Even though the Cincinnati Bengals aren’t a team entering free agency desperate to add pieces, they do have some very specific needs to address this offseason. These moves may not seem like much in the overall picture, but decisions now can be the difference between losing in the first round of the playoffs and making the Super Bowl.
1. Retool the Secondary
The Bengals struck gold last offseason when they signed veteran Terence Newman from the Dallas Cowboys. Newman arrived in Cincinnati as a 34-year-old veteran who was released from the Cowboys because of his minimal production on the field with his bloated salary off of it.
With first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick having injury issues and star cornerback Leon Hall coming off of a torn Achilles from the previous season, Newman’s addition appeared to be one made just for depth initially. However, once he got on the field, Newman quickly supplanted Nate Clements to take his starting spot next to Hall.
Clements had played the fourth most snaps of any Bengals’ defender the previous season, but Newman’s quality play relegated him to a reserve role in 2012.
However, Newman was only signed to a one-year contract. After excelling for one season, he is now a free-agent along with Clements, Adam Jones and safety Chris Crocker. Kirkpatrick may now be healthy, but the Bengals need to rebuild their whole secondary with multiple additions in free agency. Those additions may be starters or depth depending on the direction the team wants to go.
2. Rebuild the Linebacking Corps
Despite starting for the duration of his rookie contract, there is not much excitement amongst Bengals fans over the prospect of re-signing Rey Maualuga. Maualuga is expected to sign elsewhere in free agency, and will only return to the Bengals in a strong outside linebacker role.
In Maualuga’s place, the Bengals are expected to start Vontaze Burfict at middle linebacker. However, outside of Burfict, the team is looking for two experienced starting outside linebackers.
Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson are options from last year’s team. Howard tore his ACL early on in 2012, but should be healthy entering this season. Lawson played 398 snaps, third highest for any linebacker, last season. Either could be re-signed to fill roles.
If they don’t re-sign either of those players, there are plenty of other options to pursue. Daryl Smith, Phillip Wheeler, Dannell Ellerbe, Scott Fujita and many more could all fit into Bengals’ jerseys next season.
3. Retain or Replace the Right Tackle
After using the franchise tag on defensive end Michael Johnson, the Bengals are left with right tackle Andre Smith as their top free agent. Smith is expecting to earn between $9-9.5 million per season on his new contract. The Bengals must decide whether to pay that, sign a different starter or sign a backup.
Should Smith leave, the Bengals still have Anthony Collins as a prospective starter. Collins has proven himself capable in the past, but the Bengals would need to draft someone for their future still.
Instead of starting Collins or re-signing Smith, the Bengals could invest in a cheaper starter such as Sebastien Vollmer, Phil Loadholt, Gosder Cherilus or Eric Winston. Each of those players offers an immediate adequate replacement for Smith who could play out a four year contract as a quality starter.
If they don’t want to invest in a top tackle, they could still sign Ryan Harris, Jason Smith, King Dunlap amongst others to fill a backup role behind Collins.
4. Re-Sign Superstars
Geno Atkins and AJ Green are in need of new contracts. While the Bengals have the excess cap space to spend, they should spend it on long-term contracts for their own building blocks.
5. Add A Starting Wide Receiver
The presence of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones means that the Bengals aren’t as desperate for a receiving threat across from Green as others may advertise. Jones and Sanu are emerging stars, while Andrew Hawkins has proven himself capable of making plays consistently in the past.