Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Free Agency Starts At Home: The Cincinnati Bengals' Five Biggest Player Decisions

Assuming they get a new collective bargaining agreement done, NFL Free Agency is scheduled to begin on March 3, 2011.  I'm going to go through every team between now and then and identify their top five free agents and try to determine what should be done with each player, be it resign them or let them walk.  I'm going team by team in draft order and currently am at the fourth pick in the draft, the Cincinnati Bengals.

The 2010 Bengals season was a huge disappointment.  The won the AFC North in 2009, going 10-6 while sweeping their divisional games.  In the off-season they added Terrell Owens and were expected to be in the playoff hunt again, but they never played to their potential.

The team would play good halves or quarters, but rarely put together a full strong game. A glance at their schedule shows that they were within a touchdown in most of their losses, but they were out of most of those games, only keeping the final scores close by scoring late.

Head coach Marvin Lewis will return, along with most of the members of a young underrated defense.  However their offense was their weak link last year and the organization has a decision to make with many of the offense's high profile names.

5. Dhani Jones - Linebacker

Dhani Jones was signed by the Bengals during the 2007 season and quickly worked his way up from special teamer to starter, ending the season second on the team in tackles.  They resigned him for three years and he proceeded to lead the team in tackles in each of them.  This would be a no-brainer signing if he were younger, but he'll be 33 to start next year and entering his twelfth season, a long time in linebacker years.

Jones is a smart instinctive player, and should be able to continue to rack up tackles over the next few years, but the Bengals have to decide how valuable he'll be once he loses a step.  With young former first round linebackers Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga also on the team, it would be stupid to overpay to keep Dhani Jones.  If they can get him cheap, they should bring Jones back, but if another team makes him an offer it would be a mistake to overpay for him.

4. Jonathan Joseph - Cornerback

Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall were one of the best cover corner pairs in the NFL in 2010.  Opposing teams generally avoided them and worked the ball to the man being covered by the Bengals nickel corner, usually Morgan Trent.  Even with teams avoiding him and missing a quarter of the season, Joseph managed to get three picks.

Joseph is on this list because of his profile on the team, but I don''t expect him to go anywhere.  Cincinnati knows it has one of the best young corners in the league and should lock him up long term.  Even if they can't get a deal done, Joseph won't go anywhere.  He has already stated that he would sign a franchise tender on day one, so if they don't get a long term deal done look for the Bengals to go that route.

3. Cedric Benson - Running Back

The Bengals ground attack was fairly pathetic in 2010.  They were 27th in the league in rushing and averaged just 95 yards per game.  Cedric Benson was their leading rusher and eclipsed the thousand yard mark for the second year in a row, but did it while averaging just 3.46 yards per attempt.

The Bengals have no reason to bring Benson back next year.  Any running back that can't average four yards per carry should probably be replaced.  Making things worse for Benson, it didn't seem to be the fault of his offensive line.  It was with a much smaller sample size, but Bernard Scott averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year and is already under contract.  The Bengals would be crazy to bring Benson back.

2. Terrell Owens/Chad Ochocinco - Wide Receivers

Technically, Chad Ochocinco is under contract for next season, but I'm putting him here with free agent Terrell Owens because I don't expect either to be with the Bengals next year.  Ochocinco isn't owed anymore  guaranteed money, so the Bengals can cut him and it won't cost them anything.  Everyone expected combining Chad Ochocinco with T.O. to turn the Bengals into a joke.  T-Ocho said it wouldn't happen, but then it did.

They were the teams two leading receivers, but neither made it to 1000 yards.  Publicly they tried and failed to say the right things, and privately they had an obvious effect on Carson Palmer.  Palmer was shaky at best most of the season, but then had his best game of the year against San Diego in week 16, once both T.O. and Ochocinco were injured and out of his hair.

Both receivers are obviously talented, but they are also both off the field distractions.  I expect the Bengals to let both guys go.  Hopefully, no other team will be dumb enough to sign them together.

1. Carson Palmer - Quarterback

In contract terms, Carson Palmer isn't even close to being a free agent.  He is under contract through 2014 and is scheduled to make more than 11 million each of those years.  But like they would any free agent, the Bengals have to decide what they want to do with him because Palmer has threatened to retire if he isn't traded.

Carson Palmer has every right to want out of Cincinnati.  Without a proper scouting department, the team isn't likely to improve dramatically through the draft and an owner not willing to build an indoor practice facility in Cincinnati isn't going to break the bank on free agents.  He's 31 and doesn't want to play out the rest of his prime for a team that won't win a title.

The Bengals can either trade him, or attempt to call his bluff and see if he will really walk away from the money come the start of the next season.  If they decide to trade him, it causes multiple problems within the organization.  It both leaves them without a quarterback and sets a precedent of other players to do the same.  Unfortunately, if they hold onto him and he chooses to retire, then they have no quarterback and nothing to show for it.

If I were the Bengals I would attempt to move Palmer.  Because he has publicly demanded a trade it will hurt his value, but his value will only get lower from here.  Closer we get to the start of the season, the less another team is going to want to trade for a quarterback who doesn't know their system.  If they want to be safe, they can wait on the trade until draft night and they know if they can draft the quarterback they want with their fourth overall pick, and then trade Palmer to a quarterback starved team for more picks later in the draft.

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