Well, we all would have liked the season to have extended a bit further than it did, but the positives to take away from the 2012 campaign are many. First, the team broke down several long-standing barriers on the way to back-to-back playoff appearances. Secondly, the young up-and-coming stars got another season of experience under their belts. Third, the Bengals have 3 picks in the first two rounds of the 2013 draft thanks to the Carson Palmer trade, and fourthly, according to ESPN the Bengals have a league-leading 55.1 million dollars in cap space.
Of course, Mike Brown’s frugal nature is partially responsible for this number, but we also have to recognize that the team has been able to assemble a young and talented team while superbly managing the restrictions of the salary cap. The Brown family deserves kudos for the job done over the last two seasons. Drafting exceptionally well and supplementing that with solid veterans at value prices has worked out.
Now comes the hard part. Many of these young stars the team has drafted over the past several years are coming up on big second contracts, and the Bengals will need to be prepared to do what they can to keep them in stripes. Guys like Geno Atkins, A.J. Green, and Andy Dalton will need extensions soon. But in the meantime, let’s look at this year’s crop of unrestricted free agents, with some thoughts on whether or how much the team will push to bring them back (note: Restricted Free Agents were excluded from this analysis since chances are, they’ll be back):
First, the Defense
DE Michael Johnson: In my mind, bringing MJ93 back should be their primary free agency objective. Johnson is still very young (he’ll turn 26 in February) with his best football still ahead of him. At 6’7 and 270, he has rare size and speed, and he’s falt out produced. over the last two seasons, he’s registered 94 tackles, 17.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, 7 passes defended and 2 interceptions. Johnson provides a consistent passer rushing bookend and gives offenses another threat besides Geno Atkins. In my view, the team should work to extend him before free agency starts, and if unsuccessful, he is worthy of the franchise tag. Number one priority.
DE Wallace Gilberry: a mid-season signee after Jamaal Anderson went down, Gilberry proved to be a reliable, consistent, and high motor contributor on the defensive line. Gilberry finished with 24 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 3 fumble recoveries, and an impressive 6.5 sacks in just 14 games. He’s still only 28 years old, and provides the team with a solid back-up with starting ability: everything Anderson was supposed to provide before he was injured. The market for Gilberry shouldn’t preclude the team from being able to provide a competitive offer to retain his services.
DE Robert Geathers: Geathers has been a good soldier and given Cincinnati his best effort for 9 years now. He can be counted on to do his job to the best of his ability, and he generally does well at setting the edge and staying home. Outside of that, his production has diminished greatly. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the worst of Cincy’s D-linemen, with only 30 combined tackles and 3.0 sacks in 2012. With Anderson returning from injury, and Carlos Dunlap as the only DE’s under contract with experience, the Bengals need to resign their best options, and of their three fee agent DE’s, Geathers’ waning production and age (he’ll be 30 in camp) make him the odd man out. He could return for a team-friendly price, but as of now I don’t see him coming back.
DT Pat Sims: It was clear to me that the Bengal rush defense was better with Sims playing early downs. Sims demands double teams, and clogs up the middle. He even showed some bull rushing ability late in the year. Much was made of the run defense’s issues last season when he went down. with Sims a free agent last year, the team drafted a pair of highly regarded DT’s in Penn State’s Devon Still and Clemson’s Brandon Thompson. With Sims being another player with regular injury and conditioning issues, the signs point to the Bengals moving forward with their youngsters, Still and Thompson. That said, if Sims remains unsigned as camp draws near again-like last year-the Bengals might be tempted to offer him another one-year deal. At this point, I’d say he won’t be back.
LB Thomas Howard: Howard was Cincinnati’s best Linebacker in 2011, and was slated for big things in 2012 before being last for the year after the first game. The bad news of course was the team had to put him on injured reserve, but the good news is the injury opened the door for Vontaze Burfict to establish himself as a true rising star on defense. My suspicion is that assuming Howard’s knee is healed and he passes all medical checks, the Bengals will push to bring him back. He’ll be 30 at the start of the season, and the Bengals will look to draft a LB either way, but Howard’s return would allow the Bengals to slide Burfict to his natural position of MLB (replacing Maualuga), with Howard retaking his spot on the weak side.
