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Bengals smart to take slow approach to free agency

By Friday night, the fourth day of free agency in the NFL, the Cincinnati Bengals were one of only two teams that had not signed a player who wasn’t on their own roster in 2012.

Technically, the Bengals have yet to sign anyone in free agency. In addition to the four players they re-signed and four they offered tenders to last weekend ahead of the start of free agency, the club locked up defensive ends Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry before the official 4 p.m. start of the new league year Tuesday. And the one-year, $11.175 tender signed by defensive end Michael Johnson on Friday was actually offered on March 1 when the team used its franchise player tag on him.

Additionally, five players who were on the roster for both the 2011 and 2012 playoff seasons – linebackers Manny Lawson and Dan Skuta, backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, kicker Josh Brown and defensive tackle Pat Sims – all bolted for other teams.

The reaction from the fan base has ranged anywhere from disgust to disbelief, and from anger to apathy, because there are few things easier in this world than spending someone else’s money.

The Bengals technically are about $33 million under the salary cap heading into the weekend, but that number is actually closer to $13 when you figure in $10 for this year’s draft picks – they have three in the top 53 and four in the first 84 – and another $10 million the club is likely to carry over into 2014 with the intent of signing Geno Atkins, A.J. Green and Andy Dalton to extensions.

Plus the Bengals still have 12 of their own unrestricted free agents remaining on the market. And ever since the post mortem press conference two days after the playoff loss in Houston, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has said the team’s focus will be on re-signing their own free agents, with the biggest one – literally and figuratively – being Andre Smith.

The right tackle is going to command an annual salary which will eat up a large portion of that remaining $13 million.

Lewis said earlier this week the team is working hard to get something ironed out, but Smith’s agent is Ben Dogra, who also represents Jake Long, one of the top UFAs on the market. Long was reported to be near a deal with St. Louis earlier in the week, but word late Friday night was Long was close to making a return to the Dolphins.

When his deal is done, Smith’s could follow shortly thereafter, as could one for cornerback Terence Newman, another Dogra client the Bengals would like to re-sign.

Cornerback/punt returner Adam Jones and linebackers Thomas Howard and Rey Maualuga also are priorities, although the signing of Maualuga could be met with the same disdain as not signing anyone among Bengals fans.

The foot-stomping and teeth-gnashing over the lack of activity thus far really aren’t warranted. The Bengals have taken a similar approach the last few seasons and parlayed it into back-to-back playoff appearances, and three berths in the last four seasons.

The team made a little bit of splash with BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2012, and he paid off with a career-high in yards and carries. But the Bengals didn’t overspend on the open market and still found a bargain in Newman nearly a month after free agency began and then landed Wallace Gilberry off the scrap heap two weeks into the season. And all Gilberry did was record career highs in sacks, tackles and fumble recoveries.

The Bengals were lauded for one of the best drafts in 2011 and 2012, and the team has four high picks next month. Team president Mike Brown will never escape the cheap label, but frugality would seem to be proper course given the Bengals’ situation.

Sign Smith, Newman, Jones and Howard first, then see if a guy like Ted Ginn Jr. and an experienced backup quarterback will fit into the mix. If they do that, the Bengals can fill the rest of the voids in the draft and start working toward getting over the one-and-done stigma in the playoffs.

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