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Blanket Coverage: Bengals are the team to watch in free agency

The team to watch as free agency hits doesn’t normally attract the off-season spotlight, but what the Bengals do this spring has a big ripple effect.

With a whopping 14 players set to become unrestricted free agents, most of whom were either starters or played key roles in two AFC North titles over the past three seasons, the Bengals will be the most interesting team when free agency kicks off on Wednesday.

If things go a certain way, Cincinnati could be looking at replacing the three receivers behind A.J. Green (Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Brandon Tate) and four of their top five defensive backs (both starting safeties, Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, along with cornerbacks Leon Hall and Adam Jones). Starting right tackle Andre Smith is also a free agent, along with a slew of prominent backups on defense: linebackers Emmanuel Lamur and Vincent Rey, and defensive linemen Wallace Gilberry, Brandon Thompson and Pat Sims.

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Since they rarely ever incur dead money penalties, the Bengals are once again flush with cap space: over $38 million. And while they’ll be able to retain several of those players, the Bengals know they won’t be able to retain everyone.

“It’s always a challenge because it’s a two-way street,” director of player personnel Duke Tobin said at the scouting combine. “The players have to want to come back, and you’ve got to have enough room under the cap. We don’t have a lot of pending issues with lack of cap room. We’re not cutting guys for the wrong reasons. So, we’re in a position, a very good position.”

Still, the Bengals will likely look very different next season, and one of the league’s most deliberate draft-and-develop teams will be betting heavily on that philosophy in the 2016 season.

“The [free agency] system still works well,” coach Marvin Lewis told the Cincinnati media in Indianapolis. “The player has an opportunity to work his tail off. If things don’t work out on our end in their mind, then they have a chance to go somewhere else and play, and it’s a great thing. The guys around it see it, and you hope the next guy steps up and in and moves forward and go from there.

“We’ll continue to draft good players and allow them to develop and give them the means to develop. That’s what our job is all about. I think over time it’s proven that guys continue to emerge, prosper, when they stay in the systems.”

The Bengals, arguably more effectively than most teams, have players in the pipeline ready to answer the call if those key players do not return. Whether they sink or swim will reflect on the Bengals’ scouting department and the coaching staff’s ability to develop those players.

If Iloka leaves, the Bengals are confident Shawn Williams, a third-round pick in 2013, is ready to be a full-time starter. Same goes with cornerback DarquezeDennard (first round, 2014), linebacker P.J. Dawson (third round, 2015) and defensive tackles Marcus Hardison (fourth round, 2015) and DeShawn Williams (undrafted, 2015).

The Bengals drafted two offensive tackles (Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher) in the first two rounds last year to prepare for life after Smith and, eventually, 34-year-old Andrew Whitworth.

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Things get dicey at receiver, so expect the Bengals to throw some money at Jones and/or Sanu. However, Cincinnati has big plans for tight ends Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft should the need to rely on them arise.

“We’ve got some uncertainty there,” Tobin said. “We felt good about our group during the year but we’ve got three guys that are up and we want to get them back. So we’ll see. It takes two. We always think it’s better for the player to go, if all things are equal, back to where he’s had some success. We always believe in our philosophy, which is draft, develop and retain. Well, we’re at the retain point with some of these guys. And that’s going to be our focus. We’re going to spend our resources on the known quantities that we’ve developed and we know how they fit with our club and we know their backgrounds and their personalities. It’s been working with them, so we’re going to spend our resources and our time trying to lock those guys up.”

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The Bengals were certainly laying the groundwork with the agents for many of their free agents during the scouting combine, as key personnel figures, like Paul Brown and Katie and Troy Blackburn, were spotted at various locales talking shop. The results of those conversations will go a long way to determining the makeup of the Bengals going forward.

There’s no doubt the Bengals are going to look different in 2016, but considering their track record of building from within, that might not be a bad thing.

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Settle down

1. Stop ripping the Cowboys over Gregory: Since there’s nothing else going on, people have used this slow time to slam the Cowboys over their personnel decisions concerning Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory. USA Today’s headline called them the “Gregory, Hardy fiascos.” First of all, you can’t lump them together. You want to blast the Cowboys for bringing in Hardy, that standout citizen, then go nuts. But Gregory’s a completely different case. Everyone knew going into the draft that he was uber-talented and had some baggage, but those off-field issues weren’t a threat to anyone else (unlike Hardy’s). Gregory was suspended for the first four games this season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. This is some sort of shock? The Cowboys should be ripped for taking an admitted risk, and that risk being realized? Gregory went 60th overall, not sixth. It happens to every team. No reason to make an example of the Cowboys. 

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2. Johnson deserved to get tagged

3. Nothing wrong with Bradford contract: There were all sorts of jokes thrown about when the Eagles signed quarterback Sam Bradford to a two-year contract worth at least $36 million. Yeah, it’s a lot of money, but if you look at quarterback contracts (not including Tom Brady’s), it’s right in line with average to decent starting quarterbacks. What else were the Eagles going to do, sign an unknown commodity? Draft and start a rookie quarterback? It’s the price of doing business.

Go nuts

1. MLB shows NFL how it’s done: A penny for Roger Goodell’s thoughts when Major League Baseball suspended Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman for 30 games with the cooperation of the player and the union even though charges weren’t filed against Chapman. Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes is expected to get hit even harder when his punishment is doled out. While Goodell fumbles about and makes up policy on the fly (only to have it struck down by the courts later), MLB commissioner Rob Manfred set up a policy with the union that allows for arbitration but also gives the commissioner broad discretion in suspending players. See, that’s how it’s done. It’s worth wondering whether the NFL will ever learn. Or, more importantly, if it ever will have the self-awareness to realize how it has come up short.

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3. Go to The MMQB: Great work by my former teammates at The MMQB, Robert Klemko and Jenny Vrentas, this week. Klemko gave some more insight into the Peyton Manning–Tennessee controversy with his extensive investigation into the incident. It’s probably not going to change very many minds (people either hate Manning or love him), but at least it gives those interested in finding out the facts a more complete picture. The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in between the two accounts of the saga. And Vrentasgave a great inside look at the speed dating between teams and prospects at the combine. You should read both.