Bengals busy, productive in opening days of free agency

Might unrestricted free agent defensive tackle Nick Fairley end up in a Bengals uniform next season?

Raj Mehta

CINCINNATI — As Clint Boling stood talking with reporters about the new contract he had just signed to keep playing left guard for the Bengals, behind him strolled a team employee leading a well-dressed Nick Fairley through the locker room. The unrestricted free agent defensive tackle was on an official business trip visiting the Bengals. The two parties are checking each other out to see if there is a possible fit. A minute or so later head coach Marvin Lewis walked through the doors with newly signed free agent linebacker A.J. Hawk.

Then the news that Tampa Bay had released former Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson one year after signing him to a five-year deal hit the wires. It’s no secret the high admiration the Bengals still hold for Johnson.

It’s been a busy first 24 hours of free agency at Paul Brown Stadium. Busier than most years. And productive.

The Bengals made the re-signings of Boling and right guard Eric Winston as well as Hawk’s signing official on Wednesday. They also announced that cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris had signed his one-year tender offer as an exclusive right free agent. Add in the re-signings of linebacker Rey Maualuga and kicker Mike Nugent and in the last six days the Bengals have gotten off to a success start when it comes to addressing their offseason needs.

"I’m glad we’re able to preserve our guys," said Lewis. "With Mike Nugent, with Maualuga, with Clint and now with adding A.J. and some other things we’ll continually do because there are still some other of our guys that are core members of the football team that we’ll hopefully get signed and get back here."

The re-signing of Boling and Winston means the offensive line will return intact, potentially stronger. Center Russell Bodine will be entering his second season, while right guard Kevin Zeitler is coming off his best season. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth continues to be one of the best in the game. Winston was signed the first week of December as a replacement for Andre Smith at right tackle after Smith suffered a torn triceps muscle. Smith is expected to return healthy this season but he will have to earn the starting spot from Winston.

"He was a guy who came in here with his sleeves rolled up ready to go to work, so he fit us," said Lewis about Winston. "That’s what this football team has been about, we’ve got to continue to be about and we’ve got to do a better job of being better at it. That’s just roll up our sleeves and go to work and fight through every step of the way and that’s the kind of guy Eric is."

Boling was a fourth-round draft choice out of Georgia in 2011 and has started 44 games the last three seasons. He suffered an ACL tear late in the 2013 season but returned and started all 16 games last season, including twice at right tackle after Smith was injured.

Hawk landing in Cincinnati

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Boling’s deal is for five years and has a total worth of $26 million.

"There is a good foundation here I think we can continue to build and make a run in the playoffs," said Boling. "I would like to think we can do that. That’s going to be our goal. I wanted to be here. I like playing for Marvin, I like playing for Paul Alexander."

The pursuit of Fairley and the interest in Johnson points to the need to upgrade on the defensive line. The Bengals would be able to sign one but not both players. They are still going to look at the position in the draft.

Fairley was the No. 13 overall pick in the 2011 draft by Detroit but he has been sporadic in his productivity in four seasons. He was having a good season last year playing alongside Ndamukong Suh but suffered a knee injury and missed the final eight games of the season plus the playoffs at Dallas.

Johnson was the Bengals’ third-round pick in 2009 and started 45 of 63 games he played with Cincinnati before going to Tampa Bay last offseason. He was productive with the Bengals, including registering 26.5 sacks. Johnson is also expected to draw interest from Minnesota, where former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is the head coach.

Lewis said that while the Bengals still have moves to make, they will do so within reason. Deals will have to make sense for both sides.

"You’ve got to credit upstairs, you have to credit management and the way we’ve continually been able to go about this," said Lewis. "They’ve done a great job of getting these guys signed and in here but (plus) the fact that we’ve been able to put a football team together where we try to hold the line and hold course and not do deals that later on either party is unhappy with, particularly the club where you have to then jettison guys.

"I think when guys look around the locker room they know that if they continue to do things the right way they’re going to have an opportunity to play through their contract and have the next opportunity ahead of them. I think that would be important for a player."

Getting his next opportunity was important for Hawk, who spent his first nine seasons in the NFL with Green Bay before being released last month. Getting a chance to play for an organization he grew up rooting for, back in the state where he played his high school and college football and with a former high school and college teammate in Nugent made it all that much better.

"Now that I’m officially here I can say yeah, it was definitely my first choice," said Hawk, who played at Centerville High School and Ohio State before being drafted in the first round by Green Bay in 2006. "It was almost like thinking hopefully if something doesn’t work out, some day it would be awesome to go back to Cincinnati. But I never really thought it would be a reality. So when the opportunity came this was 100 percent my first choice. Anyone in my close family knew that. My wife and I talked about it. It’s weird that it’s a reality now. It’s exciting for sure. I can’t wait to get started. Just being here and hearing people say I’m on the Bengals feels weird because when I was a little kid growing up I was going to Riverfront Stadium. This is great."