The Cincinnati Bengals, like most teams, are flush with roster decisions to make this off-season. They have to decide what free agents to sign, which incoming rookies to draft and maybe most importantly, which of their own free agents to re-sign. The Bengals are reported to have more than $50 million in cap space and could make some big deals but with Geno Atkins, AJ Green and possibly Andy Dalton nearing much larger paydays, they have to be smart with that money. One of the bigger questions concerning roster moves is what they will do, if anything, with the franchise tag, which will allow the Bengals to hang onto a player that they’re unable to reach a long-term agreement with, at basically a one-year contract. If the team uses that designation this year, it’s likely to be on one of two players.
The first option is right offensive tackle Andre Smith. A former top-10 draft selection, Smith has blossomed into one of the best right tackles in the NFL and is due a very big raise. The Bengals have developed into a yearly contender in the AFC North, with the ascension of the offensive line into one of the elite units in the league as one of the main catalysts. With left tackle Andrew Whitworth aging, they would certainly love to keep Smith in the fold but might be unable to negotiate a deal. The franchise tag would keep him in Cincinnati for at least the 2013 season.
The second candidate is defensive end Michael Johnson. The defensive line has been one of the strengths of the team for the past few seasons and in 2012, Johnson was a major factor. He seemed to finally put everything together, notching 11 1/2 sacks on the year. His speed and length have helped him develop into a consistent threat and a player that needs to be watched. He has earned himself a hefty contract this off-season but whether or not it’s in Cincinnati is yet to be determined.
Which one, if either, should get the tag? Obviously, the best answer would be to lock both into multi-year contracts, erasing the need to use it at all. If it becomes a question of having to choose a contract for one and the tag for the other, Johnson should get the tag. The concern with Johnson is that he was in a contract year and hasn’t yet replicated his numbers. A one-year tag would allow him to demonstrate he can sustain that excellence and be worth a big contract. The danger, of course, is that he has another big year and commands even more money from another team and leaves. This could also happen with Smith, though the risk is smaller in that he’s been very good for a longer period. The depth on the defensive line is better than on the other side as well and if the worst happened, it would be easier to recover. Hopefully, the Bengals are able to work out deals that suit everybody and both players come back in 2013 happy and motivated and this discussion will seem like a distant memory.