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 20 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.
Thursday we looked at Cincinnati’s free agency from the defensive side of the ball so today it’s time for the offense.
Free agents: Andre Smith, Dennis Roland
Using the franchise tag on Johnson was good news for Smith. After flopping his first two seasons with a contract holdout and then weight and injury issues, the 2009 first-round pick has become a top right tackle in the league the past two seasons. The combination of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and Smith give the Bengals an impressive set of bookends for their line and they would like to keep it that way. There is plenty of cap space available for the Bengals to get a deal done with Smith, who should command between $8 million – $9 million per year in this current market. Roland is a solid backup who the Bengals have often utilized as a third tight end in goal line packages.
Free agents: Richard Quinn, Brandon Tate, Andrew Hawkins (E)
The Bengals have tendered an offer to keep Hawkins, an exclusive rights player, who has gone from a St. Louis training camp castoff to a valuable receiver in Jay Gruden’s offensive scheme. He’s caught 74 passes for 796 yards and four touchdowns in his two seasons, including 51/533/4 last season. Tate has been serviceable as a returner on both punts and kickoffs, showing flashes of excitement as well as some bad decision-making. He’s had a chance to break into the receiving rotation but has been unable to do so. Quinn, a tight end, did not play in any games last season.
Free agents: Brian Leonard, Bernard Scott
Much like the receiver group, if the Bengals don’t re-sign either player and they go to another team it won’t be an insurmountable loss. They re-signed Cedric Peerman, a potential restricted free agent, who is a primary special teams contributor but who got a few more chances on offense last season and did well with those opportunities. Leonard has been good as a third-down player, handling his responsibilities with and without the ball (blocking) well and coming up with key first downs but his role became more diminished last season as starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis is capable of handling that load. Scott is coming off a torn ACL. The Bengals were hoping to use him more as a speed back to complement Green-Ellis but the injury threw those plans out the window.
Free agent: Bruce Gradkowski
He’s fit in well with the Bengals in his two seasons as Andy Dalton’s backup and would be fine in that role again. The Bengals have been grooming Zac Robinson on the practice squad for the last two years so, if he re-signs, Gradkowski could be in a battle for that No. 2 spot. With NFL teams always looking for quarterbacks some might offer a better chance to start for Gradkowski.
Free agents: Josh Brown, Mike Nugent
Nugent is trying to come back from a calf injury that sidelined him in December and brought Brown, who will be entering his 10th season, to town. All he did was earn AFC Special Teams Player of the Month honors and kick the Bengals into the playoffs with a 43-yard field goal at Pittsburgh with four seconds left in a 13-10 win. Brown had been out of the league last season until the Bengals called but his performance in December and the postseason should garner him more looks on the open market.
*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)