Thursday, August 7, 2014

Bengals Preseason Week 1 Lazy Viewer Guide: First Glimpse

On the precipice of the first preseason battle this evening, the Bengals look at one another and wonder to themselves if they collectively have what it takes.

As of now, they are quintessential paper champions, composed of quality depth and nicely developed draft picks. The coaching staff took a bit of a hit this offseason as both of last year's coordinators dipped out for head coaching gigs elsewhere, but it remains a fine collection of football knowledge in Cincinnati anyway. With the roster largely unchanged, one has to ask: are the philosophical tweaks brought on by the new coaches enough of a change to force a different outcome in January?


This is all strictly based on a person's perception and preconceived notions of the team, of course, but I am going to argue that it is indeed enough.


This has been a good team, despite its series of postseason chokes. In the second half of last season, the Bengals were murdering teams at home, pummeling them into oblivion. The Chargers came in as large underdogs, handed the ball to Danny Woodhead, and blitzed the crap out of Andy Dalton forcing the ginger to cough up the ball and the game. And even though there had been 11 excellent Sundays before it, on the most important of them all, they were outmuscled and outcoached.


So now Dalton is better paid, there are a new handful of rookies, two big-named free agents migrated south to Tampa Bay and James Harrison was allowed to leave his cage and go home. Back from injury are key players, particularly on the defensive side of the ball such as Geno Atkins, Leon Hall, Emmanuel Lemur and Taylor Mays, yet all of these things do not necessarily add up to a different team.

That means the Bengals are counting on two intangible elements to prove successful in order to produce a more favorable outcome in 2014.

The first is the new scheme. Some may have attended all the Bengals practices and can identify the new installations put in by coaches, but I am not one of those few. For most of us, games like the one scheduled for tonight is the best look at what to expect when the live fire breaks loose in three weeks, and even then it's hard to truly discern what's going on under all those layers of vanilla. Still, we will likely see the first steps of the revamped running game we've all heard about which should feature rookie running back, Jeremy Hill. If Hill and Gio can be the peanut butter and jelly sandwich the coaches are hoping they can be, we should have at least some glimpse of it in the preseason. If it's producing 2.8 yards per carry, however, Andy Dalton would then be forced to do more, and everyone that watches the game seems to think that's not the right idea.


On defense, the assumption is that Mike Zimmer's scheme will be carried on by his apprentice, Paul Guenther, but that it may have a bit more blitzes contained within the playcalling sequence. The anticipated increase of speed within the linebacker ranks with the return of Lemur and Mays, theoretically allows for more blitzing because those guys can cover receivers better than last year when it was Harrison and Rey Maualuga in coverage. With a stout defensive line and deep (though old) secondary, sending the hounds more often seems like a sensible approach with the current personnel in place.  


So while we are too old to be fooled into thinking that we learn a great deal from preseason games in terms of scheme and approach, we have thirsted for football for many months and will be pleased to see striped helmets crashing around the field. And since we live in an era where information and analysis mercilessly pours upon our heads on a 24-hour basis, there will be a saturating amount of coverage and extrapolation from the four quarters scheduled this evening in Kansas City. If you want to cut to the chase, though, and set aside most of those other layers, look for how the Bengals run the ball and how often they blitz.  




Monday, August 4, 2014

With or Without You

*Some of this information is now dated after the Andy Dalton signing, but what the hell?

