The 2013 NFL Free Agent Market is creeping closer and closer as the days pass. In less than two weeks the madness will begin, as players will be released from their contracts into the wilderness as franchises look to track them down and lock them up for the 2013 Regular Season. Some teams will be desperate to land top free agents to build their future success on, while others will simply be looking for role players who could contribute in lesser roles on smaller salaries. The Cincinnati Bengals lie somewhere in between. Undoubtedly the franchise will look to build in the draft once more, but they have too many needs to cover with just college prospects.
Instead of fighting for superstars or foraging through the trash for any kind of decent role player, the Bengals will focus on trying to find value with their moves in the off-season. Value that may not always be apparent, but exists nonetheless. Of course, there may be some risks involved, but no team has ever won a Super Bowl by being conservative in anything they do.
At outside linebacker, Dannell Ellerbe and Daryl Smith are two the obvious examples. However, they are also two examples of more expensive options. Instead of fighting for Ellerbe or Smith, the Bengals could look at the Minnesota Vikings‘ Erin Henderson. Henderson was an overlooked free agent last off-season as he looked to sign a long-term deal on the open market after an impressive season. However, that offer never came and he was forced to re-sign with the Vikings for one year to try and spark interest again on his second attempt. Henderson wasn’t exactly impressive last year as he had varying issues on the field, but that could work in the Bengals’ favor as his price will now be lower than it even was last year while his talent and potential is still there. Henderson could be a starting outside linebacker for the Bengals at just 26 years of age.
The Bengals need an outside linebacker, but they need secondary help even more. Terence Newman, Nate Clements and Adam Jones are all free agents. Even though they all played well last season and won’t be relatively hot properties on the open market, the Bengals may be better suited to look elsewhere if smaller bidding wars develop for Jones, because of his special teams abilities, Newman, because of his impressive play last year, or Clements, because of his versatility. In that instance, the Bengals could look to do what they did with Newman last year: sign a veteran who was jettisoned by his last team. Sheldon Brown of the Cleveland Browns isn’t expected to return to Cleveland, but he could return to Ohio. Brown is not a long-term option, but he played well last year at 33 years of age, so he could have one year left at 34. Brown would cost little more than the minimum on the open market.
As well as a cornerback, the Bengals need to sign a safety if Chris Crocker leaves. Crocker is a free agent in a similar situation to that of Newman, Jones and Clements. He won’t be highly sought after, but other teams could see him as a very valuable asset. This year’s safety class is deep, but most of those on the open market have one notable issue to overcome. Taking chances at this position could represent huge risk-reward advantages in the Bengals’ favor. Looking at players such as Kenny Philips and Jim Leonhard who both have recent injury problems that will hurt their market would be prudent. When healthy, both Philips and Leonhard are very versatile players who would offer Mike Zimmer a lot of flexibilty that he previously didn’t have with his play-design and calling. If the injury-hit options represent too much risk, Ronde Barber or Charles Woodson would be more expensive, but just as valuable with their combination of leadership and ability. Both are very old players who are close to retirement however.
The combination of a torn ACL and poor play in 2012 will dramatically impact the market that develops for the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ Rashard Mendenhall. Even though Mendenhall had a season to forget in 2012, he was mishandled by his coaching staff and still has an incredible amount of talent. For some time prior to his 2011 injury, Mendenhall carried the Steelers’ rushing attack and established enough production behind a very poor offensive line to be considered one of the better backs in the league. Now, with his recent struggles strong in the memory, most teams will likely overlook that quality leaving a relatively bare market of suitors. The Bengals would be smart to swoop in for the former feature back who could excel behind their excellent offensive line.