Depending what happens in the coaching world during the next seven to 10 days, the Bengals may have a busier offseason signing coaches than players with only two unsigned starters potentially free agents off their 11-5 team when the festivities begin in two months.
Despite the offensive line's struggles in Sunday's wild card game, all indications are in the big picture the Bengals liked the way it played when Andrew Whitworth moved to left guard and Anthony Collins took his place at left tackle. With the deal that Collins says made him the club's highest-paid backup now expired, it looks like the Bengals are interested in bringing back Collins as well as right end Michael Johnson.
They'd also like to retain key backup guard-center Mike Pollak on the offensive line and their kick/punt returner, wide receiver Brandon Tate, would certainly interest them as a possibility to return, as well as backup safety/linebacker Taylor Mays, backup cornerback Brandon Ghee and backup tight end Alex Smith. The fate of nickel back Chris Crocker is never known since he always seems to surface in September.
But the starting linemen are where the Bengals are going to start.
Johnson, who made $11 million this past season as the franchise player, is going to be a challenge to fit on a line that already has Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins and left end Carlos Dunlap with extensions of $40 million or more. But the Bengals would love to find a way since Johnson's durability (he's missed one game in five seasons and this year he averaged about 90 percent of the snaps) and character are highly-regarded in the locker room.
"I have a ton of respect for him," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. "I remember when he came here he had a lot of things said about him when he came out of college; he wouldn't finish, he didn't do this or didn't do that, but Michael has become a good football player. He's very conscientious, he plays extremely hard. He's one of these guys that we've build up into what we're looking for here, the kind of guys that we want, the kind of personalities, the kind of caring about one another in the locker room. I can't say enough good things about him … hopefully, we'll get him back. If not, I know that Michael will be successful wherever he goes." Johnson would like to return here. One of the NFL's highly-regarded defensive lines has grown together and Johnson has been a key figure, arriving right smack in the middle of veterans Robert Geathers and Domata Peko and newcomers Atkins, Dunlap, Devon Still, Brandon Thompson and Margus Hunt that have mixed nicely with free agent pickup Wallace Gilberry. But given how Johnson and Zimmer feel about each other, if Zimmer ends up as a head coach, that team would no doubt catch Johnson's eye.
In the rookie Hunt the Bengals have a second-rounder playing end that has learned a lot from Johnson and Gilberry while also getting some work up and down the line.
"I'm not discouraged by him at all. We worked him at a couple of different positions last month," Zimmer said. "We probably didn't play him as much as he would've liked or as much as he should've but he's a good kid and he's got a chance to be a good player."
Collins already is and if the offensive line didn't have a great day on Sunday, it had its moments during the year. Such as allowing one sack when the game was on the line in the last six weeks of the regular season. Collins was at the center of it, blanking NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Mathis, as well as perennial Pro Bowl pass rushers Jared Allen and Terrell Suggs.
"I'm very proud, personally, in a selfish way I am very proud of myself. I know it's only going to get better," Collins said as he packed up this week.
Collins, 28, is another example of a player who matured beyond his scouting reports and his first couple of seasons in the NFL to become a reliable linchpin of the locker room chemistry to go along with being a valuable contributor. After finishing up his second deal with the Bengals, he has seen it all and he's more than battle tested ready to become the regular left tackle.
After studying his 592 snaps, Pro Football Focus has Collins as the only tackle in the league that didn't give up a sack or a hit on the quarterback this season, even though he also played Bears great Julius Peppers and Miami's Olivier Vernon, an 11.5-sack man in addition to Mathis. (PFF had Collins giving up a hit Sunday against the Chargers.)
"They just felt like Whit is a great player at tackle and guard. Wherever he's at, he's going to play with tenacity and be physical and know he's going to be able to do in and out," Collins said. "When they put me at tackle and put Whit at guard, they felt like it was the best fit at that time. It just worked out. I had a blessing with Julius Peppers to play against him that first game (in place of the injured Whitworth). The first game of the season is always hard. I stood up to the task. Ever since they put me at left tackle against Vernon in Miami I stood up to the task. They just made it a sure thing after the injury (to left guard Clint Boling). We played well."
Collins says he's come a long way. So long you have to go back to his second year and the second half of the fifth game of the 2009 season.
With rookie Andre Smith injured, Collins started the first five games of the season at right tackle after starting the last six games of '08 at left tackle. But even though the Bengals were on their way to beating Baltimore and going 4-1, Collins was benched for the second half in favor of Dennis Roland as offensive line coach Paul Alexander continued his two-year quest of getting on Collins.
"I'm saying, 'Why is he getting on me? I'm doing the same thing as everyone else,' " Collins said. "But he saw something.
"It hit me when I didn't play the second half in Baltimore. My family was there. My friends were there. And they're asking me, 'Why didn't you play in the second half?' I wasn't a professional. I wasn't a professional in my second year. I was just thinking my talents would take over. I wasn't watching any film. This year is the most film I've ever watched. High school. College. Combined. It works."
Collins began to realize how much it has all meant to him when he hugged Alexander and some of his mates goodbye Monday, not knowing if he'll work with them again. Despite all the riding, Collins believes Alexander did it in order to make him a better player. Peppers, Mathis, et al, can tell him it worked.
"It's a bittersweet moment with the loss ... seeing everybody pack up. Some tears. Hugging each other. Hugging the coaches. This is a family," Collins said. "All the way from April when we got together, we've been bleeding together, sweating together, spending a lot of time together. So when it ends like this again, the first round of the playoffs, it hurts, it hurts. The sweet thing about it, personally, I got better as a person, a leader and football player and it's going to pay off real well for me."
Collins took a lot of snaps this year from the start of the spring camps because he had to play both sides with Whitworth out with a knee issue and Smith out for personal reasons. But he's got plenty of tread on the tires. After seven starts this season, he's only got 25 career starts. Yet many have come in the heat of playoff runs against big-time pass rushers.
"I've seen a lot come and go. This is dog eat dog and the best thing Coach Alexander told me this morning is the reason why you're going to play a long time in this league is because you got better every year you were here," Collins said. "When you take a step back every year you were here, you're not going to last long, but when you get better every year you're here, the sky's the limit."
The Bengals are hoping Paul Brown Stadium is in the skyline.