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Browns sign Hawkins as Bengals mull match, but not UFAs; Report says Mays re-signs

Posted Mar 11, 2014

Update: 3-12-14, 1 a.m.

The Bengals aren’t going to be wading into unrestricted free agency any time soon, but they’ll have to take a shot at restricted free agency if they want to keep slot receiver Andrew Hawkins.

With right end Michael Johnson and left tackle Anthony Collins in line to sign mega deals in Tampa, that could translate into two third-round draft picks for the Bengals in 2015 if they back off this unrestricted free agent market.

The Cleveland Browns took a timeout from their first-day raid in free agency Tuesday (safety Donte Whitner, linebacker Karlos Dansby) and a flirtation with a Darrelle Revis trade to tender a four-year offer sheet to Hawkins for what looks to be four years, $12.2 million and up to $15 million in escalators.

But it all depends on how it is structured. The Browns can jack it up in the first year because they reportedly came into Tuesday with about $30 to 40 million to spend for 2014, and the word is Hawkins gets $5 million in the first year. How that plays in Cincy with a guy that was budgeted $1.4 million remains to be seen as they try to get extensions for their big ticket players.

Hawkins is a huge help on special teams covering kicks, particularly as a gunner on the punt team. The momentum from his break-out season of 2012 (51 catches, 533 yards) was slowed when he missed the first eight games of this past season with a severely sprained ankle that limited him 12 catches, but for a 16.6-yard average.

Last week the Bengals tendered him a one-year contract at the original number of $1.4 million. Since Hawkins is undrafted, the Bengals would get no compensation if they choose not to match.  

The Bengals have five days to figure out if that’s a good number for one of the quickest players in the NFL that gives them a vertical, 5-7, 180-pound threat as well as a matchup nightmare in space to team with the inside presence of their other slot receiver, 6-2, 210-pound Mohamed Sanu.

It certainly seems to be a number that would make him the Browns’ top slot receiver in place of Davone Bess and so now the potential Hawkins vs. Bengals slot corner Leon Hall scenarios can begin.

But it also comes down to snaps under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, which is an unknown. In the playoff game, Hawkins played 51 snaps compared to Sanu’s 30 on a day they threw 51 times with a lot of multiple receiver sets. The week before against the Ravens he played 21 snaps to Sanu’s 42 in a game they threw 36 times.

But what we do know is that Jackson is on record for coveting speed, so that’s a checkmark in the yes column.

Another player Jackson liked when he had him, Raiders running back Darren McFadden, is no longer an unrestricted free agent with reports he went back to Oakland for a year.

But because of the NFL’s compensation formula that takes into account the plusses and minuses of free agency, the Bengals aren’t going to be avidly signing UFAs. Even though McFadden would be a backup to Giovani Bernard, he would count the same as Johnson and Collins in a net total.

Also figuring into the mix is salary and play time and indications are Johnson and Collins are going to hit the high water marks there. So if the Bengals stay in the minus column, they’d get a third-rounder for Johnson and at least a fourth for Collins, which, ironically, is the round the Bengals drafted them.

A player that is released from his contract isn’t a UFA and so he doesn’t figure into the formula if they sign him.

MAYS RE-SIGNS: According to CBS, the Bengals have re-signed hybrid safety-linebacker Taylor Mays, a favorite of new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. Mays can play nickel linebacker as well as special teams. He missed the last half of last season with shoulder surgery.

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