There are two sides to football.
The fan satisfies the neurological need for blood sport in football. It's visceral, it's strategic, we drink it down by the gallons. Behind the bar, serving this madness, is the media monster of football, directing the fans' interests like a riverbed directs water. It all equates to Johnny Manziel snootin' blow in a Vegas bathroom and the Jets maybe winning the Super Bowl every year.
On the other side are the players. Most of whom live kind of regular lives and are kind of regular dudes. Collectively, these guys rally each week and generally try their hardest to win games. It means a lot to them when they do and likewise when they lose.
That includes the Cincinnati Bengals and their quarterback, Andy Dalton. The guy is one of the best seventeen human beings in the entire world to play quarterback in the NFL today, but he comes off as so average to everyone. And not just as a player. People see regular, everyday traits in his personality and assume he's weak because of that perception. If only he yelled more, the Bengals would win playoff games, right?
No matter how you spin it, the Bengals are not a blind organization. They can see that Dalton is not the immediate mega-star or else they would have coughed up the cash already. Instead, Cincinnati drafts running backs in the second round two years in a row and installs a coordinator who has made comments about utilizing the running game more. Then they drag their feet on contract negotiations to either force the Dalton to camp to settle for their initial offer or play out the season and see what happens.
Hue Jackson has one the brightest young rockets in the game today with Giovanni Bernard, a player with MVP-caliber skills. Now coupled with him is Jeremy Hill with his width and straight-ahead running style. And while it may not be popular to say so, I still very much like BenJarvus Green-Ellis and thought he should have been the given the load in the second half of the playoff game. The idea that he must be cut because he cost too much when the Bengals still have vaults of cap-space seems hasty to me. I know it gets tricky when it comes to special teams and active spots on game day, but getting rid of good pros for no good football reason just doesn't add up.
The receiving corps will always be in decent hands while A.J. Green is in stripes. He is the best talent to come to the team since Anthony Munoz. The next man, though, is one of two big question marks for this offense.
Marvin Jones had a solid year and made some unbelievable catches, showing a knack for bringing down contested jump-balls and demonstrating astounding moments of concentration. His emergence later in the season allowed for that terrific run of home blowouts in the second half of the schedule. Can he be relied upon to do it again, is the question. He certainly has the athletic gifts required to excel at the position, and he shined when given the chance, but his sheer inexperience plants the smallest seedling of doubt in me.
If he can carry on, this offense will seemingly be in excellent shape with the versatile Mohamed Sanu there to muscle his way downfield and Dane Sazenbacher doing his best to make us forget about Andrew Hawkins. Bring in the tight-end tandem of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert and what's not to love?
The offensive line may be rain on this parade though. Gone is Kyle Cook replaced by a fourth-round rookie. Gone isAnthony Collins who was paid handsomely by Tampa Bay. Back to tackle is Andrew Whitworth, who is still a pro-bowler at the position, but in my mind, does his best work inside at guard. I know that the group of undrafted free-agents and journeymen backups have filled in swimmingly in the past for Paul Alexander, but with three position changes along the line, one can't but help wonder about the stability there.
So this is an offense with a ton of intriguing weapons but vulnerabilities at quarterback and offensive line, which makes it very difficult to predict an outcome around. If they can truly run the ball the way they want to, it may be a nice and tidy scheme, but if Dalton is forced to throw a lot like last year, a few effective pass rushes can rattle him into crushing second half turnovers...like last year.
So while the media and most fans will tell you that it's a team slipping backward with Dalton and Marvin Lewis at the helm, the reality is that these guys are pretty polished veterans who win most of the time. Criticize all you like, but the actual people playing for the Bengals have a job to do, with or without you.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Long Shots: A Few Alternate Draft Realities

