Today marks the beginning of NFL insanity. Teams will spend lavishly and foolishly.
It looks sexy to the fans to see your team drop millions on free agents, but the unsexy truth is that teams that rebuild through free agency don't win consistently in the NFL.
The teams with the most wins over the past decade - the Steelers, The Packers, The Pats, and Indy rarely spend a ton in free agency. They all do what the best teams should do. They draft well; they develop those players, and then they pay most of those players to return.
If you look at the teams in the bottom half of the league when it comes to wins, you see the Jags, the Redskins, and the Bucs. All are teams who annually try to rebuild their teams by signing big name free agents. Big mistake.
The problem with free agency is that it bloats the market prices for great players. Case in point: The Bengals' Kevin Zeitler is the best free agent guard available. Yet, he likely will make at least 12 million a year, making him the highest paid guard in the league. All for a guy who has been very, very good in his career, but he has never been to a Pro Bowl. So what message does that send to a three time Pro Bowler who is two years into his new deal that pays him 9 million a year?
That's what I mean by bloating the market.
The same thing happened last year when the Giants signed CB Janoris Jenkins to a huge deal last year. What did they get for their 62.5 million dollar contrast (less than half of which is actually guaranteed, which means the Giants could cut him and he'd only see about 28 million of that 62 million and the Giants would take a hell of a salary cap hit for a year)? They got 3 interceptions. Three!!! What a rip off.
My beloved Bungals, who sit at 14 overall when it comes to most wins in the last decade, have several big-time free agents. Besides Zeitler, whom I previously mentioned, they have another first round pick from Zeitler's draft class that will command top dollar, CB Dre Kirkpatrick. Then they have the second best LT in Bengals' history, Andrew Whitwhorth, who is going to be going on his last NFL contract. And wrapping up their major free agents is Cincy's Rex Burkhead, a sixth round draft choice from the 2013 draft.
Many fans will demand the Bengals resign them all. They have the cap space to do so, but if the Bengals are anything, they are smart with their money. I refer to them as the Dave Ramsey of the NFL. They will never take a huge cap hit because they overspent on a free agent. They will never sign a player to a huge contract and then cut him when he doesn't live up to it (ala Janoris Jenkins).
While the Bengals don't pay top dollar (or at least often. They were willing to make Marvin Jones one of the highest paid wide outs last year to keep him paired with AJ Green, but he chose to go to Detroit where he could be a number one receiver), they do honor the life of the contract almost always.
This is what no one ever talks about. Ask Leon Hall (who was a nickel back in 2013 making 8 million a year) or Domata Peko (a solidly average nose tackle who was making almost 4 million). Find a team in the NFL that is that loyal to their players? They don't exist. Once you aren't worth the dollars, they cut you. And that does happen in Cincy, but not often.
The bottom line for the Bengals and their free agents is this: you will get offered more money from another team, and you might be offered more guaranteed money. But with most teams, you stand less than a 50% chance of ever seeing the life of your contract. So in Jenkins' situation with the Giants, it looks good that he signed a 65 million dollar contract for 5 years. Of that 65 million, 28 is guaranteed. So if the Giants think his three picks last year aren't worth it, they can cut him with four years on the deal and still only pay him 28 million.
However, if you sign with Cincy, you have a 95% chance of seeing all of your contract instead of just what is guaranteed. If Jenkins would have signed with the Bengals, it would have looked something like 5 years at 45 million with 25 million guaranteed. It doesn't look as elite as the Giants' contract, but in all reality Jenkins will never see the total 5 years in New York. He will get just what is guaranteed at 28 million. However, if he was in Cincy, he'd see the all five of those years and wind up earning all of his 45 million. So 28 million and look cool for a year or two or 45 million and look like you 'settled' for lesser money or at least a team friendly deal?
The choice is easy. For normal people. But when you're an NFL prima donna, your agent or your ethos tricks you into thinking you can get all 65 million in 5 years. But then when you get your 28 million after being cut three years into the contract, you have to do damage control to get other teams interested in you. That is why many vets end up taking minimum league salaries for the final few years of their careers.
The Bengals have been lucky to have been able to draft very well since 2010.
Here are they hits in the past several drafts
1. Jermaine Gresham (two Pro Bowls, but he fell out of favor with the coaching staff and never saw a second contract and was replaced when Cincy took Tyler Eifert three years later).
2. Carlos Dunlap (just went to his second straight Pro Bowl and is on his second contract with the Bengals).
3. Geno Atkins (went to his 5th Pro Bowl and is on his second contract with the Bengals).
1. AJ Green (just made his 6th consecutive Pro Bowl and is on his second contract with the Bengals).
2. Andy Dalton (just made his 3rd Pro Bowl and is also on his second contract).
3. Clint Boling (not a Pro Bowler but a solid starter who agree to a contract extension a few years ago).
1A. Dre Kirkpatrick (no Pro Bowls but is coming into his own as a very solid NFL corner. His best years are ahead. Stands a chance of resigning with Cincy since they believe in paying skill players the most money).
1B. Kevin Zeitler (no Pro Bowls but is very good and coming into the prime of his career. Will make 12 million a year from another team).
