With Michael Johnson wrapped up in the franchise tag and Andre Smith‘s demands well publicized even before he has hit the open market, the Cincinnati Bengals have little to wonder about entering this off-season. The franchise tag guarantees Johnson $11.175 million this year while Smith is expecting somewhere in the region of $9 million and $9.5 million. That means that the Bengals know the price of retaining their two biggest stars. Whether they re-sign Smith or replace him with another free agent is the only decision that the team must make.
Roughly $20 million will be set aside for those two players, which leaves the Bengals with roughly $35 million to spend on new additions. Outside of releasing players such as Travelle Wharton, Jason Allen or Taylor Mays to create more room, the Bengals can expect to have just north of $30 million to spend on new additions or contract extensions after taking into account the financial implications of their draft class. That may seem like a substantial amount of money for a playoff team to have free, but the Bengals have too many needs to squander it on a big name or two.
Head Coach Marvin Lewis has already stated that the Bengals will primarily focus on bringing back their own guys. Atop that list should be the names of Rey Maualuga, Terence Newman and Adam Jones. Maualauga should test the free agent market, but it will be a massive surprise if any real interest drums up around him. That should allow the Bengals to re-sign him for a cap friendly deal and move him to outside linebacker. For a starting linebacker, getting Maualuga on a salary of $2 million per season with some form of bonus would really represent excellent value. Because of his age, Newman will receive even less interest on the open market and will likely prefer a return to Ohio after his success last season.
Jones, despite being lower down the pecking order than Newman last year, will likely receive more interest than his teammate because of his impact play potential. Jones is a solid third option at the cornerback position and an excellent return man. His ability to contribute to two phases of the game will allow franchises to offer more substantial contracts to him rather than if they were just signing him to be a returner or for cornerback depth.
Surpassed those players, the Bengals will have to reinforce their defensive line depth and decide what to do at the other outside linebacker position. Defensive line depth should be found relatively easily and cheaply, while there are many low-cost options to fill the remaining linebacker spot. The Bengals should be able to cover all of their free agent needs with roughly $13-16 million. That will also leave them significant space to spend on extending the contracts of foundation stars AJ Green and Geno Atkins. Green and Atkins must be locked down for the long-term because they are the staples of the franchise and will only raise their price with more seasons under their belts or on the free agent market.
The Bengals don’t face much uncertainty this off-season because they have done so well with their moves in recent years. For that reason, the franchise can be trusted to make the right decisions and stick to their blueprint this off-season.