The Bengals could go in any direction in this year's draft.  Most, it seems, have them addressing their aged secondary in the early rounds, which makes plenty of sense, but I bet team personnel might say that they feel good about  the players they have already back there.
Others point to the players lost in free agency, and feel that replacing Michael Johnson or Anthony Collins should be the team's draft priority.  And, of course, the quarterback debate rages on if Andy Dalton can truly be a franchise player the Bengals can safely set off into the future with.  There are a handful of first or second-round QBs this year, and lots of Bengals fans would like to see steps made to replace Dalton now in order to be prepared for when his contract runs out after the season.  This, though, should be considered a long-shot seeing as how Mike and Marvin feel about their quarterback and also the way they have drafted in the past.
So while we see the same names mock-drafted to the Bengals by the draft wizards of the universe, let's look at some possible alternative takes.
After taking the first running back in the draft a year ago with Giovani Bernard, and retaining BenJarvus Green-Ellis for presumably another season, most wouldn't think of the Bengals taking another one with their first pick, but why not?  Bernard, Eddie Lacy and even Le'Veon Bell had major impacts for their team in 2013 and showed us again that fresh-legged runners with low mileage can become an immediate premium.  New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is expected to reemphasize the running game this season to highlight the abilities of his running-back stable and remove some of the pressure from Dalton and the passing game, so adding another stud makes some sense here.
Carlos Hyde is a bowling-ball runner that packs a wallop and is a Cincinnati native.  Like Lacy a year ago, Hyde has a chance to show that the big backs are not the endangered species once feared by experts and could be a perfectly sensible compliment to Bernard.  Some may think taking two running backs high in the draft in consecutive years could be overkill and a waste of an important pick, but the two and even three-back system works in today's NFL and beefing up the running attack would only further cement the renewed interest the Bengals seem to have in moving the ball on the ground this upcoming season.  Hyde has the stature and aggressive running style to really bring a tired defense to its knees late in the game.  Rotating the three would not only give perpetual fresh legs to the position, but each brings a different dynamic that teams must adjust to.
Another player that might make more sense than first realized is outside linebacker, Trent Murphy from Stanford.  Murphy is a sack specialist and impressed me every time I watched Stanford play.  Many scouts and educated fans will likely see him more as a 3-4 outside linebacker and would therefore discount him as a being a target for the Bengals, but it seems he could play a similar role to what James Harrison brought to the team a year ago.  First of all, the Bengals have committed to applying more pressure on the quarterback over the past four drafts.  They look for tall edge rushers that can bat down passes if they are unable to get sacks.  Murphy is 6'5'' with a gritty motor and intensity for the game.  He led the nation in sacks a year ago and ran the fastest cone-drill at the combine for his position.  He may not come into the league with the respect and fear that Harrison has earned among his peers, but he has many of the same characteristics that could develop the same tough reputation.  Murphy is a throwback and seems like Marvin Lewis' kind of player.
Lastly, there is center Marcus Martin from USC.  Bucky Brooks from NFL.com has the Bengals selecting Martin in the second round, so it isn't necessarily a sleeper pick, but center now seems like a position that begs for an upgrade for depth purposes.  Mike Pollak and Trevor Robinson are fine players that have filled in adequately when called upon, but neither are worry-free starters in the heart of the offensive line.  Most everyone has Martin as their top center, and beyond him the list of candidates looks like projects and longshots across the board.  The team hardly glanced at any center in free-agency this year, either satisfied with who they have already or determined to find another in the draft.  It seems the Bengals like plenty of versatility in their interior linemen should they have to shift positions around in the face of injury.  Martin played some guard in college and is described as being able to play both positions. He has good size at 320 lbs. and has lots of experience at a big-time program.
None of three players listed here are projected as first-round picks, but if the team were to reach for someone, I would be happy with any of them.  They're not the conventional choice, and there are good cases against drafting any of them, but it's a slow news time for football and I, for one, am tired of hearing the same names mentioned to the Bengals.  If the team goes for Kony Ealy or Cyrus Kouandjio and they turn out busts, this piece will stand as my told-ya-so. Either way, as stated in previous posts, I trust the Bengals when it comes to draft decisions and assume they will go about their business with intelligence and wisdom.  The team has earned such an assumption.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Bengal Way of Business

