The Cincinnati Bengals are never the team to make a splash signing within minutes of free agency opening. They prefer to sit back and wait for some better deals while building through the draft.
That’s why it was somewhat of a surprise to see the Bengals trade for left tackle Cordy Glenn right before the free-agency period last year. Glenn came with one of the biggest cap numbers on the team, which essentially meant the Bengals went silent in free agency afterward, save for the addition of linebacker Preston Brown and tackle Bobby Hart.
With free agency cranking up again when the new league year opens on Wednesday, it’s unlikely to see their general philosophy change, even with a new coaching staff in place. While the Bengals appear to have around $50 million in cap space, that's not quite how they view it.
The Bengals typically have a policy to use their carryover money each year for their players’ extensions, while also helping with things like incentives. That number would have come in handy in 2018 had tight end Tyler Eifert and linebacker Vontaze Burfict maxed out the incentives in their contracts.
Because both players left significant money on the table, the Bengals were able to carry over about $8 million. They’ll likely set that aside for upcoming extensions for receivers Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green. Taking into account money for draft picks and expenses throughout the year, it’s likely about half of that initial $50 million is available to spend in free agency.
The Bengals also keep a heavy eye on the compensatory-picks formula. Because players who were released by their former team don’t count toward the formula, it certainly makes those players more attractive to pick up in free agency. That's one of the reasons the Bengals made a bid to get former Panthers safety Kurt Coleman last year.
If the Bengals wanted to open more cap room, they could release or attempt to trade Burfict. His exit would save about $6.8 million against the cap, but that seems unlikely unless they already had a plan to target another linebacker in free agency.
Releasing Dre Kirkpatrick would also free up $6.7 million in room, but that's also unlikely. The Bengals like Kirkpatrick and there's no way they would let him go when they stand a good chance to lose slot corner Darqueze Dennard, who is likely to pursue a contract that would pay him as an outside cornerback. Beyond those two and William Jackson III, the Bengals have no depth there. Additionally, releasing players early to free up space has never been the Bengals’ style.
So what does that mean for the Bengals? Their need for a linebacker has become quite clear after several years of one-year stopgaps. Brown was not necessarily intending to play on a one-year deal, but he bet on himself and returned to his hometown. Another one-year deal would likely be a possibility going forward.
While Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley could become available, it’s unlikely the Bengals would want to be in a bidding war for him. With the price he’d command, the Bengals wouldn’t be able to do much else in free agency. Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks is another intriguing option, but it's hard to tell what the market would be for him due to his injury history.
A player like Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander, who is coming off an ACL tear and has ties to new Bengals assistant Mark Duffner, could make more sense provided his price doesn’t go through the roof.
Offensive line would likely be the other main priority. The Bengals aren't likely to target any high-priced cornerbacks or safeties and they're set at running back. If they were to look for a quarterback, it would be in a veteran backup capacity. Considering they have Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap under contract for several years, and up-and-comers like Sam Hubbard and Carl Lawson, they seem pretty set there as well. Longtime defensive end Michael Johnson is set to become a free agent, and it would be surprising to see him return to Cincinnati as anything other than a backup.
The Bengals won't be silent in free agency this year, but expect more of the same as last year: Priority regarding re-signing their own players, a mid-tier free agent or two, and maybe one minor splash. They might have a new coaching staff, but the team isn't suddenly going to change how it has operated for several years because of that.