Borrowing Trouble


Geoff Hobson casts doubt on the notion that tackle (and current franchise player) Stacy Andrews and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh will be in stripes in 2009. I think that not only is he right, but you can probably add defensive tackle John Thornton, cornerback Deltha O’Neal, wideout Chad Johnson and Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson to the list.

When the Bengals designated Andrews as their franchise player this year, the move drew catcalls from some observers and many fans: $7.5 million for a backup tackle? Typical stupid Bungles! Well, there may be some stupidity involved on the Bengals’ part, but it wasn’t in franchising Andrews, it was in the decision to retain RT Willie Anderson over LG Eric Steinbach in 2006.

Anderson was a fan favorite and a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Steinbach, meanwhile, had earned fans’ ire for not finishing his block of former Bengal Kimo Von Oelhoffen in the opening minutes of the Bengals’ 2005 playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers — and thus allowing Von Oelhoffen to shred QB Carson Palmer’s knee and the Bengals’ playoff hopes. Still, Steinbach was an above-average, versatile player — having played guard, tackle and center at various times — and a second-round pick in 2003. Allowing him to walk while handing a big-money extension to Anderson, then an 11-year veteran, could easily backfire.

And it did. Injuries to Anderson have limited his playing time and effectiveness over the last two seasons. At the same time, his opposite number, LT Levi Jones, also the recipient of Bengals largess in 2006, suffered injuries to both knees and missed time in both 2006 and 2007.

With Steinbach gone, and 2007 second-round selection OT Andrew Whitworth already inserted to fill that gap, offensive line depth would have been virtually eliminated had the Bengals not retained Andrews. And they almost certainly would have been forced to take an offensive lineman with the ninth selection last April.

The question is whether the Bengals can retain Andrews long-term. The team and Andrews’ representatives have been talking for two years, but no deal has gotten done. Andrews knows he can get a fat check on the open market (as a restricted free agent in 2007 he visited with the Jets) and some, most notably Dayton Daily News Bengals beat writer Chick Ludwig, believe he would like to leave Cincinnati and sign with Philadelphia, when he could play with his brother Shawn.

It looks to me like the Bengals will have to break the bank if they want to keep Andrews, but his performance so far doesn’t warrant making him one of the league’s highest-paid offensive linemen. He has appeared in 47 games, but with just 17 starts, over four seasons. Fourteen of his starts came last year, where he did good work protecting Palmer, but struggled to add much punch to the running game. Thus this season is something of an audition. With $7.5 million invested in him, the Bengals will find ways to get him on the field. If he puts it all together, look for the team to back a Brink’s truck up to his locker next January. If not, they will likely part ways, and you can pencil in an offensive lineman early in next April’s draft.

If the Bengals franchise anyone in 2009, the most likely candidate is UFA-to-be Houshmandzadeh. The recent wideout-heavy draft is seen as a sign that the Bengals are preparing for not just a post-Chad era, but a post-T.J. era as well. So is the lack of any serious conversations about an extension between T.J.’s camp and the Bengals.

All that could change, of course, but rumors and speculation dating back to last year say that T.J. wants to be paid like a No. 1 receiver (and that the Bengals are balking at spending that kind of coin on a guy who will turn 32 early in the 2009 season), and that Houshmandzadeh would like to sign with a West Coast team, so as to be closer to his family. Ultimately, two factors will have a big impact on his fate in Cincinnati: how the new, young wideouts fare this season, and what happens with Chad.

Johnson isn’t a free agent in ’09, but I believe he’ll be allowed to seek a trade next year as part of a backstage deal with the team. Chad will come in, play, and keep his yap shut in exchange for that promise. It won’t make for back-slapping camaraderie, but it will prevent him from becoming Ocho Disrupto.

If the rookie WRs show promise in 2008, both Chad and T.J. will likely be moving on. But if the kids struggle, the team will have to think hard about franchising Houshmandzadeh. The WR tag is $7.8 million this season. It will probably rise a bit in 2009, but still wouldn’t be onerous. Were the Bengals to sign T.J. to an extension, it would cost them that, if not more, just in guaranteed coin and first-year salary.

Deltha O’Neal is a lock to leave. Acquired from Denver in a draft day trade in 2004, O’Neal had a banner year in 2005, setting a Bengals single-season interception record with 10 picks. He thought that performance merited a new, bigger contract. The Bengals didn’t. And so O’Neal is skipping the voluntary program for the second straight year in protest. Add in the facts that the Bengals have taken two first-round corners in the past three drafts, and that Deltha will turn 32 soon after the end of the 2008 season, and the stage is set for a mutual lack of interest between the team and O’Neal.

John Thornton, an ex-Titan signed in 2003, came in with a reputation similar to that of this year’s arrival from Tennessee, DE Antwan Odom: a young up-and-coming player on the verge of breaking out. Unfortunately, Thornton never quite broke out. A steady-eddie player with good production, he’s nonetheless undersized and is all too often blown off the line by bigger offensive linemen. Some of his struggles can be laid at the feet of the Bengals, who have never done much to put top-tier talent next to him, choosing instead to sign aging, ineffective vets like Sam Adams or day two picks like Matthais Askew. As with the wide receivers, the twin DTs taken in April, Pat Sims and Jason Shirley, point to a team looking at moving on. However, the Bengals seem to value Thornton’s leadership, and John may be willing to return at a reduced price after his current contract expires following the 2008 season.

Willie Anderson, the heart of the offensive line, is simply running out of time. The 13-year veteran has battled injury the last two seasons, and in particular an injury to his foot has been described as a permanent condition. Rumors have circulated on Cincinnati sports talk radio that he could even retire this year, and Anderson has been absent from the team’s offseason activities so far. Were he to retire either this year or next — and it says here that he will — the chances of Stacy Andrews seeing that Brink’s truck go up.