March is a peculiar month.  It teases us with the potential of warmth and sunshine, but often frustrates and disappointments us instead.   We shake our fists at wintery mixes that wash-out ambitious golf outing and cook-outs.  We scrape our windshields for what seems like the thousandth morning in a row and murmur under our breath.  We want better, but rarely get it in March.
The Bengals offseason does the same to people.  They read the fancy names and dream the day away about how it would look to have so-and-so in Stripes.   Yet, they watch other teams browse the expensive free-agent store, holding something up and checking its price tag, or trying something on in the changing rooms, while Mike Brown and his team linger just outside, pacing and checking their watch a lot.  They wander across to the discount store and buy a few disposable things out of boredom.  Fans gripe to one another using phrases like cheap and backward, and despair about a stagnant franchise sets in to the smartest of us.  This disappointment shows up almost every season, just like a chilly March.
Signing Marshall Newhouse and R.J. Stanford didn't seem to get anybody jazzed up about the Bengals.  Pundits will call them "losers" because of their inactivity, while teams who are constantly rebuilding, like Tampa Bay, will again be praised for their shopping spree.  Unless Newhouse wins a spot, there will be no new starters that played for other teams last year.  The 2014 campaign could be characterized as in-house, because nearly every change this year is an internal promotion, and that doesn't sit well with the always forward-thinking fanbase.  It's part of football life.
What did make a ripple on the news wire, though, perhaps because there was nothing else to talk about, was a Marvin Lewis extension that may have been the least surprising thing to happen to any team this winter.  Then, despite given even more security to his job, folks began to speculate that he is on the hot seat if he fails to win a playoff game again.  Only in Cincinnati do we make the leap from contract extension to a new coach only nine months from now.  I believe that Mike Brown, in his mind, has made Lewis a lifer, and that the two men see the business eye-to-eye.  If there were a separation between the two, it seems Lewis would make that call before Brown did.  MB values loyalty to himself and the organization above all else and has proven time and again to prefer to employ men he has worked with in the past.  He also has shown that he certainly would rather see the contracts he write carried out to their finish rather than undergo a hasty split beforehand.  How this translates to a hot seat is hard to discern.
But when September rolls around, most observers aren't picking the Buccaneers to finish over the Bengals, even though the Bucs nabbed two former Bengal starters on the market with Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins.   In fact, even without a full draft yet-an area the Bengals have excelled in the last handful of years-Cincinnati remains a top-five AFC team.  They don't need anything, except enough cash to keep such a solid existing roster in place for the future.  It isn't sexy, but it's what good teams do.
As far as Marvin's statements about how it would be wise for Andy Dalton to sign a reasonable contract, it's par for course.  Were there layers of public relations in his statements?  Of course there were.  Was he wrong in his points?  Absolutely not.
Marvin talked about (in so many words) how it is important to field a quality overall team and not put too many eggs into the quarterback basket.   Taking a look around the league, one can see that unless your quarterback is elite, he should be paid a modest amount of money in order to strengthen other positions.  Seattle is the ideal example of why this works for teams, the Ravens and Steelers prove the opposite point.
Jason Campbell is one of the better backups in the league and is a reasonable option should Dalton go down.  He also may be used as a bargaining chip in the Dalton negotiations.   If Cincinnati is unable to land a promising mid-round signal caller in this draft, and Dalton balks at the Bengals contract offer to him, the team will at least not be left in total shambles.  Campbell is hardly the face-of-a-franchise kind of player, but as far as the bottom of the barrel goes, he could be a lot worse.
I think Marvin Lewis' statements also echo the sentiment that he plans on being here longer than Dalton does.   He wants to win now, obviously, but the pairing of Lewis and Brown has always had an eye on the future-arguably too much so at times.  This is not the sort of Carpe Diem type of ownership you might find in Washington, Dallas, or even Denver; it doesn't go "all in" for a season.  One could say they tried that in 2010 when it blew up in the team's face.  The Bengals run their ship like a small business, low overhead if they can help it, and just enough credibility to be invited to important trade shows.  They sometimes make noise and become noticed by their competitors, but are largely forgotten when it's time to dole out annual awards.
So while you may feel frustrated and disheartened by what's happened this off-season, you should not be surprised.  You were told it would be this way, but you hoped it would turn out otherwise.  Not so, my friend.  Whether you want to look at it as a sturdy franchise maintaining its impressive core of personnel, or as a small-market team taking the predictable road of frugality is up to you, but know this: it is the Bengal way, like it or not.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

