According to Mike Jurecki on Twitter, the Cincinnati Bengals are expected to have roughly $55 million of cap space entering next season. That is substantially more than most teams in the league, with the Cleveland Browns ($49 million), Indianapolis Colts ($46 million) and Miami Dolphins ($36 million) the next closest and most teams having less than $20 million. Although most fans’ thoughts will be engulfed in what-ifs after the team’s loss to the Houston Texans in the first round of the playoffs, this is the time of the year to start looking forward to the off-season and exploring what the franchise can do to improve.
The Bengals will certainly have plenty of options, but a large chunk of that cap space will likely be owed to Geno Atkins and AJ Green, who are both coming off of stellar seasons when they severely outperformed their rookie contracts. Atkins is entering the final year of his rookie deal, so the Bengals will be desperate to give him a new deal this off-season. Being that he has had a defensive player of the year-worthy season, Atkins and his agent can command a huge fee from the Bengals. Prior to last season, the Baltimore Ravens paid rewarded Haloti Ngata with a five year contract worth $61 million.
Ngata was the top interior defensive lineman at the time and perceived as a crucial part of the Ravens’ future. Atkins is in that exact position now with the Bengals. Even though JJ Watt may be the best interior lineman in the NFL, he is not so far ahead of Atkins that his agent can’t argue his case. Watt isn’t likely to get a new deal this off-season, so it would be prudent for the Bengals to do a deal with Atkins this off-season in case Watt gets a massive deal next off-season that bloats Atkins’ price even further. Furthermore, the Bengals won’t want their star defensive tackle to hit free agency nor would they want to franchise tag him.
Instead, the Bengals should be willing to lock up Atkins to a similar deal that Ngata has. Not just the numbers, but also the distribution of the money. Ngata was paid $40 million over the first two seasons of his five year deal, making him a cap friendly piece over the next three seasons. With the Bengals having a young roster full of talented players who will need to be re-signed over the coming seasons, not to mention the addition of any marquee free agents and draft picks, they would be smart to use this season’s excess space for the benefit of long-term cap friendly contracts. Should the Bengals give Atkins the same deal as the Ravens gave Ngata, it wouldn’t hurt them in the short term because of their excess space, while also tying a superstar player down to an affordable contract.
That is the same motivation that would be behind a deal with Green. Green is only entering his second off-season as a professional, but has established himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL and only looks to be getting better. Because Calvin Johnson signed a ridiculous $132 million deal last year and Larry Fitzgerald signed a $120 million deal previously, getting Green tied down to an affordable contract is going to be very difficult. Instead of fighting over numbers, the Bengals could manage Green’s money this year with big bonuses to lower the salary at a later point.
Even if the Bengals go to the extreme and give both Green and Atkins $20 million apiece this off-season, they would still have $15 million to use on draft picks and free agents to improve the roster. That is as much, if not more than, most teams in the league. The other option is to keep Green and Atkins at their cheaper rates this year and sign multiple marquee free agents to make one Super Bowl run this season. That isn’t exactly a fool proof plan because it risks losing Atkins next year and doesn’t guarantee anything–see also the Philadelphia Eagles.