As the NFL tried to cope with a pandemic, the Bengals on Monday embarked on business as unusual when they officially made seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green their franchise player by tendering a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $18 million.
Also tendered one-year deals as restricted free agents were NFL kick return champion Brandon Wilson and tight end Cethan Carter, another special teams ace, as well as backup nose tackle Josh Tupou and backup guard Alex Redmond.
That was expected. What wasn't expected is that they did it against the backdrop of a strange free agency period that begins at noon Monday with the opening of the negotiating window even as the nation shuts down much of its operation.
According to various reports, the NFL Players Association objected to a delay in free agency even though NFL teams aren't allowing visiting prospects into their facilities and all but the rarest of deals are only completed with on-site physicals.
So it looks like the Bengals are going to start Monday by relying on calls with agents to make their pitches in a derby they are believed to have about $25 million to spend to acquire new talent. Negotiations can start Monday, but the clubs can't announce deals until 4 p.m. Wednesday and that's when free agents could have started visits.
That's also the start of the new NFL year governed by a $198.2 million salary cap, up $10 million from last year. About $2.5 million is ticketed for new elements in the collective bargaining agreement passed on Sunday: two extra players on the roster (55 instead of 53) and a $100,000 raise in minimum salaries.
Green is their big ticket item. It's believed it is a non-exclusive tender, which means he can negotiate with other clubs. If he signs with another team the Bengals have five days to match and if they don't they get two first-round picks. It's believed the last time a team did a deal like that is when the Cowboys signed wide receiver Joey Galloway from Seattle in 2000. It's only the third time the Bengals have used the tag since Green was drafted in 2011. In 2012 they gave it to kicker Mike Nugent and then the next year to defensive end Michael Johnson.
When Green suffered what turned out to be his second straight season-ending injury tearing ankle ligaments in his first practice of the season, his rehab went to the frontburner ahead of a potential long-term deal.
Green, on track to become the Bengals all-time leading receiver before he missed 23 of the last 24 games, has said he'll play on the tag. He indicated he may not be around for the start of off-season workouts next month, but, then again, there may be no such thing next month with the coronavirus commanding the attention of the country. The sides still have until July 15 to get a long-term deal. He'll turn 32 two weeks later in what everyone hopes is still the first week of training camp.
"A.J. has been a big part of this team for a long time," said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor in a news release. "Now that he's healthy, I am excited to see what he will add to our offense this year."
The four restricted free agents account for about $8.5 million, each tendered about $2.13 million. Off his spectacular season that was cut short by two injured hands, Wilson, a safety, would be worth a sixth-round pick if the Bengals chose not to match an offer. Not only did he lead the league with a 31.3-yard average on kick returns that included the Bengals' first game-opening touchdown return in history, Wilson was also a valuable gunner on the punt cover team with six tackles.
Those were only one behind special teams leading tackler Tony McRae. Carter tied Wilson with six tackles while also catching his first NFL pass for a touchdown, one of his two grabs on the season. The massive Tupou contributed in the rotation against the run with 467 snaps, the most off the defensive line bench. Redmond, who started 15 games in 2018 at right guard, was limited to only three games and two starts last season when he suffered torn biceps in the Nov. 24 pre-game warmups against the Raiders before what would have been his third start of the season at right guard.
Since Redmond, Carter and Tupou are undrafted free agents, the Bengals wouldn't get compensation if they didn't match an offer. They have until April 17 to sign a competing offer, when their rights revert back to the Bengals if they remain unsigned.