The 2018 Senior Bowl is firmly in the rearview mirror. The 2018 NFL Combine is approaching at the end of the month.
At this point in the NFL calendar, the Bengals have to have a plan for the free agency period. Ten players on the roster are set to hit the market unless the team does something beforehand to retain them. By now, they should know what they want to do with those players. Some cases might depend on the market for players, but the Bengals should at least have assigned values for those cases.
Without diving that far into it, I’ll project whether each of the ten players is retained (kept) or allowed to walk (swept).
For a center, it’s amazing how frequently fans make a punching bag out of Russell Bodine. The Bengals’ offensive line isn’t short of weak links – every position aside from Cling Boling’s left guard spot is suspect. Bodine’s unique degree of criticism stems from how his starting position has largely gone unchallenged over the past four years. It seemed as though coaches were blind to Bodine’s insufficiency.
Of course, the center being allowed to reach the end of his rookie contract without an extension might suggest otherwise. At 25 years old, Bodine will receive interest on the market from teams who think they can get something out of him that the Bengals didn’t. That’ll mean a lot of one-year, incentive-laden deals that leave Bodine with little job security. If the Bengals lack a succession plan, giving him such a deal themselves wouldn’t be a terrible, or even bad, idea.
Anything more would be. If another team foolishly offers Bodine such a long-term deal, he should start packing his bags that minute.
In an article dubbed ‘Keep/Sweep’, there’s a pretense that every player listed will fall under a ‘keep’ or ‘sweep’ label. Of all the players in this exercise, Tyler Eifert is the only one that tests my commitment to that pretense.
At any other position, Eifert would be destined to test the market. He’s only managed to play in ten games over the two seasons since his breakout 2015 campaign. While his production in those ten games is fine – 33 receptions, 440 yards, 5 touchdowns – it’s not far above average. He may have incredible seasons in the tank still, but Eifert’s certifiably earned the unfortunate ‘injury-prone’ moniker at this point. There’s no reason for the Bengals, or any other team, to load all of their eggs into his basket.
That said, Eifert happens to be a tight end. Only three players at the position have a 2018 cap hit of over $10 million (per OverTheCap.com): Rob Gronkowski, Zach Ertz, and Jordan Reed. With Jimmy Graham also set to hit the market, there’s no current contract for a tight end with an average yearly cap hit of $10 million or more. The cost for the franchise tag at the position won’t be prohibitively expensive, even for a risky venture like Eifert.
Given, the decision will depend significantly on how Bill Lazor values Eifert, which is hard to figure. Lazor wasn’t on the staff in 2015, and Eifert wasn’t available in any of Lazor’s 14 games as coordinator in 2017. The most notable tight end season from Lazor’s Miami tenure belongs to Charles Clay, who’s far more physically reminiscent of Ryan Hewitt or Cethan Carter than Eifert. Eifert is a true Y-tight end; Clay was originally a fullback.
Of course, even with all this accounted for, Marvin Lewis has been in running the team in Cincinnati since well before Lazor arrived. He’s seen Eifert, and if he’s bent on keeping him, then Lazor’s opinion will be overruled.
Basically, there’s a lot of unknown variables regarding Eifert. The safest prediction would probably be that he stays, but that’s mostly contingent on him getting the franchise tag. A lot of things could happen if that one doesn’t first.
The clock began ticking on Jeremy Hill’s time in Cincinnati when the Bengals drafted Joe Mixon. With how both players performed in 2017, it would be hugely surprising if the Bengals even attempted to retain Hill. Mixon is the Bengals’ lead back, Giovani Bernard is the change of pace, Brian Hill is the special teams ace.
Even if the Bengals were interested, it’s highly likely other teams would simply outbid them for Hill. Young backfield depth is always a need in the NFL, and Hill isn’t too far removed from more impressive seasons. This isn’t a situation that either side should spend too much time thinking about.
Huber’s a fine punter. There’s no reason the Bengals should look to move on from him if they can help it. Certainly not without a camp punter actually beating him out.
I can’t think of a way to make this segment any more complicated than that.
