Every year we build our free agent “Wish List” that will turn a weakness into a strength in one fell swoop. Every year the front office at PBS marks those names off of their list, replacing them with guys who elicit groans, tirades, or questions (“Hey Mike, who the **** is…?”) Free agency is built for the big splash, the daring move, the lauded signing. Yet the Bengals avoid it like a fat guy racing past a vegan restaurant. No interest.
Why? Because it is so easy to get burnt by signing a high priced free agent. The signings that make the crawl on ESPN ought to come with the same warning you hear on investment commercials: “Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.”
Remember the clamor last year for the Bengals to sign Robert Meachem? He was touted on every Bengals message board as the perfect compliment to A.J. Green. But the Chargers won the bidding war at 4-years/$26M. Their payoff? In 15 games played, he netted 14 catches for 207 yds. Would he have been just as bad in Cincinnati? We’ll never know. But we do know that the Chargers got squat for their money in year one of that deal.
Two other names high on the 2012 wish list were Carl Nicks and Ben Grubbs. Both guards signed for huge contracts (5-yr/$47.5M and 5-yr/$46M respectively). Groans erupted around Bengals Nation when the two (predictably) went to other teams. Instead, the team drafted Kevin Zeitler and got 70% of their production at 16% of the price.
Not all high priced free agents are bad moves. Vincent Jackson was very strong for the Bucs, finishing with the fifth most yards among all receivers. But at just over 5-yr/$55M, they had better get that kind of production for the life of the contract, which will see him through to age 34.
Bottom line, as frustrating as it is to watch the best free agents go to other teams year after year after year, the Bengals avoid more bad moves than they make. Building through the draft does not generate the same media buzz or fan excitement, but it is a solid way to build a team. It’s how this team was built.
Here is the rub for me. The Bengals are so close that it is time to go all-in. With Johnson tagged, sign Atkins and Dunlap, and then go get a guy. A big guy. Not a bank-breaker, but someone who stirs us all up. Dashon Goldson. Dannell Ellerbe. Domenik Hixon. I’m not so much concerned with who exactly as that he is someone with some name recognition who fills a need. Then go do some more building in the draft. The Bengals are close, and it is time to strike. The Steelers are aging and on the cusp of salary cap hell. The Ravens are still good but have some signs of wear too and do not look built to repeat their title. Go get that one guy who puts the team over the top!