Every year about this time, football writers are forced to speculate and write about possibilities that are not very likely to come true.  Free agency in the NFL is a crapshoot and is only a bit more accurate than forecasting earthquakes.  Sure, we can look at salary-cap numbers and highlight what we consider team needs.  We can but two and two together and dress it up to look like a near certainty, but the truth is, only the button-pushers in the front offices across the league knows what will transpire.
The old adage concerning the Bengals in free agency is: don't hold your breath.  Some call Mike Brown a cowardly miser, while others describe him as fiscally responsible (I have written both in the past), but either way you slice it, the man does not break the bank.  He prefers second-tier free agents that merely compliment the core of player he has collected through the draft.
Like every, there are some intriguing names on the market.  Almost as soon as Hue Jackson took over the offensive coordinator position, running back Darren McFadden was linked to potentially land in Cincinnati.  Since then, however, anonymous player agents have attempted to squash that possibility, pointing out that McFadden could get more carries and more money elsewhere.  If it is a big payday he seeks, he will likely skip over the Bengals as a possibility and settle with a lesser team that can give him what he wants.  The idea of a true everydown running back, though, is becoming a rarity in today's pro game and he is likely to share a good portion of the load no matter where he lands.
If he were tempted by Jackson calling plays and the idea were to hearken him back to the days when he posted career numbers, coupled with the fact that Cincinnati is expected to field another strong roster, he may forfeit some cash for a chance to win in the playoffs-a feat that has proven to be elusive for both the Bengals and McFadden.   At the end of the day, the chances are slim for Run-DMC to wind up in stripes, but I feel he would be remiss to immediately discount that the possibility could still be a nice fit.
Elsewhere, other names leap off the page and ignite a forest fire of football fantasy.  Linebacker Brandon Spikes can do everything Rey Maualuga can do, but probably do it better.  Two players from last year return from injury inSean Porter and Emmanuel Lemur,  and the team enjoyed nice years from both Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison, but the linebacker ranks still feel rather thin and putting Maualuga in the back seat in favor of Spikes, I see as an upgrade and could provide a stiff dose of depth for the position.
Another exciting, yet remote possible pick up is that of Henry Melton.  Many may think there is no reason to add another defensive tackle when the team already has four players with starts under their belts, including one of the best in the game.  This is exactly the reason Mike Brown is not likely to entertain this scenario, but that does not preclude me from dreaming.  Melton is a step behind Geno Atkins but they are similar players in style.  Both are tenacious pass-rushers from the middle of the line and both bring a sense of energy and hustle on seemingly every play.  Like Atkins, Melton also missed most of the season a year ago with a knee injury.  This likely lowered his value on the market, but not enough to call him a second-tier free agent.  His price tag should be too high for Cincinnati, but having more sack potential on the line-especially from the defensive tackle position-could be a niche quality that helps this defense maintain its high-rank in the immediate future.
There are a lot of hard-hitting veteran safeties that I like in this market as well.  While George Iloka performed serviceably well in 2013, and Shawn Williams had minor but clear contributions when on the field, a tougher, more grizzled safety could give this defense an even harder edge.   While bigger names will be floated out there, my pick of the litter would be the bone-crushing James Ihedigbo.  With the Ravens, he at times played out of position and was beaten in space, but his tackling ability and fearlessness make him attractive.  It's been a long time since the Bengals have had a true enforcer in its secondary and unlike Jairus Byrd or even T.J. Ward, Ihedigbo should come at a reasonable cost.
Lastly, on the wish list is another veteran corner to add adequate depth to an increasingly important position. Alterraun Verner seems tops on the list but his cap number will be significant.  Dominique Rodgers-Cromartierevived his career nicely in Denver last year, but it's hard to imagine the Broncos letting him walk.  The other Bronco corner, however, future hall-of-famer Champ Bailey, should not be written off as a pipe dream.
Bailey has lost a step; there's little doubt about that.  He's long in the tooth and only managed to play in three regular-season games a year ago.  He's intimated that he would be willing to try out playing safety which only strengthens his chances of sniffing around at Cincinnati, because if it's one thing the Bengals value more than anything else in a player, it's versatility.  Marvin Lewis was in Washington when the Skins drafted Bailey in the first round, so there's some familiarity there.  Also, the team has gone after veteran corners a number of times in the past-most recently bringing in Terence Newman and Nate Clements.  The previous scheme of Mike Zimmer didn't require speed burner corner backs, but rather preferred the steady hand of sound tacklers and mechanic tacticians at the position.  While former first-rounder Dre Kirpatrick should someday be given more responsibility, having a plethora of decent corners makes perfect sense considering how important they have become in today's passing league and how easily they seem to get injured.
Other players I like but either come in too pricey or simply don't make much sense in the Bengals' scheme include guard Jon Asamoah, cornerback Charles Tillman, and defensive end Lamaar Houston.  I am a fan of all three of these players but can't come up with a scenario to justify their purchase.
If the team works out or schedules a visit for any of the names listed here, I would be happy.  The team is in the enviable position of not needing to sign any outsiders and continue to build and develop from within, but a bit of a veteran increase can't be too bad of a thing.  In recent years, Cincinnati has proven to be guided by sound decisions, both in fiscal and in football terms.  The front office has earned my trust and whatever they decide to do, they will not incur my wrath or disapproval.  These decisions are likely not to reflect what I have written here, but a guy can dream, can't he?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Bengals Still Among the Best

