The Cincinnati Bengals have done an outstanding job in recent years of retaining top talent, but defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins lead a free agency class that will slowly start to leak talent from the Queen City.
With the exception of Jonathan Joseph, Mike Brown has opened his pocketbook in recent years and kept top talent such as Leon Hall, Andrew Whitworth, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.
But at some point, fans knew not everyone could stick around — this time not because of Brown’s alligator arms, but because of simple math.
That time is now.
Johnson will be the first of multiple players to leave this offseason. The Bengals hit Johnson with the franchise tag last offseason after an 11.5-sack season. The move cost the team $11.175 million, and doing so again this year would put the cost north of $13 million due to escalators and the natural curve the position follows league wide.
While Johnson ranked as the No. 4 overall defensive end in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the hit is entirely too much considering the scheme in Cincinnati relies on a rotation given the situation and the fact the team already drafted a replacement in Margus Hunt.
It is entirely possible Johnson settles for less to remain in Cincinnati, but the numbers he may see on the open market may trump anything the Bengals can put down on the table.
The same goes for Collins, a backup swing tackle who played admirably at left tackle in 2013. He ranked as the No. 24 overall tackle in the NFL, again per PFF. Collins has more than earned starter money on the open market, especially considering the state of the position overall. Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer concurs:
— Joe Reedy (@joereedy) January 12, 2014
None of this should come as a surprise. As Lance McAlister of 700 WLW illustrates, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer may heavily pursue both if he takes a head coach job elsewhere:
Johnson and Collins are just the beginning. Receiver Andrew Hawkins is restricted, but is liable to be stolen if the Bengals place a flimsy tender on him (Jay Gruden in Washington, anyone?).
Safety Taylor Mays could be on his way out, as could returner Brandon Tate (who suddenly does not draw the ire of Bengals fans on each return). Don’t forget about linebacker Vincent Rey, although he is restricted, too. Depth along the line in Mike Pollak and Dennis Roland could be on the way out as well.
Remember, this is just the tip of the iceberg for Cincinnati as far as talent retention goes in the next few seasons. The contract status of A.J. Green looms large over all, as does a mega-contract for Andy Dalton should he go all Joe Flacco at some point (stop with the smirk — as impossible as this seems, there was a time when nobody believed in Flacco, either).
Cincinnati has plenty of draft picks to properly rebuild the roster and has shown the foresight with selections like Hunt to address problematic areas in advance. But the real concern here is a closing championship window.
Talent retention is one thing. Keeping said talent together while they are all in the prime of their careers — in a marriage with proper coaching — is another beast entirely.