LB Rey Maualuga: number 58 joined Cincinnati in the second round in 2009, and I, like many other fans, was thrilled by the news. My expectation was that The USC MIKE backer would eventually settle the middle linebacker spot for the Bengals 4-3 defense for the future after failed attempts with guys like Nate Webster, Odell Thurman, Ahmad Brooks, and Dhani Jones. Unfortunately, its time for all of us to admit we were wrong. Maualuga is a good kid and a ”try hard” guy, but that isn’t getting the job done. He freely admits to being overly critical of his own play and has a hard time getting over mistakes. Worse, I have yet to see him display the kind of aggressiveness and fire you expect to see in a MLB. He’s no Ray Lewis or London Fletcher there. More worrisome is the fact that Mike Zimmer will never be able to hide Maualuga’s lack of quickness or foot speed ever again. Houston exposed it forever. Most alarming is the fact that Vontaze Burfict, an undrafted rookie who played 2 fewer games and from the weak side, finished with more tackles. The bottom line is that the Maualuga’s era is over, and the Burfict era has begun. The Bengals should make no effort to bring 58 back.
LB Manny Lawson: Lawson may be another player the team chooses not to pursue. He had a solid if unspectacular season, posting just 39 total tackles and 2 sacks and 1 forced fumble. I see Lawson as a reliable defender for the most part, but much like Maualuga, his speed (or lack thereof) was a bit exposed in 2012. With the emergence of rookie Emmanuel Lamur, Dontay Moch waiting in the wings, and at least one draft pick likely ticketed to the LB spot, I don’t see Cincinnati pursuing Lawson early on. If he’s still on the market as training camp approaches, they may reconsider, but at this point I don’t see him back.
LB Dan Skuta: Skuta will test free agency for the second year in a row. Last year, as a restricted free agent, the special teams ace and smart back-up LB generated some interest from Kansas City before eventually re-signing for a another year. I see the Bengals bringing Skuta back again on a reasonable one or two year deal to remain in his role as a key reserve and special teams captain. However if another team makes a push for him with the promise of a chance to play more defensive snaps, the Bengals could find themselves outbid.
CB Terence Newman: He’s no spring chicken at 34 years old, but he had a career revival last year under Mike Zimmer’s tutelage. Newman secured the starting spot opposite Leon Hall, finishing with 2 interceptions and a forced fumble. It’s a deep cornerback free agency class which may drive his price tag down, and the potential to play for Zimmer’s (assuming he’s back) will be worth a discount as well. Ultimately, the Bengals will look to youth with Dre Kirkpatrick, Shaun Prater and Brandon Ghee under contract, (plus there’s Jason Allen I guess) but will all three coming off injuries and unproven, the Bengals would do well to bring Newman back on a one year deal.
CB Adam Jones: Jones should also be brought back on a one or two year deal. Jones proved to be a solid corner in nickel packages, and he is a dynamic return man. The former Pacman has really turned his career around, and a few poor plays notwithstanding, he’s another valuable role player. Between his solid play as a reserve defender, and his value on special teams, the Bengals should get him back. That said, he may draw some interest from other teams now that he’s proven himself.
CB/S Nate Clements: Clements was signed before the 2011 season as a stopgap response to Johnathan Joseph’s signing with Houston, and that’s all he is. His coverage skills have diminished as he’s clearly lost a step, and his tackling isn’t much better. Newman and Jones beat him out at corner, and the team’s experiment using him as a safety was largely a failure. At 33 and a group of young reserves expected to contribute, it’s doubtful the Bengals will try to bring him back.
S Chris Crocker: after the 2011 wild card loss to Houston, Crocker was a persona non grata in Cincy and not expected back. As a free agent last year he got no play at all until the Bengals signed him off the couch after the secondary couldn’t gel with Clements and Taylor Mays. The goat from 2011 became a Godsend. Much has been made of Crocker’s influence in helping the defense finish in the top 10 again this year, and in particular his ability to communicate with the other DB’s. There’s no doubt the team would like to see Mays or one of the other young safeties take over, and they may use one of their 3 picks in the first two rounds on a safety. So I see this year playing out like last. The team will try to move on from the 33-year old, but will have his phone number handy just in case.
Next, the Offense
OT Andre Smith: I may be in the minority with the fans, but I don’t think the Bengals will tag Smith. He’s a solid tackle, and may just be coming into his prime, but he is by no means irreplaceable. He struggled at times this year with stunts and blitzes, and let’s not forget the guy has constantly shown to have issues with his conditioning. Look, I am all for making a push to bring him back, but if the market gets crazy, the team shouldn’t. That money is better spent in other areas on the team with potential replacements readily available and under contract in Anthony Collins and Travelle Wharton, and there’s always the draft. Plus, it looks like it might be a fairly deep free agency class. Remember, the team turned down the option they had in his contract to extend him for two more years. he’s shaped up since then, but not enough to make him a top priority. And if this contract negotiation is anything like his rookie contract, it could get ugly.
