Week Two FA Recap: Why the Bengals might be becoming a model Small-Market NFL Franchise
The Cincinnati Bengals pretty clearly emerged as the free agency winner of the second week of this NFL league year. One week ago today, we all freaked out collectively when the Bengals — awash in cap space — did not make a competitive move early in free agency.
It appeared that the Bengals were opting to be cheap and not spend money in anticipation of the NFL’s cash spend minimum going into effect in 2012. But after free agency’s second week, we’ve seen that the Bengals actually were looking to spend money. They were just planning to avoid overspending.
In fact, the Bengals have shown a rare competency to supplement their roster with free agent acquisitions while allowing their own free agents to go be overpaid elsewhere. Last year the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph to the Texans. Unfortunately, Joseph played like an All-Pro in Houston, and the Bengals may have lost their gamble when the lost to the Texans twice in 2011. But they have stayed the course, opting to let defensive ends Frostee Rucker (Cleveland), Andre Caldwell (Denver) and Jonathan Fanene (New England) take their talents elsewhere, while opting not to offer a deal to Cedric Benson. What the Bengals have done differently this year is that they’ve been willing to spend on undervalued players to replace what they lost, and have been willing to spend more on coaching and on scouting then in the past to ensure the long-term success of the organization.
They’ll pay BenJarvus Green-Ellis just $3 million per year to play running back for them, but that’s more than he could have gotten from New England to stick as a backup. Green-Ellis is probably worth a lot more than that to a team with a hole at RB, but the Bengals named their price and got him locked up for less than FA target Michael Bush signed for with Chicago. They replaced Fanene and Rucker by signing former 1st round bust Jamaal Anderson, who was taken high because he flashed pass rushing skills, but at age 26, can really handle an edge rushing attack. Because teams in the AFC North prefer to use a stretch running game, Anderson is a good pickup. They also signed another former bust Derrick Harvey, who was most recently a Bronco, to replace what physical ability they lost in Rucker. With the cash savings, they were able to make a competitive offer for — and lock up — their own no. 2 DT Pat Sims, who wasn’t a priority re-signing, but when the cash came available, the Bengals spent it.
The Bengals also managed to upgrade at left guard, turning Nate Livings — who signed with Dallas for 5 years/$19 million — into veteran Travelle Wharton, who they got at 3 years, just under $10 million.
And most importantly, the Bengals managed to re-sign two key defensive parts who actually took offers from other teams; S Reggie Nelson, and LB Manny Lawson, who re-signed today.
The Bengals were fortunate to be in the playoffs last year, but they are a better team right now than they were at this time last year, and with Baltimore and Pittsburgh struggling so hard against the cap to simply tread water in the declining AFC North, the Cincinnati Bengals have separated themselves from the Cleveland Browns — an organization whom which they were neck and neck with at the start of last season — and have pushed themselves up into the discussion with the Steelers and Ravens.
When you compare the work of the Bengals to a team that did all it’s damage in the first week of FA, such as the Bucs, before turning it’s attention to the draft, you come away with a better concept of just how well the Bengals’ offseason has gone to date.
Like the Bengals, the Bucs’ cap flexibility was near the top of the league, and they evaded criticism from fans by quickly getting involved in the FA market for three big names: WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, and CB Eric Wright. By frontloading the guaranteed money in those free agent contracts, the Bucs were able to leverage their cap position to have the most flexibility in the future. That made those moves very defensible.
But it also caused the Bucs to sit out the part of free agency where the Bengals were finding all the values, such as BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Bucs weren’t replacing their own free agents by spending cap room, they were bringing in parts to an largely established, but under-producing roster. That means the success or failure of the 2012 and 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers is tied directly to the roster that made the 2010 Bucs a 10 win team, and the 2011 Bucs a 12 loss disaster. It minimizes the kind of impact that the Bucs could have from the players like Vincent Jackson who they spent a ton of available cap room to get. Furthermore, the backloaded-ness of the non-guaranteed cap dollars in the Jackson, Wright, and Nicks deals create a situation — perhaps a likely situation — where the Bucs tear down their current roster after the 2013 season with a lame-duck coach and new personnel department.
I feel the Bucs would have been a lot better off taking the Bengals approach to free agency: don’t act in the first week. Eat the PR hit that comes from being perceived as a team who is cheaping out. You can live with that perception of being frugal, trust me. That’s not a perception you changed when you signed a bunch of large FA contracts but refused to guarantee any money beyond the 2013 season. And then with all that cap room in the second week, go make sure your own valuable contributors are paid, that you aren’t shaping your draft plans too much by spending money in free agency, and that you lock up a solid amount of ‘Plan B’ roster options to deals of 2, 3, or 4 years in length. I don’t believe getting Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks — two of the highest rated free agents — does much to save a roster that was already pretty dependent on it’s quarterback, Josh Freeman, and on an underachieving TE acquisition from the 2009 season, Kellen Winslow Jr. The Bucs OL played well at times last year, maybe the best performing unit on the field. You were already overpaying RG Davin Joseph and RT Jeremy Trueblood. Now you have one of the most expensive OLs in the league, and you haven’t done anything to guarantee it’s future performance. The Bengals have done more for the performance of their offense with less money spent, and actually have spent handsomely to give defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer some real talent he can work with in 2012.
The Bengals may not need to win the AFC North to make it back into the postseason again. However, they’ll likely need to do better than the third place finish that earned them the AFCs 6th seed in 2011. But with Baltimore and Pittsburgh in reach (0-4 against those combined opponents in 2011, accounting for exactly half of the Bengals 2011 defeats), the Bengals have propelled themselves into that conversation with an outstanding second week of free agency.