Cincinnati Bengals Free Agency Primer
By Doug Orth
Over the years, the Bengals have earned a reputation as one of the more frugal franchises, in part because of their willingness to take chances on former high draft picks from other teams that – to be kind – may have lost their way. As Cincinnati has begun to assemble a core group of leaders and superstars in recent years through the draft, the Bengals’ free-agent approach hasn’t changed. However, the results have been more favorable in recent years with troubled players because they aren’t being counted on to contribute nearly as much as they were during the dark days of the 1990s and early 2000s. Don’t expect their low-risk, high-reward approach to change anytime soon.
While coach Marvin Lewis has already stated his priority is to keep the team’s current free agents, we’ll take a look at some of the positions the Bengals could address before the draft and some of the players they should be eyeing on the unrestricted free-agent market to fill those areas:
Reggie Bush would make for a great fit as the pass-catching and explosive complementary back to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but he isn’t going to accept a low-dollar deal from Cincinnati to split carries when he has shown he can be the featured back. The same might apply to Ahmad Bradshaw, but his foot issues may bring his asking price down enough that Cincinnati could be interested. (Don’t forget Bradshaw was being courted by Cincinnati back in 2011 before Cedric Benson returned for one more year.)
As luck would have it, there are a few backs available that should come with a relatively cheap price tag. The most sensible option could be LaRod Stephens-Howling, who is not only an explosive receiver out of the backfield but a dynamic returner. While his 5-7, 185-pound frame pretty much ensures he will never be a feature back, “Hyphen” has proven he can run the ball between the tackles in small doses. Another option could be Danny Woodhead, who would also not be a threat to Green-Ellis’ starting job, but give the Bengals a smart and savvy backfield option on passing downs and during the two-minute drill. Two other possible but injury-prone options are Felix Jones and Kevin Smith.
Even though there is plenty of room for improvement at the free safety spot as well, Reggie Nelson has emerged as a steady centerfielder for the Bengals since he was acquired via trade from Jacksonville in 2010. Nate Clements is the incumbent strong safety and Chris Crocker has performed at an acceptable level in his time with Cincinnati, but a more traditional player like Atlanta’s William Moore – thought to be this year’s best free-agent strong safety – would be a great signing for Cincinnati. However, Moore is also a candidate for the Falcons’ franchise tag.
Cincinnati has long believed in “interchangeable” safeties, so a true strong safety may not actually be necessary. Even though he is older than Clements, Charles Woodson could make some sense as a player with Super Bowl experience that can still cover a bit and needs to be accounted for against the run and as a blitzer. A dark-horse candidate could be LaRon Landry, a player that is a “box safety” much like Roy Williams was a few years ago. With this free-agent class lacking in safeties that would be a good fit in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s defense, look for the Bengals to address the position on the first or second day of the draft.
It’s no secret the pivot was the most problematic area on the Bengals’ offensive line last season. Trevor Robinson did yeoman’s work as the third-string center asked to fill in for an injured Kyle Cook and ineffective Jeff Faine. Unfortunately, the only likely upgrade that might have more than a year or two left in his tank is 33-year-old Dan Koppen, who is unlikely to see Cincinnati as a team more ready to compete for a title than Denver. Of course, that assumes the Broncos will allow him to leave – which seems even more unlikely.