You simply cannot take in the whole view of the AFC without first paying tribute to the conference's overlords, quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.  Every offseason we become increasingly optimistic that age will finally take its ultimate toll on these living legends, only to see them back in the AFC Championship Game yet again come winter.  Pittsburgh and Baltimore always fancy themselves among the heavy-hitters regardless of their record the previous year, and Indianapolis seems to have hardly skipped a beat in terms of continuing to show up for annual postseason appearances.
The Cincinnati Bengals are the party crashers of this haughty group of elitists.  They too show up to the Playoff party each year only to drink too much, get the spins within the first hour or so, and recklessly find their way home.  They are mocked and laughed at and find it nearly impossible to feel included.
Some might say that they aren't growing up.  They still wear the clothes of a boy when they dangle the limbs of a man.  They struggle to imitate adulthood and shrink from major achievements and responsibility.  Something is great about them, but it fails to rise up when it becomes absolutely necessary for it do so.
Yet, it is not an incurable case.  Time, as we all know, is a funny thing.  No matter how long a tradition has enjoyed being in existence, one day it will break.
The Bengals remain among the handful of most-promising contenders to form next year's playoff pool.  They are in jeopardy of losing two potential starters in free-agency, but have serviceable contingency plans in both areas currently on the roster if no other replacement is obtained.  The youthful talent they have stockpiled in the draft continues to bloom and develop.  Key contributors-some tops in the league at their position-return from injury, mended and angry at their setbacks.  If you look below the raincloud of pessimism formed from the latest playoff letdown, you may notice a river valley quietly pumping out another bumper crop of potential.
There are some areas that need fortified.  The corners have aged to the point of worry, there is a weak beam or two along the offensive line, and the quarterback play still doesn't instill confidence for the next game, but the repairs are minor in a grander scheme.  AFC North rivals, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have salary-cap problems and some gray holdovers from the glory days of yesteryear.  Their concerns are far greater than Cincinnati's big picture as the Steelers continue to endure the discomforts of a transitional era and Baltimore tries to assess what went so wrong in 2013 after going so right in 2012.
San Diego, the villains who bumped the Stripes from a game they were supposed to win, feels like a team with future promise, but they could just as easily prove to be a one-dimensional group that heated up at the right time last season.  Philip Rivers played like a poised leader down the stretch and let his experience take over for his limited weaponry and rookie head coach.  Kansas City shocked the league, but endured too many key injuries late in the year to advance deep into January.  With the group they have currently, however, it's hard to think they can match that kind of campaign again in '14.
If the Bengals continue their linear regular-season trend of the last three years, they will win 12 games next year, win their division, and lose in the first round of the playoffs.  Or time could decide that a dip in success is necessary for them next season and send a heavy dose of mediocrity squarely their way.  I, being the tortured optimist, however, think it will go the other way, and time, or karma, or whatever superstitious element of destiny you subscribe to will smile upon Cincinnati and provide them with a well-deserved playoff victory.  We will drink local ales from large steins and waltz merrily in the snowy streets.  The red will be in our cheeks as we grin and kiss one another.  The Bengals will then be our friends and the conjured mental image of Marvin Lewis will be met with sincere satisfaction.
To look down on this prospect is done out of fear.  It hurts to lose when it matters the most, and we shy away from the pain.  Some may think preparing themselves, both mentally and emotionally, by expecting the worse will take some of the edge off, but this is wrong.  The hurt comes either way, but the glory is far sweeter when the believer is finally proven correct when his team wins.  The Bengals will be back because they remain better than most of their opponents.  It's as simple as that.

