After locking up Andy Dalton to a long-term deal on Monday, the Bengals are now left with two other big name players to sign: AJ Green and Vontaze Burfict. Obviously management wants to lock up both players in the long run, but reports surfaced immediately following Dalton’s deal that Green’s may be the next in line. Someone is going to sign first and the Bengals prioritization will dictate the timing of both deals. And because timing may be a factor here, should the Bengals prioritize Green or Burfict?
AJ Green is probably the most important player on the Bengals offense. It’s not simply his talents that make him so, but rather how he has boosted Andy Dalton’s game in the past. Had the Bengals lacked a star like Green, it’s likely that Dalton and this offense would’ve struggled mightily. Now with Hue Jackson’s influence on this offense, Green may be more important than ever regardless of the numbers he produces at year’s end. Jackson will be seeking to run the ball more often and more effectively than the Bengals did last year, which could be best categorized as dismal. Jackson has had success in the past and part of what enabled his running plan to be so successful was a successful deep passing game. Dalton has historically struggled with these types of throws, but has been working hard with his receivers this off-season in an effort to improve in this area, even inviting his receivers work out with him near his home in Forth Worth, Texas. This is where Green can make his mark. Green is built much in the same way Randy Moss was and also possesses very similar traits such as speed and reliable hands. If Green can maximize these traits on deep throws, he could single-handedly stretch opposing defenses and make running the football just that much easier. Green’s presence alone can demand double and triple teams down the field as his abilities enable him to out-jump and run defenders and make up for many of the mistakes Dalton has been prone to in the past. Green was voted the 9th best player in the NFL’s top 100 list this year, so clearly the opposition is aware of how dangerous he can be given any opportunity. If not based on statistics, Green will be worth every penny he demands based on presence alone.
On the other side of the football there’s Vontaze Burfict. He’s been a special player for the Bengals since his unlikely arrival in Cincinnati as an UDFA in 2011. Marvin Lewis has adored him since day one and the feeling is mutual as Burfict has expressed how much he appreciates Lewis giving him a shot in the first place.
“He’s the only guy that gave me a shot. I respect him for that. We exchanged numbers and I gave him a call and we just talked about football, our scheme at Arizona State. I don’t know why, but something in my head told him to call him. Maybe in was the Lord or something. He wants what’s best for me, to be the best I can be. He’s like my father.”
Lewis has often compared Burfict to another successful project of his, Ray Lewis. It’s not just Burfict’s playing abilities that make him like Ray Lewis, but also his intensity and leadership presence as his attitude seems to be infectious throughout the defense. Burfict has done well for this defense when making the pre-snap calls and getting his fellow defenders lined up properly. Vontaze Burfict clearly embraces this role, which is great for the defense.
“I need to just keep doing what I was doing; become more of a leader. Get everybody set, no mistakes on defense,” Burfict said. “If we do have mistakes, it’s mostly my fault because I’m the one making the call.”
Prior to Burfict’s influence here, the Bengals relied on Rey Maualuga who noticeably struggled with the duty. It’s a testament to Burfict’s football IQ and another example of his importance to the Bengals. He’s led the team in tackles countless times during games and finished as the league’s top tackler last year. He has a knack for making big plays at big moments and was able to lead this defense to a top three finish last year (first in the AFC) despite losing both Geno Atkins and Leon Hall for much of the season. His importance to the Bengals defense, which is also its best unit, is unequivocal.
The final consideration here is money and time. Burfict will be a restricted free agent in 2015, which means that the Bengals could match any offer given to him. But considering how good he is, this may actually hurt the Bengals as another team could simply overpay Burfict and force the Bengals to match this price. How many teams really believe the Bengals would allow Burfict to walk under any circumstance? A reasonable estimate should expect Burfict to raise his pay by somewhere between $8.5 and $9 million next season, which would put him amongst the top five highest paid inside linebackers and somewhere around the sixth highest paid outside linebacker. And considering Paul Guenther will be looking to blitz more in 2014, Burfict has the opportunity to further increase his numbers, and hence his pay this year.
When considering Green, the Bengals already have him signed for 2015 because they exercised the fifth-year option on Green’s rookie deal. But beyond this, Green’s value really can’t go much higher than it is now in the coming year. Hue Jackson will be looking to run the ball more often this year, which shouldn’t decrease Green’s numbers, nor pay, but won’t help increase them either. So considering this and his $10 million salary next year, he stands to increase this number by probably about $2 to $5 million next season, which would make him the third highest paid receiver in the league behind Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson (a $6 million increase would put him just ahead of Fitzgerald).
When comparing these two scenarios, even after considering next year’s substantial increase in the salary cap and an assumption that receivers–who demand a higher market value than linebackers–will require a bigger piece of this increase, it seems Burfict is the player who’s due in for a more substantial raise. More importantly to this discussion, Burfict is the player who could increase his raise more substantially in 2014 as Guenther’s plan may enable Burfict to better his numbers whereas Jackson’s plan won’t for Green. It’s for these reasons the Bengals should focus on getting Burfict locked up now as circumstances make waiting on Green less risky.