It's almost time for the new league year to start. That means free agency begins and the draft soon follows and every team gets a chance to re-do and start all over again.
For the Bengals that's a double edged sword.
The good - they had their best record ever last year, 12-4. Actually, since the Bengals drafted AJ Green and Andy Dalton in 2011, they have enjoyed their most prolific period in team history, winning 52 games and losing 27 games. They have been to the playoffs five straight years and since 2009, they have three division championships and just one losing season.
The bad - Well, the 0-5 playoff record, including last season's last second 16-18 meltdown to the Steelers. The Bengals also have 14 free agents this year, a large number of whom are key parts to their success.
The outlook --
Believe it or not, Cincy's outlook is solid for 2016.
Their much maligned quarterback, Andy Dalton, was having a legit MVP season before breaking his thumb against Pittsburgh when the Bengals were 10-2. The Bengals discovered that they have a solid backup quarterback in AJ McCarron, who went 2-2 in Andy's place, losing a heartbreaker to Denver in OT and losing another heartbreaker to Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
They lost their second offensive coordinator in three years (Hue Jackson left for the head coaching position in Cleveland after he replaced Jay Guden who left for the head coaching position in Washington), but they promoted from within (moving quarterback coach Ken Zambeze to offensive coordinator just as they promoted Jackson from within).
Their defense rebounded to its dominant ways under third year coordinator Paul Guenther (who replaced Mike Zimmer who left to take the head coach position in Minnesota).
Cincy landed their most players in the Pro Bowl since 1988 (LT Andrew Witworth, WR AJ Green, TE Tyler Eifert, DT Geno Atkins, DE Carlos Dunlap, S Reggie Nelson, CB Adam Jones, and ST Cedric Peerman . . . Andy Dalton would have played in the game for his third time had he been fully recovered from his broken thumb).
The do have 14 free agents to deal with - and certainly many of those players won't be back - but here are the key players up for new contracts -
WR - Marvin Jones
WR - Mo Sanu
WR - Brandon Tate
CB - Adam Jones
CB - Leon Hall
S - Reggie Nelson
S - George Ilona
DT - Pat Sims
DT - Brandon Thompson
DE - Wallace Gilberry
LB - Vincent Rey
OT - Andre Smith
What the Bengals have done very well under the leadership of quasi GM Duke Tobin is double down on talent. For instance, in 2012 they needed some WRs to go with the brilliant AJ Green. So the Bengals drafted Sanu in the third round and Jones in the fifth. And they nailed their #2a and #2b wide receivers.
In 2010 they needed a TE so they drafted Jermaine Gresham in the first round. Four years later when they didn't need a TE (Gresham had already been to two Pro Bowls by then), they took the best player available and drafted Tyler Eifert in the first round. Last year they let Gresham leave via free agency and Eifert had a Pro Bowl season.
In 2013 they needed a back to compliment Ben-Jarvis Green Ellis, so they made Gio Bernard the first RB selected in the draft. To help Gio, they drafted Jeremy Hill in the second round of the 2014 draft. Now they are set at RB for a few years.
In 2012, they needed CB help and tabbed Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round. Two years later they doubled down on that position again and drafted Darqueez Dennard in the first round. Now they are set at CB for a few years.
Even at quarterback where they are set with Andy Dalton, they still felt compelled to draft AJ McCarron in the fifth round of the 2014 draft. Now they are set. I mean McCarron should have done what Dalton hasn't been able to do - win a playoff game, until Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones gave the Steelers 30 yards in penalties to lose the game.
Last year with both tackles heading to free agency (they did sign Andrew Whitworth to a one year contract extension though), they took Cedric Ogbuehi in first round and Jake Fisher in the second round. Now they are set at tackle for years to come.
The Bengals apply this approach to free agency too.