Until an arbitration case is heard on February 15th, we won’t know what status A.J. McCarron will enter free agency under. McCarron spent enough time on the Non-Football Injury list in his rookie year to avoid technically earning a year of experience in the eyes of the NFL. The Bengals maintain that, which would make him a restricted free agent, but McCarron believes otherwise.
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Without diving too deeply into the technicalities, the winner of this dispute controls where McCarron plays in 2018. However 2018 goes, it seems unlikely that McCarron will want to remain in Cincinnati a year longer. He wants a chance to start somewhere, and other teams will offer him that.
The Bengals would be smart to anticipate that and be accommodating, but not without getting something in return. That starts with maintaining control of him when the free agency period opens.
Not too long ago, people loved to talk about players signing one-year, ‘prove it’ deals in free agency. A player seeking a lucrative long-term contract can’t find one, so he’d take on a one-year deal later in free agency in hopes of raising his stock and cashing in the following year. In 2017, the most notable player to do this – and the most successful in doing so – was Alshon Jeffery.
Minter, ostensibly, was under the same kind of contract in Cincinnati. Needless to say, the results weren’t nearly as good. It’s hard to produce results when you’re not on the field, and few players were sidelined more than Minter in 2017. Among linebackers, only Hardy Nickerson and Brandon Bell had fewer defensive snaps than Minter’s 199 (per Football Outsiders). Both players (Nickerson in particular) were special teams contributors – Minter wasn’t, nor was he supposed to be.
Retaining Minter wouldn’t be a bad business decision if the Bengals still think highly of him, but it’s unlikely he’ll be interested. His value will have depreciated, and his starting prospects are far less secure. It’s more than likely that the linebacker will pursue another one-year deal elsewhere.
Generally speaking, the best offensive lines in the NFL are the ones that are forced to change the least. Consistency leads to cohesion, and cohesion is paramount.
The Bengals didn’t make it to step one of that process in 2017 – the only offensive lineman to play every snap was Clint Boling, and he split time at left tackle later in the year. Injuries were primarily at fault, but it’s not like the Bengals entered the season with a secure starting five. Aside from Boling at left guard, the unit was, and still is, mostly questions.
Andre Smith wasn’t a perfect answer, but he was more of a solution than a problem. At worst, he’s a top-tier swing tackle, and can be for a couple more years. The line was better when he began rotating in on the outside, and should be better in 2018 if he holds down one side.
That all said, it’s hard to be sure what’ll happen with the Bengals having a new offensive line coach for the first time in 23 years. For Frank Pollack, keeping Smith around seems like a far safer first-year move than letting him walk.
The Bengals suddenly have a deep stable of edge rushers between Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Jordan Willis, and Carl Lawson. Chris Smith is another cog in that powerful machine. In 403 defensive snaps, Smith logged three sacks, two passes defended, and a forced fumble.
At 26 years old on the day of this writing (Happy birthday, Chris!), he’s got a lot of years left in him. There’s no reason the Bengals should let him out the door if they can help it.
There’s no justification for Pat Sims being on the roster any longer. The Bengals are carrying three other nose tackles on the roster in Ryan Glasgow, Andrew Billings, and Josh Tupou. Glasgow, the oldest of those three at 24, is eight years Sims’ junior. He’s also, frankly, a better and more versatile player. Billings can do everything that Sims can do, is ten years younger, and is under contract for two more years.
With Michael Johnson shifting inside more frequently in 2017, he and Geno Atkins seem like the primary interior pass rushers. The Bengals need another, younger body to invest in that role – Atkins will turn 30 in 2018. Whoever that player turns out to be, he’ll be requiring Sims’ spot on the roster.
If the Bengals have any need of Eric Winston in 2018, he’ll likely be available. There’s a reason he was available when they needed him in 2017. It’s for that same reason that the team should let him walk without offering him another contract.
Winston will turn 35 in 2018. He’s not part of the future, and he wasn’t a part of the present before injuries forced the Bengals’ hand last season. The Bengals need another offensive tackle, and he’ll need Winston’s roster spot.