Bengals continue to make smart moves

CINCINNATI – Monday was all about the future for the Bengals.

The team first wrapped up dealings with its rookie draft class when it signed first-round tight end Tyler Eifert to a four-year contract. Later in afternoon, shortly after the NFL deadline to sign franchise player Michael Johnson to a long-term deal passed, they reportedly came to terms with fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap on a six-year extension.

Training camp begins one week from Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium. At that point all attention will be on the present, but Monday was another example of the Bengals setting themselves up for future success through the business side of their operations.

Yes, you can re-read that last sentence again, out loud if you want. The franchise that used to be scoffed at for its spendthrift ways has repeatedly shoved that reputation aside the past half-dozen years with smart, calculated moves.

The Bengals were able to identify and re-sign 14 of 23 players from last year’s team who were due to become unrestricted free agents. Among the signings were multi-year deals with punter Kevin Huber, right tackle Andre Smith and cornerbacks Terence Newman and Adam Jones.

Since 2008, the Bengals have been able to work extensions for cornerstone players such as left tackle Andrew Whitworth (twice), defensive tackle Domata Peko, cornerback Leon Hall and center Kyle Cook that helped set up the current run of three playoff appearances in four seasons. Monday’s news continues that pattern.

The signing of Eifert was expected to happen before camp opened. With the new CBA between the league and players’ union there is no reason for any rookie holdouts any more. Rookie contracts are more slotted, ala the NBA, and there isn’t a whole lot of negotiating room in the final numbers, only the structure. Joel Corry, a former agent who is now a contract and salary cap expert writing for The National Football Post, said Eifert’s deal should be worth $8.256 million with a signing bonus just shy of $4.4 million.

“I just listened to what my agent was saying and taking it from there, but I don’t think there was ever any worry we wouldn’t get it done before training camp,” said Eifert Monday afternoon in a conference call with Cincinnati media. “If (offseason workouts) is any indication, I took a lot of reps. We ran a lot of two tight end formations, so as far as I know I’ll be able to get on the field and contribute here.”

The Bengals used their franchise tag, worth $11.175 million for one year, on Johnson after he had a career-high 11.5 sacks last season to go along with 25 quarterback pressures, seven tackles for loss, three pass breakups and 70 tackles. The former third-round pick out of Georgia Tech has gone from potential to a reliable every-down player who is also a force in the Bengals formidable pass rush.

There was a desire on both sides to get a long-term deal completed before Monday’s NFL-mandated 4 p.m. deadline. It didn’t happen. Johnson will again be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after this season, as will six of the other seven franchised players around the league who couldn’t get long-term deals done with their teams. The Bengals moved on to completing a deal with Dunlap. Pro Football Talk reported the extension to be worth $40 million, including $18.7 million over the next year.

Dunlap was a second-round pick in 2010 and would have been eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after this season. He had 55 tackles, six sacks, 27 quarterback pressures, four pass breakups, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries last season in 14 games played. He has started just twice in 40 career games, including postseason, but has 20 sacks and 10 pass breakups. In many ways he and Johnson are similar; their speed, physical size and arm length make them difficult to slow down in pass rushing situations while they have improved as run defenders. 

All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins is the logical next long-term contract extension target for the Bengals. Atkins, a fourth-round pick in 2010, would undoubtedly be given the franchise tag by the Bengals next offseason before he could command top dollars as an unrestricted free agent. That’s a scenario neither side wants.

The Bengals also have to look another year down the road when the possibility of quarterback Andy Dalton, All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green, tight end Jermaine Gresham and linebacker Vontaze Burfict becoming free agents hits.

Monday’s news allows them to look at that future.