In the 2013 offseason, the Bengals had two very good defensive ends: Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap whose contracts would soon be up. They franchised Johnson for one year at 14 million and then offered him a big contract extension. He turned it down in order to play out his franchise tag offer, so they offered the same big contract extension to Dunlap, who took it. Dunlap landed in his first Pro Bowl last year and Cincy hash I'm locked up for a few more years. Meanwhile Johnson signed a huge contract with Tampa Bay and was miserable there. He was cut and Cincy re-signed him. The best of both worlds.
This year they will do the same thing with their pair of receivers (Jones and Sanu) and safeties (Nelson and Iloka).
If they sign Jones, look for Cincy to draft Braxton Miller out of Ohio State. Miller is very much like Sanu in skills. And if Jones leaves and Cincy resigns Manu, look for the Bengals to draft Will Fuller out of Notre Dame, who is a burner much like Jones.
I don't see Cincy throwing a large amount of money at their safeties. The Bengals have a philosophy that you pay certain positions premium money: offensive tackles, quarterbacks, edge rushers, and corners. The rest? You can always draft a wide receiver and develop them (just look what the Steelers and Packets have done over the years will their mid to late round picks). You can get a running back anywhere too. Guards? Draft them in the middle rounds. Linebackers? Draft them in the middle rounds unless a stellar one falls to you. Case in point: Cincy wasted the #10 picks in the 2008 draft on Keith Rivers, who was a total bust. They signed Vontaze Burfict as a rookie free agent after he wasn't drafted, and he's made the Pro Bowl and is the heart and soul of our defense. Safeties? Same thing. Draft them in the middle rounds (look at Iloka, a fifth round pick).
So look for the Bengals to push hard to bring back Marvin Jones, Reggie Nelson (who as a vet over 30, he shouldn't command a huge price tag), Vinny Rey (a core backup and special teamer), and Adam Jones (who made his first Pro Bowl last year and has revived his career in Cincy. Look for him to sink if he signs in a large market like New York or Dallas. Too many temptations for Pacman). The rest are expendable.
The Bengals had a reputation for being quite frugal years ago, but that just isn't the truth anymore. The perception exists, though, because they aren't super active in free agency (and remember, the best teams never are).
Yes, Denver did sign a few free agents to put them over the top, but the core of that team was drafted. And even the big trade that they pulled for the tight end from San Francisco blew up in their face.
Look at the teams that win routinely: New England, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay - they always draft well and they don't go crazy in free agency.
Look at the teams that suck routinely: the Eagles, Miami, and Washington - they always overpay in free agency. Look at how well that 100 million was spent by Miami on Suh. What a waste!
So the Bengals will lose some free agents, but given their past history with nailing it out of the park in the draft, look for them to replace those places with solid draft picks who won't play in 2016 but should be starters in 2017 or 2018.
Speaking of the future, here is my take on what the starting line up will be next year
QB - Andy Dalton (second round pick 2011)
RB - Jeremy Hill (second round pick 2014)
HB - Ryan Hewitt (undrafted free agent 2014)
TE - Tyler Eifert (first round pick 2013)
LT - Andrew Whitworth (second round pick 2006)
LG - Clint Boling (fourth round pick 2011)
C - Russell Bodine (fourth round pick 2014)
RG - Kevin Zeitler (first round pick 2012)
RT - Cedric Ogbuehi (first round pick 2015)
WR - AJ Green (first round pick 2011)
WR - Marvin Jones (fifth round pick 2012)
LDE - Carlos Dunlap (second round pick 2010)
DT - Geno Atkins (fourth round pick 2010)
NT - Domata Peko (fourth round pick 2006)
RDE - Michael Johnson (third round pick 2009)
WLB - Vontaze Burfit (undrafted free agent 2012)
MLB - Rey Maualuga (second round pick 2009)
SLB - PJ Dawson (third round pick 2015)
SS - Reggie Nelson (trade with Jacksonville 2009)
FS - Shawn Williams (third round pick 2013)
CB - Dre Kirkpatrick (first round 2012)
CB - Darqueze Dennard (first round 2014)
Who Dey!!! Can't wait for the draft and then the preseason. August can't get here soon enough!