The early-2000’s “Cincinnati Bungles” moniker is no longer appropriate for the club that resides in the Queen City. Yes, the team has gone one-and-out in the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, and yes, head coach Marvin Lewis is still 0-6 overall in the postseason. But the mere fact that that Bengals have earned a playoff berth for four consecutive years is impressive in and of itself, and the organization — through its approach to the draft, free agency, and the salary cap — is on its way to becoming one of the more respected franchises in the NFL. How did the offseason’s happenings affect their fortunes?
- Clint Boling, G: Five years, $26MM. $5MM guaranteed.
- Michael Johnson, DE: Four years, $20MM. $4.5MM guaranteed.
- Rey Maualuga, LB: Three years, $15MM. $4.5MM guaranteed.
- Mike Nugent, K: Two years, $3.5MM. $600K guaranteed.
- A.J. Hawk, LB: Two years, $3.25MM. $500K guaranteed.
- Cedric Peerman, RB: Two years, $2.13MM. $250K guaranteed.
- Eric Winston, T: One year, minimum salary. $80K guaranteed.
- Josh Johnson, QB: One year, minimum salary benefit. $50K guaranteed.
- Pat Sims, DT: One year, minimum salary benefit. $50K guaranteed.
- Devon Still, DT: One year, minimum salary. $50K guaranteed.
- Brandon Tate, WR: One year, minimum salary benefit. $50K guaranteed.
- Denarius Moore, WR: One year, minimum salary benefit. $25K guaranteed.
- Emmanuel Lamur, LB: One year, $2.356MM. Signed second-round RFA tender.
- Brandon Ghee, CB: One year, minimum salary benefit.
- Shiloh Keo, S: One year, minimum salary benefit.
Armed with nearly $35MM of cap space when the offseason began, the Bengals — as is their wont — didn’t do all that much during free agency, handing out just $15.655MM in total guarantees. Sticking to their strategy of signing and retaining familiar players, Cincinnati gave money to just three players — linebacker A.J. Hawk, receiver Denarius Moore, and safety Shiloh Keo — who hadn’t played for the club at some point during their career.
Defensive end Michael Johnson was one of four signees who had previously spent time in the Queen City; the 28-year-old had spent the first five seasons of his career with the Bengals before defecting to Tampa Bay prior to the 2014 season. The Buccaneers released Johnson just one season into a five-year deal, incurring $7MM in dead money in the process, and the Bengals quickly swooped in (warding off former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and the Vikings) to reunite with the veteran end, agreeing to a four-year pact that, while worth $26MM in total, contains just $4.5MM in guaranteed money. Johnson isn’t the sort of elite pass rusher than many thought Cincinnati — which finished with an NFL-low 20 sacks — might go after in free agency, but he did post two top 10 finishes among 4-3 defensive ends during his last two seasons with the Bengals, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), thanks in large part to his acumen against the run.
Unlike Johnson, guard Clint Boling never left Cincinnati, re-signing on a four-year, $26MM deal on the second day of free agency after the Jets, Falcons, and Vikings all expressed interest. Boling, 26, has been a full-time starter along the Bengals’ front five for three seasons, starting 44 games during that span. After grading as PFF’s 20th-best guard in 2014, he’ll continue to add stability to an offensive line that, for 2015 at least, should remain intact, before serving as a veteran presence in the years to come, when said line could see some upheaval — more on that later.
At linebacker, Cincinnati re-signed Rey Maualuga, who will man the middle of the defense for the seventh straight season. In our Bengals Offseason Outlook post earlier this year, I wrote that Maualuga should probably expect to be retained via a modest, one-year deal, similar to the contracts he’d signed with the club in the past. So it was a bit surprising to see the Bengals not only commit to three years with the former second-round pick, but hand him the same amount of guaranteed cash that Johnson received. Maualuga has never been an above-average player, but he’s reliable and well-versed in the team’s defensive scheme, qualities Cincinnati obviously values. The club also brought in former Packer A. J. Hawk on a short-term agreement, and while the veteran has certainly lost a step, he’s capable of acting in a reserve role, and could be valuable insurance in the event that Vontaze Burfict continues to deal with injuries.
