Cincinnati Bengals free agency 2017: Top 5 targets

Nov 6, 2016; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (90) tackles Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles (43) during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals look to bounce back from their dreadful 2016 NFL campaign. Here are five players they need to target in NFL free agency this spring.

The Cincinnati Bengals had one of their worst seasons in recent memory. For the first time since A.J. Green and Andy Dalton earned their tiger stripes, the Bengals missed the AFC Playoffs with a dismal 6-9-1 record.

Injuries wrecked this team more than anything, but last season’s struggles did open some eyes to areas where the Bengals need improvement. Not only do they have an ample array of picks coming in the NFL Draft, but Cincinnati has plenty of cap space to sign a big name free agent or two.

With their projected $45,034,345 of salary cap space, here are the five players the Bengals front office should target in free agency.

5

Andrew Whitworth

Offensive Tackle, Cincinnati Bengals

For much of the Marvin Lewis era in Cincinnati, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth has been a rock-solid piece in the Bengals’ front-five. Cincinnati drafted Whitworth in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft out of LSU. He has started 164 games up front for the Bengals in 11 NFL seasons.

Reliability, having averaged 14.9 starts per season, is a major reason that the Bengals should consider bringing back their franchise tackle for one final contract. The problem is that Whitworth turned 35 years old and could hit a wall here soon physically.

Tackle is a technique position, and while Whitworth is excellent in leverage principles, the Bengals have to believe that speed could be an issue for the aging offensive lineman. Add in that he is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons and Whitworth could be due a moderately sized contract for a guy entering his late 30s.

Whitworth made $9,000,000 on a one-year deal in 2016. Though still highly productive, Whitworth is too old to even think about commanding the projected $14.4 million franchise tag this spring. He wants to remain a Bengal, but don’t expect his contract negotiations to be run of the mill.

Can Cincinnati afford to retain Whitworth at a fair market price? Yes, but does the Bengals brass really want to pay a 35-year-old offensive tackle $10,000,000 this season? $8 million is about what Whitworth will garner from the Bengals. Is that enough to keep him around for a 12th year in the Queen City?

Jan 1, 2017; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko (94) watches during the second half against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 1, 2017; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko (94) watches during the second half against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

4

Domata Peko

Defensive Tackle, Cincinnati Bengals

Domata Peko has had quite the career playing for the Bengals. The former fourth-round pick out of Michigan State has made 156 starts on the defensive line for the Bengals since joining the team in 2006.

Peko is 32 years old and probably wants to return to the Bengals. Unlike his draft class buddy Whitworth, Peko won’t command nearly as much money in free agency this spring. Peko made $3,725,000 in the final year of his two-year deal with the Bengals.

Though younger than expected for an 11-year veteran, Peko may start to fade in the coming seasons in the NFL. The Bengals are at a crossroad in what they want to do up front defensively. Do they want to keep paying veterans like Peko or undergo a youth movement in the front-seven?

Re-upping with Peko for $4,500,000 annually would be on par with what he made in his last contract with the Bengals. However, the long-time nose tackle for Cincinnati could start to see a decline in his all-around level of play.

For the price he’ll command, it may be advantageous for the Bengals to bring him back for at least another season. Cincinnati doesn’t have a ton of needs to address this offseason and has the necessary cap space to re-sign Peko for a 12th season in Southern Ohio.

Nov 6, 2016; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (90) tackles Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles (43) during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 6, 2016; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (90) tackles Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles (43) during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

3

Jason Pierre-Paul

Defensive End, New York Giants

What seemed to hurt the Bengals last season was a lack of explosiveness on the defensive side of the ball. Yes, injuries were a factor, but might it be time that the Bengals go after a dominant pass rusher to ignite their front-seven?

One guy Cincinnati should definitely inquire about this free agency cycle is defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants. After losing some digits in a fireworks accident, Pierre-Paul rebounded with a strong season in the New York pass rush.

Pierre-Paul will be 28 in 2017 and could be looking at an eight-figure salary in his next contract. He has played out a pair of one-year deals with the Giants the last two seasons and could be done with them giving him the run-around. Pierre-Paul likely has one last big pay day before he exits his prime as a pass rusher.

New York could franchise tag him at around $17.0 million, but the Giants could get a deal done for slightly less than that if they exercise their leverage. However, New York is not in the best of shape with regards to the salary cap. The Giants will only have roughly $25,520,039 to use this offseason.

Being that the Bengals have nearly twice the cap space of the Giants, they could be one of the teams in need of a pass rusher that could pay a slight premium on Pierre-Paul to pry him away from New York.

Nov 1, 2015; London, United Kingdom; Detroit Lions tackle Riley Reiff (71) defends against Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tambi Hali (91) during game 14 of the NFL International Series at Wembley Stadum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 1, 2015; London, United Kingdom; Detroit Lions tackle Riley Reiff (71) defends against Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tambi Hali (91) during game 14 of the NFL International Series at Wembley Stadum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2

Riley Reiff

Offensive Tackle, Detroit Lions

The bulk of where the Bengals’ focus this offseason needs to be is in the trenches. Two of the biggest pieces the Bengals could lose this spring are on the offensive line. While Whitworth wants to be back in 2017, the same can’t be said for offensive guard Kevin Zeitler.

Should Cincinnati lose either one, it would be advantageous for them to pay top-dollar to sign an offensive lineman that is in his prime. One of the most obvious targets for the Bengals on the offensive line is Riley Reiff.

Reiff is a former first-round pick by the Detroit Lions in the 2012 NFL Draft out of Iowa. He has started 69 games in five seasons for the Lions and could be a player the Detroit brass considers franchise tagging. It would cost the Lions approximately $14.1 million to do so.

Being that Detroit has good cap flexibility at a projected $37,416,088, the Lions could afford to pay their veteran offensive lineman handsomely. However, slapping the franchise tag on Reiff would equate to doubling his 2016 salary for just one more guaranteed season that he would stick with the Lions.

Reiff will be in high demand this spring. He could very well return to Detroit. The Lions were a playoff team and have the pieces to make a return next year. If he does leave the Motor City, the Queen City would be a nice change of scenery for the former Hawkeye standout.

Sep 11, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson (22) celebrates a play against the New England Patriots at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Cardinals 23-21. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 11, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson (22) celebrates a play against the New England Patriots at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Cardinals 23-21. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

1

Tony Jefferson

Safety, Arizona Cardinals

It wasn’t just injuries that turned the Bengals’ season southward. They really missed Reggie Nelson at safety. He signed with the Oakland Raiders in free agency last season, exposing a gaping hole in the back-end of the Bengals’ defense.

While this isn’t the deepest free agency class of all-time, it does have several interesting players becoming available in the secondary. One guy that Cincinnati must target is Arizona Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson.

Jefferson went undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2013. He has definitely carved out a role in a deep Cardinals secondary that features players like Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. 2016 was Jefferson’s first season as a starter and he looks to turn that into a lot of money this offseason.

Is he worth the $11 million he would garner if slapped with the franchise tag? That’s debatable, as Jefferson has proven to be a good safety, but how much of a pay bump should he be getting in his first big deal as a professional?

Arizona is in good shape with the cap at a projected $35,468,965 to work with this spring. The Cardinals could very well exercise the franchise tag on Jefferson. Even if they don’t, Jefferson is poised to make close to eight figures this spring. He’d be ideal in Cincinnati at safety for the Bengals at the right price.

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