This year’s free agency turned out a bit differently than I had hoped, and not exactly as I had expected either. Does that mean the Bengals did a bad job of improving their roster? Maybe. Maybe not.
If you insisted that the Bengals needed to add a marquee player, you were left disappointed. But before we pass out a final grade, let’s review what happened over the past two weeks one last time.
Slow Start: While other teams broke out of the gate strong and gobbled up the big names, the Bengals (predictably) did nothing for the first 3 days. The names we coveted signed elsewhere. Meachem went to San Diego. Garcon joined Washington. Nicks broke the bank in Tampa Bay. Grubbs replaced Nicks in New Orleans.
Once the big money was spent (overspent?), the Bengals finally got in gear and started bringing in guys for visits. And the first few names were not exactly headline-grabbers.
Guys Lost: The Bengals began free agency with 24 RFAs and UFAs. So far only 5 have signed with other teams.
The slow start was magnified when two contributors from the team’s best position group, the D line, signed with other teams. Fanene went to the Dark Side to play for
the Emperor and the Sith Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, while Frostee Rucker took leave of his senses and agreed to go to the football purgatory known as the Cleveland Browns.
No one is lamenting the other 3 losses. Dallas mercifully put an end to the misery known as Nate Livings. Indy did us the same favor with Mike McGlynn. And Andre Caldwell joined up with Peyton Manning in Denver. (Though I doubt it would have happened for him in Cincy, I would not be surprised if Caldwell has a decent season in Denver.)
Guys Added: The Bengals replaced their 5 losses by adding 5 new guys, 4 of whom are former first round picks.
Jason Allen, CB, Houston. Allen should be an upgrade over Kelly Jennings, who remains unsigned at this point. He was added for depth at an evolving position group with the thought that he could pinch hit as a safety if needed. (We know how the Bengals covet those dual-role guys.)
Jamaal Anderson, DE, Indianapolis. Anderson did not play as well as his team had hoped to see from a first round pick during his four years in Atlanta. After a year to learn from Freeney and Mathis in Indy, he could be poised to be productive as a rotational/situational player like Rucker and Fanene were.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, New England. BJGE was the big splash of free agency. He isn’t a feature back, but the Bengals were not looking for one. The one area where he will be a nice upgrade from Cedric Benson is in the red zone. Benson had 13 rushing TDs in the last two seasons as the feature back, while BJGE had 24 TDs in the same time as a rotational back. BJGE has the nose for the end zone that Benson simply didn’t any more. Remember all of those field goals kicked in the red zone last year? Coming away with 7 instead of 3 in those situations will be a big improvement in 2012.
Derrick Harvey, DE, Denver. Like Anderson, Harvey was an 8th overall pick who did not produce on the level that was expected of him. He has 8 sacks in his 4 year career. Hopefully time spent with Mike Zimmer and Jay Hayes will make him as productive of a rotational player as Rucker was.
Travelle Wharton, G, Carolina. Wharton may not be the road-grader we wanted, but he is still an improvement from what was at LG before. Don’t be fooled by his -1.8 grade from ProFootballFocus for 2011. Remember that he was blocking for Cam Newton, who brings a unique, grade-skewing set of talents to the field.
Since the Bengals lost 2 guards and have only signed 1 replacement, this position still needs attention in the draft.
Guys Retained: The word was leaked early that the Bengals would focus on retaining their own, and they have done a pretty good job of that. Look at the list of guys that have re-signed:
- Reggie Nelson
- Anthony Collins
- Pat Sims
- Mike Nugent
- Manny Lawson
- Adam Jones
- Chris Pressley
- Nick Hayden
Most of the names you want to see on that list are there. And the ones you don’t want to see, are not. This list could still grow by a few names as well in the coming days. Brandon Johnson, Donald Lee, Clark Harris and Dan Skuta are possibilities. (Could Jerome Simpson also re-surface?)
Red Marks: I have to take points for failing to sign a wide receiver to fill the #2 spot. Drafting a guy for that spot is a huge risk, as is promoting a completely inexperienced Armon Binns. An experienced, productive WR is the best solution to boosting the offense and freeing up Green from the increasing double-coverage he sees.
Marvin contends that the coaching staff is comfortable with what they have. The combo of Green-Shipley-Hawkins could be a good one, but Shipley has to stay healthy. I hope Marvin is right and I am wrong. But I need to see evidence of the plan producing before I buy into it.
Strategy: The Bengals came into free agency with the most cap space of any NFL team, giving fans the hope of a big signing, one that never came. Instead, they sought out guys with big talent that has never shined for whatever reason.
There is some risk in this strategy. If none of these guys are able to push through and show the talent that made them such high picks, the coaches will look silly and Mike Brown will continue to be labeled a bargain basement shopper. To be great, a team has to have great players. And to have great players, a team has to pay them like great players.
There is also some wisdom in this strategy. By not breaking the piggy bank this year, the team is positioned to extend franchise players like Atkins and Dunlap (hopefully staggering their UFA years) in the next year, and Dalton and Green after that. Each of those guys are going to command a significant salary, and the Bengals have left themselves the resources and some leverage (in time) to do it in a way that benefits both.
If this strategy works, and the Bengals are able to build a contending team with a well-managed payroll, other NFL teams will be studying how the oft-maligned front office at PBS did it.
Final Grade: Despite my frustration early on, I see where the Bengals are going, and I like it for the most part. They have created plenty of competition for training camp. They have given themselves the freedom to draft the best player available when they go on the clock. And they are facing far fewer question marks than they were 12 months ago.
2012 Free Agency: B+
How do you grade the Bengals in this year’s free agency?