly seems that way in Cincinnati.

    With a young and hungry bunch of guys heading into 2011, there seems to be an aura of excitement and desire to get going that hasn't been present in Cincinnati for some time. Whether it will continue in such a manner when problems arise during the season, only time will tell.

    Dontay Moch's singing completes eight of eight with Clint Boling (OL), Robert Sands (FS), Ryan Whalen (WR), Korey Lindsey (CB) and Jay Finley (RB) all under contract.

    With rookies that make up what was widely considered a pretty solid draft class, the Bengals will be interesting to watch in training camp. With more roster spots available than in previous years, open competition seems to be the phrase of the day. With the Bengals becoming younger and younger, some may get the opportunity to contribute earlier than expected.

Andy Dalton Signed and Ready to Lead

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    The Andy Dalton era got off to a promising start on Saturday with new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden commenting on how impressed he was with Dalton:

    "Overall, for (Dalton's) first time in a professional uniform with different receivers he's never thrown to and a different tempo, new plays, it was impressive, I thought. He was calm, confident. He missed a few throws but for the most part he ran the show."

    Dalton's deal is reported to be worth $5.2 million over a four-year period, and is somewhat of a steal for a starting quarterback. As I mentioned in the previous slide, it's promising to see this year's draft class eager to join the ranks of the team quickly.

    This year's truncated offseason does not cater well to rookie quarterbacks; Dalton knows this and seems to be doing all of the right things as practices begin. With slightly less time to prepare than usual and a rookie wage scale in full effect, there would be little use in holding out for more money. This isn't to say Dalton would if he could (being a second-round pick after all), with solid character and drive displayed thus far, Bengals fans can be enthused that they have someone under center who actually want to be there...

    Following his first practice Dalton seemed to be coming to grips with the Bengals' new identity on offense, understanding the mammoth task ahead of him.

    "I'm trying to show everybody I've got confidence," Dalton said. "It's how it was scripted. Run the ball well, trying to get the ball out of our hands quick, and trying to get the ball to our guys. I think that's how our offense is going to be. We've got so many great playmakers. We're just going to spread the ball around."

Notes

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    The Bengals also came to terms on new deals for the following restricted free agents:

    Jordan Palmer (QB)

    Kyle Cook (C)

    Nate Livings (G)

    Dennis Roland (T)

    And the following exclusive-rights free agents:

    Quan Cosby (WR)

    Clark Harris (LS/TE)

    Tom Nelson (S)

    Cedric Peerman (RB)

    Dan Skuta (LB)

    The Bengals also cut Clint Stitser (K) and Shay Hodge (WR) 

State of the Franchise as Camp Begins

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    As training camp gets fully underway, there remains unanswered questions within Bengaldom. Talks between the team and Cedric Benson are said to be ongoing but moving slowly, suggesting Cedric Benson had a bigger figure in mind than Cincinnati does. With Ahmad Bradshaw and Ronnie Brown and without teams, expect the Bengals to do their due diligence before coming to any sort of deal.

     The Bengals' next moves could likely come through extending the likes of Leon Hall and locking down one of the aforementioned running backs.

    *UPDATE* 31/7 According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, the Bengals have come to an agreement with Cedric Benson on one-year deal worth $3 million with up to $2 million in incentives.

    Something that has proved frustrating with Coach Lewis and Mike Brown is their over-reliance on players stepping up. It has given Bengals fans faith to see that they have chosen to bring in strong players from outside (Clements being the main example) more so than previous years, while steering clear of castoffs, to put it bluntly.

    Yet it seems that the 2011 Bengals are stranded somewhere between 'old habits die hard' and a desire for 'new beginnings,' which suggests that Bengals fans are no closer to finding out if Mike Brown will ever find stability than they were in 2005. That really is an answer in of itself.

    That's not to say all hope is lost, as with the pieces of the puzzle that we have so far there is certainly reason for optimism in Cincinnati, but maybe just not this year.

    While the Bengals have a fairly favorable schedule, growing pains are bound to be the topic of 2011. If Bengals fans want to know where to set their expectations, one might suggest a repeat of last year's 4-12; right now speculation is simply speculation, so take that for what it's worth.

    All I can say is at this point is that the Bengals have had a topsy-turvy free agency. While they made an error in letting Joseph get away, they made up for it by bringing in Clements. It will take some time to be able to come to conclusions about various aspects of how they approached this year, but with Chad Ochocinco gone and despite Carson Palmer being 'retired', there is optimism for the future once more, however far off that might be.

    While I wouldn't say the positives outweigh the negatives and vice versa, the Bengals are at the precipice of a new era, and it could go either way. It will most certainly take time and patience and if you're one of the few Bengals fan still watching, you know all bout the both of those two things...