How does one grade Cincinnati Bengals free agency this offseason?
Is a negative approach warranted after the team lost players like Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins? Or does the front office get a pass for not overspending on players it believes it can replace when the message all along has been about retaining its own?
It’s a tough situation the team has created for itself. On one hand, fans love to see big signings. Letting players walk and only signing backup offensive tackles and quarterbacks in the interim is not a crowd pleaser, but at some point the audience has to be conditioned to understand that splurging big on free agency is not a route to success.
One analyst — ESPN’s Mike Sando — gives the Bengals a “C” and says the following (subscription required):
“The Bengals got worse in free agency when [Michael] Johnson found riches in Tampa Bay, [Anthony] Collins got away and [Andrew] Hawkins landed in Cleveland after receiving the lowest possible tender as a restricted free agent,” Sando wrote. “Cincy didn’t necessarily need to step up for any one of these players, but losing all three wasn’t ideal.”
It’s an interesting take. Losing big names hurts. But on a case-by-case basis, things make sense.
The front office poorly judged Andrew Hawkins’ market. That’s fine. The misstep allowed a divisional rival to step in and offer a price it knew the Bengals could not afford. But in reality, how big of a loss in Hawkins? A gadget player who does not see a bevy of snaps can be replaced through the draft at a much cheaper cost.
The same applies to Anthony Collins. If the team was intent on kicking Andrew Whitworth inside to guard, it would have made a bigger effort to bring Collins back. We don’t know how he’ll hold up as a full 16-game starter anyway, so paying him that sort of money — especially when the team will be a in a position in the draft to grab an elite tackle prospect — doesn’t add up.
We’ve already touched on the team’s expectations for Margus Hunt, a plan that has been in place for a year now, so the loss of Johnson is no shock. No need to invest mega deals on two defensive ends. Johnson missed his shot at staying in Cincinnati when he turned down a similar offer that wound up going to Carlos Dunlap.
What free agents were the Bengals going to realistically sign this offseason? What names would be happy with the amount of cash and playing time in Cincinnati? Fans stress consistently that even top rookies this year will have a hard time finding playing time because the roster is so talented, so what free agents would have done so?
The answer is not many. when grading Bengals free agency, it’s easy to fall into the big-name lull. But Cincinnati didn’t need to make a splash. It needed to make sure each position remained stable while a few players left, and still have the cap room to extend its own.