There is no doubt that the Cincinnati Bengals‘ free agent right tackle Andre Smith is the top free agent available at his position this off-season. However, Smith is expected to cost the Bengals $9 million per season at the very least. That number may prove to be too much for the Bengals to commit, despite paying him over $7 million in the final year of his rookie season and despite having so much cap room available. The Bengals will have a salary structure in place to follow, which means they could be looking for a cheaper option than Smith in free agency.
Outside of Smith, there are plenty of viable options for the Bengals to explore. Ryan Clady, Gosder Cherilus, Will Beatty, Sebastien Vollmer, Phil Loadholt, Branden Albert, Sam Baker, Austin Howard, King Dunlap, Ryan Harris, Jermon Bushrod, Jake Long, Demetress Bell, Max Starks, Jonathan Scott and Will Svitek. Many of those players will be re-signed to contracts prior to free agency even begins, while others are exclusively left tackles. The Bengals will not want to move Andrew Whitworth to right tackle in order to incorporate a new left tackle. Should Smith sign elsewhere, the Bengals wouldn’t likely want any of the free agent tackles that would cost around the same price. That limits the top options to Cherilus, Vollmer, Loadholt, Howard, Dunlap, Harris, Bushrod and Svitek.
Cherilus would likely be the team’s primary target. Coming off of an excellent season, Cherilus is hitting the open market as one of the top right tackles available. He is not on the same level as Smith, but neither would he be seen as a major drop-off. Cherilus was taken 17th overall in the 2008 draft and has started 71 games since then. At 28 years of age, he offers the Bengals the veteran presence that would complement the rest of the roster, the offensive line in particular, while also still having many years of peak play ahead of him. Cherilus is the most polished option surpassed Smith, because he offers the least risk with as much reward as anyone else.
While nobody else offers the balance between risk and reward that Cherilus does, there are multiple other options who have his potential. Vollmer and Loadholt in particular could match Cherilus’ potential, or even surpass it. However, Vollmer’s career with the New England Patriots has been dogged by chronic back issues and Loadholt combines certain inconsistencies with the potential for a market to push his price above his value. Vollmer’s injury issues likely will never go away, but when healthy he has been an excellent player for the Patriots over the past four years. Loadholt has shown similar abilities on the field during his four years as a starter also. Both should be considered legitimate options after Cherilus on the open market.
Starting experience and future potential is always nice to find in a free agent, but not always is that combination affordable. Instead of making a move for someone who offers both, the Bengals could look to take on a cheaper option who doesn’t promise one of the two aspects. Each of Howard, Dunlap, Harris, Bushrod and Svitek have various ailments that work against their market value, but each also offers differing levels and kinds of promise to their next employer.