Tag, You're It

Earlier today, I linked to (probably soon to be former) Bengals DT John Thornton’s post that, were he Cincinnati’s GM, he’d franchise Shayne Graham. That got me thinking: OK, if the Bengals don’t tag T.J. Houshmandzadeh — and the growing consensus is that they won’t — should they use the tag on anyone else?

There are really only two players other than T.J. who merit consideration, Graham and RB Cedric Benson. Franchising Shayne would cost $2.48 million, while tagging Benson would run the Bengals $6.62 million — in both instances much less than the $9.88 million price tag for T.J. Cap space isn’t an issue. The Bengals have a reported $28 million in cap room.

Thornton makes the call for Graham over Benson on the basis that Shayne will be the hardest to replace, and that the cost is the NFL equivalent of peanuts. And that’s tough to argue. There are certainly fewer good kickers than there are good running backs, and the one guy I had my eye on as a possible option if Graham walked, Dave Rayner, who looked just fine working in relief of Graham last season, was snapped up by the Redskins earlier this month. Moreover, the fact the Bengals apparently had no interest in bringing the out-of-work Rayner back after the season ended could be read as a sign that they don’t expect to lose Graham and will tag him if necessary.

The argument for tagging Benson is a bit murkier. On the plus side, securing Benson frees up options in the draft, and a one-year deal gives the Bengals the chance to find out if Benson’s performance in 2008 — 932 combined yards and 2 TDs in 10 games — was a fluke, or a sign that the former first-round pick is finally realizing his potential. On the other hand, much of Benson’s performance in Cincinnati last year has been attributed to an improved attitude, and tagging Cedric might only cause him to revert to the guy the Bears knew.

There’s also the question of what interest Benson will draw in free agency. It isn’t a great year for RBs in the draft, but there are a fair number of potential veteran free agent backs, Benson doesn’t have a great reputation and free agent dollars look to be tighter this time around. He has promised to give the Bengals a chance to retain his services, so as long as the Bengals are willing to meet the market (always a question since they usually have their own idea of what the “market” is, and it often doesn’t jibe with reality) they ought to be able to retain Benson’s services without the tag.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has said the team would rather not tag anyone, but I don’t believe that’s realistic. In an era of skyrocketing salaries, even for mid-tier players, the tag has gone from something you give a guy who is “worth it” to a tool to keep at least one of your valuable free agents from bolting. Ask Stacy Andrews. If nothing else, tagging Shayne is a no-brainer. Benson? My gut tells me they should tag him over Graham, but I worry about his reaction.

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Tags: Cedric Benson Cincinnati Bengals Shayne Graham

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