The rest of Cincinnati’s additions are a mix of backup/special team-type players (Eric Winston, Cedric Peerman), veterans unlikely to make the final 53-man roster (Brandon Tate, Devon Still) and interesting dart throws, one of which is receiver Denarius Moore. Though it seems as though he’s been in the league for quite a long time, Moore is still only 26 years old, and though his 2015 was a far cry from his 2012-13 numbers — when he averaged a 48/618/6 line — he’s proficient enough to serve as the Bengals’ fourth receiver.
- Kevin Brock, TE
- Jason Campbell, QB
- Robert Geathers, DE: Released
- Jermaine Gresham, TE
- Greg Little, WR: Released
- Taylor Mays, S
- Marshall Newhouse, T
- Terence Newman, CB
- Mike Pollak, G: Released (he then retired)
- Dane Sanzenbacher, WR
- Alex Smith, TE
The Bengals didn’t add much in free agency, but they also didn’t lose a ton, either, as their biggest loss is tight end Jermaine Gresham, who as of this writing still hasn’t found a new team (largely due to his undergoing back surgery earlier this year). Gresham played the most 2014 snaps of any departing free agent (900 on the dot), but he wasn’t overly effective outside of pass blocking situations. A return to Cincinnati can all but be ruled out — Gresham reportedly angered some in the locker room by failing to play through injuries near the end of the season (though the fact that he had surgery might prove that said injuries were more serious than originally thought) — as the club will turn to Tyler Eifert and two draft picks to fortify the tight end position.
At age 36, Terence Newman actually played the second-most snaps of any Bengals cornerback, as the club continued to take the slow route in terms of Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard‘s development. But with those two primed to take on a larger role in 2015, Leon Hall assigned to slot duties, and fellow veteran Adam Jones still hanging around, it didn’t make sense for Cincinnati to retain Newman, who’d been with with the club for three years. Newman, a first-round pick way back in 2003, followed Zimmer to Minnesota, inking a one-year, $2.5MM deal. Taylor Mays — a defensive back who had primarily become a dime linebacker — also won’t be back, having already joined two NFC North clubs (Vikings, then Lions) this offseason.
Quarterback Jason Campbell is three years younger than Newman, but it sounds as if he’s already set to call it a career, as reports last month indicated that although nothing is official, Campbell is planning to retire in the near future. The news isn’t that important in and of itself (Campbell only attempted 19 passes last year), but it does mean that second-year pro A.J. McCarron is poised to take over the No. 2 quarterback job. The Bengals have already signed and released Terrelle Pryor, and while veteran Josh Johnson is back in town after a one-year hiatus, most expect McCarron to run with the backup job in 2015.
Along the offensive line, Cincinnati saw the loss of both Marshall Newhouse and Mike Pollak — both played around 400-450 snaps last season, but Pollak was the more effective player according to PFF, garnering a +5.0 grade compared to Newhouse’s -11.6. The Bengals didn’t attempt to re-sign Newhouse, as he he wouldn’t have had a role given that the club spent two high draft picks on offensive tackles. Pollak, meanwhile, was released, and subsequently retired a few months later.
Finally, defensive end Robert Geathers may have had the quietest exit of any player who had spent more than a decade with a club. The 31-year-old once posted 10.5 sacks (back in 2006) and had started 104 games during his tenure in Cincinnati, but he hadn’t registered a start in more than two years. Given that he ranked dead last in PFF’s 4-3 defensive end rankings, it’s conceivable that Geathers’ career is over.
