For years it's felt like the Cincinnati Bengals and free agency mix like oil and water. All that changed last offseason when they handed out $131 million to free agents, pacing third in spending behind Detroit and Miami. Injuries zapped the impact DJ Reader and Trae Waynes could have in 2020, leaving the jury out on those decisions for the time being. Those moves will be cemented as successes or failures over the next few years like the 25 years of free-agent decisions before them.
The race to add talent is just a few weeks away, and Cincinnati is primed to add pieces from outside their building and draft board once again. Let's take a look at some of the Bengals' biggest hits on the open market since the salary cap era began in 1994.
1: Adam "Pacman" Jones, CB, Signed: May 2010
Pacman Jones defined the best-case scenario after the team gave his career new hope in 2010. Jones was on his last breath as an NFL player. He had played in just nine games from 2007-09 due to a back injury and multiple lengthy suspensions, but he found a home in Cincinnati.
Mike Brown offered him a two-year deal at the league minimum. Jones paid it back with exceptional play as a returner and cornerback. Jones wound up playing eight seasons in stripes and was Pro Football Focus' sixth-best cornerback in 2012. The versatile player suited up in 70 games across the Bengals' five-year playoff run, posting nine interceptions, 50 passes defended, and three forced fumbles.
Jones' prowess as a returner was recognized with All-Pro honors in 2014 when he finished first in the NFL in kickoff return average (31.26 yards) and second in punt return average (12.05).
2: Bobbie Williams, RG, Signed: March 2004
Perfect timing by Brown and the Bengals front office. The 2004 season was a crucial one for the franchise as they built up Marvin Lewis' vision for the team. Bobbie Williams slotted into that plan snugly at right guard and stayed there for nearly a decade.
Williams was a second-round pick with just 12 starts in three seasons, but that tape was enough to convince Cincinnati to sign him to a three-year contract worth $5.25 million. Consistency was Williams' calling card, as he missed just 10 starts across eight seasons in Cincinnati. The Arkansas-product ranks 52nd among Bengals all-time in approximate value (50). An argument can be made for Williams as the third-best guard in team history alongside Max Montoya and Dave Lapham.
3: John Thornton, DT, Signed: March 2003
The only big-money signing out of this trio paid off in full after the Bengals gave John Thornton a six-year, $22.5 million deal. Thornton came over from Tennessee during the shift to the Lewis regime, impacting the team on and off the field.
Thornton brought leadership and consistency to a team in need for a culture change. He quickly became the motor in Cincinnati's front four. He started 88 games in six seasons, totaling 17 sacks, 38 tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles. Across his time on the Ohio River, Thornton helped improve the team's run defense every year. Opponents went from 4.8 yards per carry in 2003, all the way down to 3.9 YPC in 2008 via a steady year-to-year decline. Thornton proved that the Bengals can successfully add large-dollar free agents in the salary cap era.
Terrence Newman, CB, Signed: April 2012
Terrence Newman revitalized his career over three years with the Bengals from 2012-15. Cincinnati brought the veteran in on a one-year minimum deal, and he parlayed it into a three-year starting role. Newman never missed the playoffs as a Bengal, providing depth and veteran consistency. In 41 games with Cincinnati, he finished with five interceptions, 36 passes defended, and eight tackles for loss.
Tory James, CB, Signed: March 2003
Newman's veteran-run with the Bengals followed an eerily similar path to the one Tory James took to Cincinnati nearly a decade prior. James posted uneven play in Denver and Oakland across his first six years in the league, but Brown was still willing to offer him a four-year, $14.4 million deal.
James flourished well into his 30s, posting 21 interceptions and 59 passes defended with Cincinnati. Both metrics rank seventh all-time among Bengals players. Deltha O'Neal and James are the only players among the top-10 interception leaders to play less than five seasons in the Queen City.
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