OT Dennis Roland: Roland is a valuable back-up tackle and plays as an extra tight end in heavy packages and run formations. He’s also a special teams contributor and has experience as a starter in a pinch. He shouldn’t demand much on the open market, and re-signing with the club should appeal to him. I see Roland as a valuable role player and its a good fit. Look for the team to work to bring him back.
WR Brandon Tate: ummm, yeah, no. Call me harsh, but Tate has very little value as a return man, and virtually none as a wide receiver. Despite having the advantage of having over a year to learn the play book and secure the favor of the coaching staff, Tate couldn’t beat out Armon Binns to start the season, and then quickly lost time to rookies Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones once they got their feet wet. At best, he’s fairly reliable in the return game, but even that’s in question. He doesn’t have break-away speed, no real moves in the open field, isn’t always careful with the football, and even fielded a punt inside the five yard line. It seemed clear that Marvin Lewis was favoring Adam Jones’s potential game breaking ability over Tate’s supposed reliability at the end of the year. If the team wants to use a roster spot on a player who’s strictly a return man, there will be better options in free agency like Josh Cribbs and Ted Ginn. He’s toast.
QB Bruce Gradkowski: Gradkowski has been a serviceable back-up signal caller the last two years, and has delivered victories in his only significant playing time (last year’s opener at Cleveland and this year’s finale versus Baltimore). But the ultimate deciding factor as to whether or not he returns could come down to the fate of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Gradkowski is a Gruden favorite. If he moves on to be a head coach elsewhere, the new OC may want someone else to back up Andy Dalton. Hypothetically, if Gruden were to move on and Hue Jackson took over for example, he might want to opt for someone like Jason Campbell. File this one under “We’ll see.”
RB Bernard Scott: Scott had a hard-luck 2012, ending on injured reserve. He was expected to provide the Bengal offense with some sizzle to complement the yeoman, lunch pail running of BJGE. I fear this is the end of the line for Scott. The team knows they need to upgrade the position, and it’s doubtful Scott will be a part of their efforts. If he doesn’t get any sniffs elsewhere, he might be a late summer addition for depth, or if other players are injured in camp, but that would be it.
RB Brian Leonard: Leaping Leonard has certainly earned his keep since coming over in a trade from St.Louis, but his snaps have declined the last two years with Jay Gruden’s arrival and the emergence of Cedric Peerman. Leonard is a solid special teams contributor, has sure hands and plenty of guts, but I don’t see him coming back, particularly if Gruden and Peerman do. Leonard’s primary value is on 3rd down in pass protection and as an outlet receiver, and unless they try to work more two back sets to take advantage of that, I don’t see him coming back if Peerman does, and since Peerman’s return is all but assured as a restricted free agent, there you go.
And finally, Special Teams
K Mike Nugent: Nugent was Cincinnati’s franchise player last year, a move made essentially to ensure his return at the relatively affordable franchise number. The Bengals won’t do that again this year for a couple reasons: firstly, they’ll certainly want to keep the tag available for a player with more value like Michael Johnson or Andre Smith perhaps, and secondly, they’ll have more leverage this year with the arrival of Josh Brown. Brown was signed after Nugent injured his calf in practice, and finished the season for the Bengals. Brown may in fact be the better option as he was money, including the kick that killed Pittsburgh, but either way, the Bengals will have two options to negotiate with.
K Josh Brown: as mentioned above, the Bengals will have the luxury of having two solid kickers who’ll want to return to negotiate with. Brown’s become a hero in WhoDeyville, and sounds like he wants to come back. The Bengals will almost certainly bring back one of these two solid kickers. Brown’s solid performance wins my vote. Besides making everything but a tough 56-yarder at Heinz Field, Brown’s kick-offs have been deeper.
P Kevin Huber: the Cincinnati product had a career year, and was one of the best in the league. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to pin opponents inside their ten yard line. As a Bengal draft pick, and Cincinnati native, Huber should be motivated to return, and the market should not preclude the team and his agent from cutting a mutually-agreeable deal.
LS Clark Harris: Harris is an unrestricted free agent, but there shouldn’t be much concern about his return to Cincinnati. It’s a good deal for both the Bengals and Harris that he return, and his price tag as a long-snapper and emergency tight end is minimal. I expect this one to get worked out fairly quickly and without issue.
Who do you think should get tagged, who should be signed back, and who can go flip burgers?