The Cincinnati Bengals are not known for doing much in free agency rather than bringing back their own, but this offseason may prove to be a good time to grab talent they are familiar with that fills needs—and hurts the Cleveland Browns in the process.
Make no mistake, the Bengals do not have boatloads of cash to work with considering defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins are headed to free agency — and those are just the top two names.
But the Bengals may be wise to look in Cleveland’s direction for help, as the Browns also have a couple of top names set to hit the market.
One is safety T.J. Ward, the NFL’s No. 3 overall safety last season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Ward recorded 112 total tackles two sacks and two interceptions last season as one of the leaders on Cleveland’s defense. Ward says he wants to stay with the Browns, via Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer:
I definitely want to be back,” he said. “I like my team. I love my teammates. I love being in this city. I love the organization. We haven’t had many wins, but I think we’re building something here, and I think it’s being built the right way. When you start something, I’m a person that wants to finish things and I want to finish things on a winning note. I want to play in the playoffs here, I want to bring this city a championship. I’ve been doing everything in my power to help this team win so I definitely want to see that through.
Ward may get his wish, as the team appears ready to use the franchise tag on him to keep him around, per ESPN’s Tony Grossi.
If this is the case, it may open the door for Mack to hit the open market. He was the NFL’s No. 4 overall center last year, again per PFF. The Cincinnati offensive line was outstanding last year — especially when one takes into account the rash of injuries it suffered — but Kyle Cook was the obvious weak link for a large chunk of the season. Cook came in at No. 24 overall over at PFF.
Neither of these guys will come at a cheap cost, but if the Bengals want to go all in on the rotation of Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt while letting Johnson walk, they may have some cash and the obvious contender status to pull in one of these two guys and get a massive upgrade.
Ward is an obvious fit next to Reggie Nelson in the secondary. George Iloka was far from bad last year, and it’s tough to see the team invest so much capital in the safety position, but Ward’s skillset is difficult to pass up should he be available and willing.
Mack is in a position where he can demand an enormous contract, but the Bengals have the resources to make the deal happen should they decide to pursue it. As fans are surely aware, the Bengals need as much quality talent in front of quarterback Andy Dalton as possible as he enters the final year of his rookie deal.
It will be tough financially for the Bengals to grab Ward or Mack on the open market, but with the team drafting so soundly as of late, the Bengals are one of a few teams that can make a semi-big splash on the market because so much quality talent is playing under cheap deals.
If the Bengals can once again reel in a superb rookie class and pair it with an immediate upgrade such as Mack or Ward, they will continue to effectively build on what is already a quality roster.