July 25, 2017

Remember All That Cap Space?

As free agency began in March, the Bengals were estimated to have nearly $50M in salary cap space, the most in the league. This led fans to call on Mike Brown to dip into that sizable war chest and sign one of the top available free agents. But the front office turned a deaf ear to those wishes, ordering up a round of well-priced stouts rather than a couple of top-shelf haymakers.

As disappointing as it was to watch the big names go elsewhere, it looks more and more to me like that was the right move for the team. Not so much for now, but for into the future. Take a look at this list of free agents over the next few years and their salaries in the final year of their contracts, and you’ll see why.

2013 2014 2015
Player Cap Hit Player Cap Hit Player Cap Hit
Nate Clements
Andre Smith
Robert Geathers
Mike Nugent
Thomas Howard
Manny Lawson
Michael Johnson
Bruce Gradkowski
Pat Sims
Kevin Huber
Dan Skuta
Rey Maualuga
Brian Leonard
Terence Newman
Bernard Scott
Brandon Tate
Cedric Peerman
Reggie Stephens
Andrew Hawkins
Jason Allen
Jamaal Anderson
Anthony Collins
Carlos Dunlap
Jordan Shipley
Brandon Ghee
Geno Atkins
Roddrick Muckelroy
Colin Cochart
Armon Binns
A.J. Green
Domata Peko
Jermaine Gresham
Andy Dalton
Dontay Moch
Clint Boling
Robert Sands
Ryan Whalen


As the pivotal pieces of the last few draft classes finish out their rookie contracts, the front office is going to be dipping deeply into that war chest to keep our favorite players in orange and black. There are only two big contracts that should be smaller or not renewed to add to the $19M of current space: Clements and Geathers. Here is a look at where all that cap space will be going in the near future.

Geno Atkins. Among DTs, Ndamukong Suh leads the way in pay at $9.25M. Sedrick Ellis rounds out the top 5 highest paid DTs at about $5.82M. This season will be key in determining how much Atkins can ask for in his next contract. He is already at a high level, and needs only to maintain to pad his paycheck by $5M-$7M per year.

Carlos Dunlap. Six DEs make over $10M/yr: Freeney, Dumervil, J. Allen, Hali, Avril and C. Long. Dunlap is not quite on the level of those guys yet, but we have to wonder if he couldn’t get there. Even so, he is already in line to demand another $3M-$4M per year.

Jermaine Gresham. With the monster extension that NE offered Rob Gronkowski, Gresham’s potential earning limit went through the ceiling. Until Gronk’s deal, Zach Miller set the pace at $6M/yr, and Anthony Fasano rounded out the top 10 at $3.6M. Unless Gresham puts up Gronk-like numbers (wouldn’t we all love that!), that deal has to be viewed as something of an outlier. But he could still improve his already-impressive salary.

Andy Dalton. Taking a guess at Dalton’s future earning potential begins with this question: does Andy have the stuff to become an elite NFL QB?

If you contend that Andy has true elite potential (putting him in the company of Brady, Rodgers, Brees, or either Manning), the team could be looking at hoisting Andy’s pay by upwards of $10M/yr. That is going to put a full nelson on the salary cap.

If you are a little more conservative with Andy’s ceiling (putting him more in line with guys like Rivers, Schaub, Cutler, or Romo… whom I’ve never been as impressed with as the national guys), he could still hike his salary $6M-$8M/yr. But that is easy money to spend on a QB if he brings home the W’s.

A.J. Green. A.J. is already bringing home some tasty bacon, but he still has the potential to pad the pork budget by $3M or more if he can dominate the field like we hope he does.

Paying these five guys could very easily use up most of the salary cap space that the Bengals currently enjoy. There should be enough to make all five of these franchise level guys happy, which is great news because they will be the heart of the team for years to come. But paying the guys in this year’s draft class could require a bit more creativity… and some tough, potentially unpopular decisions.

Of course, the most practical course of action is to extend these guys before they get to their free agent year. And few of us would be surprised if the Bengals announced extensions for Atkins and Dunlap sometime in the next 12 months.

Doing so comes at a risk though. Dual-edged risks actually. A guy could under-deliver on his deal, making the team seem hasty and foolish. But on the flip side, if the team extends a guy early to get him at a cheaper cost and he gets into the top 10 or even top 5 at his position, he could follow the growing trend of becoming unhappy with his pay and hold out for more. Hopefully none of them would do that, but in the current NFL, more guys know their stats and want paid in kind immediately. (And in a way I can’t blame them when any play could potentially be their last.)

Building a successful team is hard enough, but maintaining a successful team is even harder.