The NFL free agency period begins at 4 p.m. Tuesday, but Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has made it clear the team intends to focus on re-signing its own players before turning to the open market.
“We have good players,” Lewis said at last month’s NFL Scouting Combine. “We want to retain our good players and keep growing them up and keep rewarding them for their maturity and the levels they play at. We want to keep developing our guys in my way, our way.”
The Bengals backed that up this weekend when they locked up five potential unrestricted free agents – defensive end Wallace Gilberry, kicker Mike Nugent, punter Kevin Huber, long snapper Clark Harris and running back Cedric Peerman. The team also issued tenders to a pair of exclusive rights free agents (wide receiver Andrew Hawkins and linebacker Vincent Rey) and one restricted free agent (safety Jeromy Miles).
Even after those moves, which came on the heels of the team placing the franchise tag on defensive end Michael Johnson with an $11.175 million tender, Cincinnati is an estimated $20-25 million under the salary cap.
There are 18 Bengals unrestricted free agents who starting today can sign with others team, with the two biggest being linebacker Rey Maualuga and offensive tackle Andre Smith.
Following is a position-by-position look at which players are hitting the open market, which are under contract (and for how long) and how the team may approach each area, along with the names of some of top players from other teams expected to be available:
Free agent: Bruce Gradkowski (unrestricted)
Signed: Andy Dalton (2014), Zac Robinson (2014)
It’s an underwhelming list of free agent quarterbacks, so the Bengals likely will find Dalton’s backup among the unknown commodities in the draft, or by re-signing Gradkowski, the only backup Dalton has known since arriving in Cincinnati.
Best available: Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer, Michael Vick
Free agents: Brian Leonard (unrestricted), Bernard Scott (unrestricted)
Signed: Jourdan Brooks (2014), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2014), Dan Herron (2013), Cedric Peerman (2014), Chris Pressley (2013)
Green-Ellis is coming off career highs in yards (1,094) and carries (278) and will be the feature back again, but a speed complement to the 27-year-old is one of the team’s top needs, and it’s one that is likely to be addressed in the draft.
Scott, 29, has shown the ability to fill that change-of-pace role when he’s healthy, but he suffered three different injuries in 2012, limiting him to eight carries in two games.
Leonard, 29, has been a clutch third-down back and special teams player in his four seasons in Cincinnati, although he could be looking for a longer deal than the Bengals are willing to offer at a position that values youth more than any other.
Best available: Ahmad Bradshaw, Reggie Bush, Shonn Greene, Steven Jackson
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Free agents: Richard Quinn (unrestricted), Brandon Tate (unrestricted)
Signed: Orson Charles (2015), Bryce Davis (2014), A.J. Green (2014), Jermaine Gresham (2014), Andrew Hawkins (2013*), Justin Hilton (2013), Marvin Jones (2015), Mohamed Sanu (2015), Dane Sanzenbacher (2013), Lavasier Tuinei (2014), Ryan Whalen (2014),
The Bengals have to find a consistent No. 2 receiver to play opposite Green, and the question is do they already have him on their roster? Sanu and Jones showed enough in their rookie seasons in 2012 that it would not seem likely to see the Bengals actively pursue anyone on the market, especially with a new deal for Green lurking in the near future and being of the utmost importance.
The team also offered a one-year tender to Hawkins, an exclusive rights free agent, which means he can sign the tender or negotiate a longer deal.
Best available: Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace, Wes Welker
Free agents: Andre Smith (unrestricted), Dennis Roland (unrestricted)
Signed: Clint Boling (2014), Anthony Collins (2013), Kyle Cook (2015), Dan Knapp (2014), Trevor Robinson (2014), Travelle Wharton (2014), Andrew Whitworth (2015), Kevin Zeitler (2015)
Smith is considered the best offensive lineman available on the market and one of the top players at any position, so it is going to take a lot of money to keep him. The 26-year-old Smith, whom the Bengals drafted No. 6 overall in 2009, proved his worth in 2012 after a shaky start to his career, but signing him – Pro Football Talk reported Smith is seeking $9 million per year – would deplete the stash the team likely is setting aside to lock up extensions for guys such as Geno Atkins, A.J. Green and Andy Dalton.
If the Bengals do not re-sign Smith, look for them to draft a tackle fairly early. If they do bring back Smith, or on the rare chance they sign a tackle in free agency, then look for them to use the draft to add depth to the interior of the line.
Best available: Andy Levitre (guard), Jake Long (tackle), Sebastian Vollmer (tackle)
Free agents: Robert Geathers (unrestricted), Pat Sims (unrestricted)
Signed: Jamaal Anderson (2013), Geno Atkins (2013), Carlos Dunlap (2013), Wallace Gilberry (2015), Michael Johnson (2013), Domata Peko (2014), Devon Still (2015), Brandon Thompson (2015)
This is the position group with the greatest depth, which would seem to make the 29-year-old Geathers expendable. The emerging Carlos Dunlap is coming off a strong season, and by using the franchise tag on Johnson and signing Gilberry to a three-year deal, the Bengals have plenty of talent at defensive end. But Geathers is the longest-tenured player on the team with nine years in stripes and the Bengals would no doubt like to have him back if the asking price isn’t too high.
Best available: Cliff Avril, Dwight Freeney, Richard Seymour, Osi Umenyiora
Free agents: Thomas Howard (unrestricted), Manny Lawson (unrestricted), Rey Maualuga (unrestricted), Dan Skuta (unrestricted)
Signed: Vontaze Burfict (2014), DeQuin Evans (2014), Brandon Joiner (2015), Emmanuel Lamur (2014), Aaron Maybin (2013), Dontay Moch (2014), Vincent Rey (2013*), J.K. Schaffer (2014)
This is the position group with the most questions. Would Maualuga be better off with a change of scenery? Can Howard recover and be the same player after ACL surgery? Does Burfict stay outside or move inside? How much does the 28-year-old Lawson have left? Will any other teams go after Skuta?
The Bengals are likely to bring back at least one of their free agent backers, and probably more. If they don’t, it will be interesting to see if they fill the voids in free agency or wait until the draft.
Best available: Connor Barwin, Dannell Ellerbee, Paul Kuger, Daryl Smith, Brian Urlacher
Free agents: Nate Clements (unrestricted), Chris Crocker (unrestricted), Adam Jones (unrestricted), Terence Newman (unrestricted)
Signed: Jason Allen (2013), Tony Dye (2014), Brandon Ghee (2013), Leon Hall (2015), George Iloka (2015), Dre Kirkpatrick (2015), Chris Lewis-Harris (2014), Taylor Mays (2013), Jeromy Miles (2013*), Reggie Nelson (2015), Shaun Prater (2015), Taveon Rogers (2014), Robert Sands (2013)
An upgrade at safety is one of the top priorities, and it is the position the Bengals may be most likely to address in free agency. The Bengals re-signed Crocker in September, and while he was a steadying force in the secondary, he turned 33 over the weekend and will be entering his 11th NFL season if he signs somewhere. Mays has never developed into the kind of player the Bengals hoped he would. Despite the struggles in the secondary, he made only three starts and played sparingly in the other 13 games.
Miles is likely to be back after the Bengals offered a tender to the restricted free agent, which means he is free to negotiate with other teams but Cincinnati has the right to match any offer.
Even though head coach Marvin Lewis said the team will focus on signing its own free agents, look for the Bengals to take a close look at some of the talent available at safety.
Best available: Dashon Goldson (safety), Ed Reed (safety), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (corner), Aqib Talib (corner)