Mojokong-snowed out.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Bengals Future Focus

As the football world briefly naps before the Scouting Combine nudges it awake again, front offices everywhere are still up, quietly looking at big pictures. Not unlike Bilbo, they climb to the very tops of the trees around them and see out among the whole landscape. They look at their team, they look at their division, they look at the league. It's a time of collective introspective and self-assessment.
This line of thinking always leads to the money. The suits stand around a table, nod to each other and drag out the chopping block. Expensive veterans are sized up and the suits imagine a world without them. They pack their bags, and scramble for their replacements.
The salary cap makes this process interesting in the NFL. In baseball, mediocre players hit the lottery every season thanks to the limitless earning potential their sport has created for them. The big dogs just buy everybody all the time. It's super boring. Roger Goodell's syndicate, though, slaps the reigns on his horses and forces teams to strategically spend rather then go on mad shopping sprees. Rookies have limits, positions have limits, salary floors have limits, everything has limits.
Teams with cheap, young, effective quarterbacks are in the best shape. Russell Wilson won a Super Bowl playing for metaphorical peanuts. When you can save cash on the most expensive type of players, essentially exploiting them during their rookie contracts, you can load up elsewhere and build a power-house program, at least temporarily. Seattle, San Francisco, Indianapolis, and yes, Cincinnati.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," you say. "Powerhouse? Cincinnati?"
Yes, I admit the claim is diminished thanks to multiple futile postseason attempts, and the approval rating of the entire franchise has dipped severely since January, but I think a lot of NFL executives would like to be in the position that the Bengals are in this offseason. Their roster is rock solid, they have lots of cap space, and, at least from a regular-season standpoint, they're proven winners.
Thanks to developing young players into Pro-Bowlers and locking up the most promising of the bunch, they've positioned themselves to the point of not even worrying about losing a marquee player like Michael Johnson in free agency this year. They have so much depth and versatility that Anthony Collins returning isn't all that vital. Andrew Hawkins may be the most important free agent to resign this spring and he certainly won't break the bank.
So in a macro sense, the Bengals are doing well, but in a micro one, I think more money and investment will go toward the secondary, particularly at cornerback.
Dre Kirkpatrick showed some promise last year and raised his perceived value when pressed into action. He still showed his youth when trying to cover double moves, but he made plays and showed toughness. After him, however, the position is ripened with age. Adam Jones and Terence Newman are thirty-something corners, a rarity of the species. They served well under Mike Zimmer and wrung out every drop of their remaining potential for him but one has to wonder about their proverbial tanks. Leon Hall, the most decorated of the bunch, is closing in on thirty himself and has not one but two ruptured Achilles in the recent past. There is no middle ground at the position in terms of age and the depth there has become mildly worrisome.
This conversation, though, began with the quarterback. Andy Dalton, despite his playoff letdowns and occasionally shaky play, is playing well below his worth under his current contract. The Bengals can begin negotiations this year to drag him into the long-term picture at a likely reasonable rate, but if they decide to wait until his contract officially runs out and he continues to statistically improve, they might have to pay a lot more for his services. Or they could let him walk either way, but I think they will make a strong attempt to keep him, like it or not.
As for numbers, it's hard to say. Kansas City claims they would like to extend Alex Smith's contract and while many of you may consider Smith to be a better player than Dalton, I think Dalton's agent will look to those numbers if the Chiefs do sign Smith for two more years. Without claiming any expertise in football economics, I would put those numbers in the 9-12 million a year range.
Obviously A.J. Green's approaching turn for the big bucks will force the eye of the franchise to make great accommodations for the young mega-star and that contract might hinder the team's long-term plans in a purely economical sense. It is nice to have elite players, but those players eventually gobble up huge chunks of cap space that can send a team's books off balance. Nonetheless, Green is an exceptional talent that must be retained at nearly all costs.
The fun part about all of this equation is that the Bengals will still have play-money in free agency even after resigning their guys. The bummer about it, though, is that they will let big name after big name pass under nose without even a sniff come March. They keep drafting (or signing undrafted) players and developing them into surefire keepers. What about when Vontaze Burfict and Gio Bernard need to get paid? Will Cincinnati still have the loot? What about Kevin Zeitler and Tyler Eifert? These guys matter, probably more than the flashy veterans that find themselves on the market.
So while the league largely ignores the Bengals as still not-good-enough, they carry on with their organizational philosophy in hopes that things will be better next time. They will continue to pay their own guys first and go for quality depth over splashy new starters. They will stick with their homegrown program and assume their trust in Marvin Lewis for another go around. It may not make for a riveting spring, but it seems to work from September to December.


Mojokong-a sorry substitute for bacon.