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Waiting on Cincinnati's free-agent splash? Don't bother

The time has come for the Bengals to supplement their home-grown stars like Geno Atkins through free agency. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images) The time has come for the Bengals to supplement their stars like Geno Atkins through free agency. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Bengals owner Mike Brown had this to say, via the Cincinnati Enquirer, about his franchise's slow-and-steady approach to free agency:

"I think what we’re trying to do is grow in the best way possible. That isn’t necessarily going out and proving you can spend more money than you should. Most of these deals in all probability -- at least that’s how it’s been in the past -- prove out to have lot of misjudgments. But we are planning to spend our cap money and ... we’re intending to spend it on our own people.

"There is no single silver bullet. We’re shooting a lot of small shots. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to cost the same amount of money. And it doesn’t mean we aren’t going to have the best team possible."

Oh, one quick note on those comments: Brown made them last March, in response to some frustration among the Cincinnati fan base.

Fast-forward to this week and history appears to be repeating itself. The Bengals, despite an estimated $30 million in cap space, have sat idly by over the first 48 hours of free agency. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers signed away from them defensive end Michael Johnson and OT Anthony Collins, and the Browns reportedly are on the verge of snatching restricted free agent wide receiver Andrew Hawkins. Also out as of Thursday is veteran linebacker James Harrison, a 10-game starter in 2013.

Those losses may not be ideal for a team that has made three straight trips to the playoffs and feels it's on the verge of true Super Bowl contention, but they do fall in line with Brown's recent approach. He admitted as much in that conversation with Cincinnati reporters last offseason. The key to the front office's current approach is to determine which players are irreplaceable and to make sure they stick around.

So, Geno Atkins received a huge contract extension and Carlos Dunlap later got one, too. Next up should be superstar WR A.J. Green, whose deal expires at the end of this coming season. Jermaine Gresham, Andy Dalton, Vontaze Burfict and others may be in line for new offers, too, should any of them fall into that "Must Keep" category.

Is this the sexiest approach? Not even close. But it has worked recently.

The Bengals headed into the 2012 free-agency period with about $50 million in spending money, more than Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh had combined. Their big leaps there: S Reggie Nelson at $18 million over four years and RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis at three years, $9 million. Nothing even in the ballpark of what generally see during the NFL's spending frenzy -- this year, multiple players already have received upwards of $20 million in guaranteed money.

Other teams have taken similar approaches, including the Packers who pride themselves almost to a fault on building through the system. It's a tact not often seen in the NFL, as it is in baseball or hockey, because roster limitations, the salary cap and the unmitigated difficulty in drafting talent almost always forces teams to hit the road to bring in players from the outside.

Bengals fans may be begging for Brown to do the same now. Three straight trips to the postseason means that the foundation has been put in place smartly, but three straight playoff losses indicates this team is not where it needs to be to get over the top. Will another strong draft and the retention of a few vital cogs get it there?

If the answer comes back a resounding "No" again this season, perhaps Brown will take a second look at his approach. Until then, don't expect Cincinnati to do much more than it is doing right now.

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