- 1-21: Cedric Ogbuehi, OL (Texas A&M): Signed
- 2-53: Jake Fisher, T (Oregon): Signed
- 3-85: Tyler Kroft, TE (Rutgers): Signed
- 3-99: Paul Dawson, LB (TCU): Signed
- 4-120: Josh Shaw, DB (USC): Signed
- 4-135: Marcus Hardison, DT (Arizona State): Signed
- 5-157: C.J. Uzomah, TE (Auburn): Signed
- 6-197: Derron Smith, S (Fresno State): Signed
- 7-238: Mario Alford, WR/KR (West Virginia): Signed
Both Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher were popular Bengals targets in mock drafts leading up to the actual event, but almost everyone was surprised that the club snagged both of them. Not only did most people think Fisher would be gone by pick No. 53, but no one surmised that Cincinnati would use its first two picks on offensive lineman, especially given that the team’s front five is mostly set. But with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith both heading for free agency at year’s end, the picks could prove astute.
Ogbuehi, recovering from a ACL tear, is a candidate to begin the season on the physically unable to perform list. Even if he is healthy enough to play at some point this season, his snaps figure to be limited by the presence of Whitworth. While his ascendance to playing time might wait until 2016, Fisher could see a fair amount of snaps this year. Cincinnati coaches worked Fisher at nearly every spot along the line during rookie minicamp and OTAs, so he could fill in either at tackle or guard in the event of an injury (or even supplant Smith at right tackle if the veteran struggles again in 2015).
Elsewhere, Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah will be pressed into duty almost immediately, as they’re expected to act as starter Tyler Eifert‘s backups at tight end. Paul Dawson, who fell in the draft due to character concerns, has been lauded as a steal by those in the know, with some painting him as a poor man’s Vontaze Burfict. Josh Shaw and Derron Smith will compete for backup spots in the secondary, while Mario Alford is likely to push Brandon Tate off the roster.
It’s odd, but the Bengals rookie that figures to see the most snaps in 2015 (barring injuries) is Kroft, the team’s third-round pick. Given the state of the club’s offensive line, Ogbuehi’s recovery from injury, and the lack of depth at tight end, Kroft will be thrown into the fire immediately.
- Extended head coach Marvin Lewis through 2016.
- Exercised 2016 fifth-year option for CB Dre Kirkpatrick ($7.507MM).
- Exercised 2016 fifth-year option for G Kevin Zeitler ($8.07MM).
- Signed seven players to reserve/futures contracts.
- Signed 11 undrafted rookie free agents following the draft.
Marvin Lewis inked his 8th new contract/extension with the Bengals, and for the second consecutive year, he signed a deal that will extend his contract by one season. Thanks to the fresh contract, he won’t be a lame duck coach, but if the Bengals once again fail to win a playoff game, it’s fair to wonder if Lewis will be around much longer. Lewis, the second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL, owns the record for most career victories by a Bengals head coach.
Cincinnati picked up the fifth-year options on both Dre Kirkpatrick and Kevin Zeitler, and an April report indicated that the club is anxious to sign both to long-term extensions. The Bengals just invested a hefty sum in fellow guard Clint Boling, and drafted offensive lineman with their first two picks, so they might have some leverage over Zeitler as talks progress. Kirkpatrick is probably more important to lock up — as Leon Hall and Adam Jones age, Kirkpatrick is essentially the team’s No. 1 corner.
Top 10 cap hits for 2015:
- A.J. Green, WR: $10,176,000
- Andy Dalton, QB: $9,600,000
- Leon Hall, CB: $9,600,000
- Geno Atkins, DT: $9,000,000
- Rey Maualuga, LB: $7,137,500
- Andre Smith, RT: $6,362,500
- Andrew Whitworth, LT: $6,200,000
- Vontaze Burfict, LB: $5,175,000
- Clint Boling, G: $5,100,000
- Carlos Dunlap, DE: $4,900,000
Anyone expecting the Bengals to have an overly active offseason was — predictably — disappointed once again. Cincinnati will never be a club that goes after the Ndamukong Suh‘s of the world, but they will keep their own, as evidenced by their retaining players like Boling and Maualuga, and bringing back familiar faces like Johnson. It’s an approach that works (see: Green Bay Packers), but until the Bengals finally get over the hump and win a playoff game, it won’t mean much to those observing the team.