3a. Mo Sanu (no Prow Bowls but he was a solid possession receiver for Cincy. He took a huge contract from the Falcons last year).
5b. Marvin Jones (the one player Cincy didn't want to lose last year. They were willing to pay him 10 million dollars per year. How many NFL teams have two receivers making 10 million each? But he took the same contract from the Lions to be their number one option).
5c. George Iloka (no Pro Bowls but was playing very well. Took a safe contract to return with Cincy last year).
1. Tylre Eifter (one Pro Bowl. Missed all of 2014 with an injury and missed much of 2016 with injuries. So the jury is out. But when Eifert is healthy, he is one of the best red zone targets in the league and forms a lethal combo with AJ Geen. Eifert was extended a fifth year option and will make close to 10 million in 2017. He is up for a contract extension this year . . . if he stays healthy).
2. Gio Bernard (no Pro Bowls but a great counter punch to the main runner, Jeremy Hill. Gio just signed a safe contract extension in the offseason . . . then he tore his knee up in November. Smart move by Gio to get his extension done. There's no much of a market in the NFL for runners coming of ACL injuries).
3b. Shawn Williams (no Pro Bowls but Williams is coming into his own as a solid starter at the safety position. He too took a safe contract offer from Cincy last offseason).
6. Rex Burkhead (a jack-of-all trades for Cincy. If Cincy didn't have Gio, Rex would be their third down and change of pace back. He played receiver in the playoffs in 2014 and was the main ball carrier at the end of this season. He is in for a nice pay raise from someone).
1. Darqueze Dennard (hasn't seen much playing time due to injury. Marvin Lewis did call him the best rookie corner he'd ever seen, but we haven't seen that translate to the field. Yet. If Kirkpatrick leaves, it will open a major door for Dennard to step into the starting line up in a contract year.)
2. Jeremy Hill (had a huge rookie year, but had fumbling issues in 2015 and had some great moments last year, but hasn't been the same his rookie year. If he has a big year, he too is in for a big contract from someone).
3. Will Clarke (like Dennard, he hasn't had a chance to contribute much. He did get a few sacks last year, but he will have to show something this year to stick).
4. Russell Bodine (he has started every game since the Bengals drafted him. Fans loathe him and see him as the weak link in the line, but for now he's the starter. That's not bad for a fourth round pick).
5. AJ McCarron (came to the rescue in 2015 when Dalton broke his thumb, and he almost won the playoff game vs. the Steelers. Mccarron may end up getting traded this offseason or next. If another team is willing to fork over a first round pick or a combination of second and third round picks).
1. Cedric Ogbuehi (he missed most of his rookie year recovering from a knee injury. He started this year at right tackle and was, at best, a disaster. He was benched - and Lewis rarely benches high draft picks - and eventually moved back to LT where he feels more comfortable, and where Whit is - hopefully - at least for a few more years. May be the LT in 2019. Maybe).
2. Jake Fisher (contributed in a variety of ways his rookie year. Started some games at RT once Ced was benched and held his own. Will be the starting RT next year).
3. Tyler Kroft (a back up option in case Eifert continues to be hurt)
4. Josh Shaw (a solid third corner who may end up at safety)
5. CJ Uzomah (a raw tight end who is very athletic and could be a weapon in the coming years).
6. Derron Smith (a valuable special teamer and spot player at safety).
1. William Jackson III (was hurt in training camp and never played. On one hand, 2017 will be his rookie year all over again, but it is like getting a second first round pick this year too. Will compete with Dennard for Dre's spot if Dre isn't resigned).
2. Tyler Boyd (is a replacement for Mo Sanu. Boyd did well in the slot and has the flexibility that Sanu had - can run, throw, and catch).
3. Ncik Vigil (is set to start in place of Karlos Dansby at the Sam linebacker next year).
4. Andrew Billings (a huge rookie who tore up his knee early on and missed the season. Will, hopefully, replace Peko next to Geno Atkins).
5. Christian Westerman (could start for Zeitler once he leaves in free agency).
6. Cory Core (is set to bring the size and speed to the offense that Marvin Jones once did next year).
7. Clayton Fejedelem (set to be a contributor on special teams and a spot player in the secondary).
The last two draft classes have been riddled with injuries and disappointments. Hopefully, they can contribute to help replace some of the free agent hits.
I hope the Bengals resign Dre and Whit - Zeitler is gone as Cincy doesn't believe in paying guards (or safeties or middle linebackers for that matter) big money - but if they don't, they are set to replace them.
How many teams can replace a first round pick (Kirkpatrick) at corner with two other first round picks (Dennard and Jackson III)?
How many teams can replace a Pro Bowler (Whit) with a first round draft pick (Ogbuehi)?
Now it hurts to lose Zeitler as he is the guy the Bengals are least prepared to replace. But that is what the second or third round of this year's draft is for.
Cincy has struck gold in those rounds before - in 2005 they landed Eric Steinbach in the second round and in 1998 Cincy drafted Mike Goff. Both started from day 1. So look for Cincy to find a replacement in the second or third round of the 2017 draft.