Bengals free agency: Defense

The annual NFL shopping spree that is free agency begins next Tuesday at 4 p.m. It is no longer the Black Friday of owner and general managers jostling for positions at the front of the store, noses pressed up against the glass awaiting the doors to open but less flash doesn’t diminish the importance of the period as teams begin to set their rosters for the 2013 season.
Mike Brown and the Bengals have never been big players in free agency. They were long-chided for their preferred method of drafting, developing and re-signing their own players but that strategy – which has worked well for the likes of Green Bay, Pittsburgh and the New York Giants to name a few teams – has finally begun to reap benefits with consecutive playoff appearances.
The Bengals have 23 players who, unless they sign ahead of Tuesday will become unrestricted free agents plus a pair of restricted free agents (less than four years experience) and unsigned players who they hold exclusive rights (less than three years experience). Defensive end Michael Johnson was designated as the club’s franchise player last week when the 26-year-old was tendered a one-year, $11.2 million contract. Both sides are hoping for a long-term deal and have until July 15 to work that out. If no long-term contract is done by then, Johnson will play for the tendered one-year deal and the sides will have to wait until next offseason to begin negotiations again. 
Today we look at Cincinnati’s free agency from the defensive side of the ball. Friday will be the offense’s turn.
Defensive line
Free agents: Robert Geathers, Wallace Gilberry, Michael Johnson#, Pat Sims
Johnson has turned himself into an every-down player although what stands out and made it necessary for the Bengals to franchise tag him is the 11.5 sacks he had last season. The line has been the foundation of coordinator Mike Zimmer’s defense and Johnson is one the Bengals want to keep around, especially with All-Pro tackle Geno Atkins and end Carlos Dunlap entering the final years of their contracts. Geathers is entering his 10th season and will be 30 in August but don’t be surprised if he isn’t back in stripes in the fall. He might be under-appreciated by the general public but not the coaching staff. Gilberry was a nice addition as a September pickup, finishing with 6.5 sacks, one forced fumble, three fumble recoveries and a touchdown return. That could earn him a bigger paycheck elsewhere. When Pat Sims has been healthy he’s been productive in the rotation but the Bengals drafted Devon Still and Brandon Thompson last year. They had their red-shirt seasons and will be expected to take more prominent roles this season.
Free agents: Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson, Rey Maualuga, Dan Skuta, Vincent Rey (E)
The Bengals would like to bring back Howard, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear in practice on Sept. 13, but the rest of the unit is in flux. Maualuga has been the middle linebacker the past two seasons but a change of scenery may be exactly what he needs to begin flourishing. Zimmer would like to keep working with him but if he leaves the expectation is that Vontaze Burfict moves into the middle and allows Howard – if re-signed – to slide back into the WILL spot on the outside. The fact that Emmanuel Lamur saw his playing time increase the second half of the season and started the playoff game at Houston ahead of Lawson is a good sign the Bengals move on at that spot. Skuta and Rey are valuable special teams players, with Rey certain to be back as an exclusive rights player. 
Free agents: Nate Clements, Chris Crocker, Adam Jones, Terence Newman, Jeromy Miles (R)
Behind starting cornerback Leon Hall and safety Reggie Nelson, this unit is thin and if the Bengals go after another team’s free agent this is would be a good spot. Jones is the top target for the team to re-sign. How much his past reputation precedes him into the open market remains to be seen but he’s a player coming off a good season in which he showed more discipline in coverage and is dynamic in the return game. Dre Kirkpatrick, last year’s No. 1 draft choice, had an injury-plagued season and the hope is that he’s ready to go this season but a team can never have too many cornerbacks. Newman was solid last season, probably better than most expected him to be, and would be a candidate to be re-signed, as would Crocker, who brought some stability to the safety spot after the first couple of games. How much Clements has left in the tank is a good question. Miles is another special teams staple who will be back.  
Free agent: Kevin Huber
The Cincinnati native and UC grad is coming off his best season in 2012, when he set club single-season records by averaging 46.6 gross yards and 42.0 net yards on 76 punts. He had a plus-26 ratio of punts inside the 20-to-touchbacks (33-7) and his 11 punts inside the 5-yard line were the best in the NFL. He was a big reason the Bengals placed No. 2 in the annual special teams rankings of the Dallas Morning News’ Rick Gosselin. 
*All players are eligible to become unrestricted free agents unless otherwise noted as the franchise player (#), a restricted free agent (R) or exclusive rights free agent (E).