Any way you crunch the numbers, it's clear the Bengals will enter the 2000 college draft on the heels of their most promising free agency performance in recent history.
Cincinnati has signed five free agents with starting experience on other NFL clubs, and has lost only two. The Bengals also saw two of their own offensive starters decline the chance for unrestricted free agency in favor of re-signing with Cincinnati.
"It's a huge plus for us overall," says head coach Bruce Coslet. "I'm very pleased with the way our roster is shaping up."
The five new faces in the fold are DT Tom Barndt from Kansas City, DE Vaughn Booker from Green Bay, QB Scott Mitchell from Baltimore, G-T Scott Rehberg from Cleveland and FS Darryl Williams from Seattle. All except Mitchell, who is slated to be Cincinnati's No. 2 QB, were starters for their teams last season.
The two prospective free agents who re-signed with the Bengals were starting LT Rod Jones and starting TE Tony McGee. To date, the only veterans leaving Cincinnati via free agency have been QB Jeff Blake and DT Kimo von Oelhoffen.
When Coslet hung out the "Help Wanted" sign for 2000 free agents, he had one job-related asset quite clearly in mind:
The 1999 Bengals had talent, but with 30-year-old guard Jay Leeuwenburg as the club's elder statesman, veteran savvy was in relatively short supply. The signings of Barndt, Booker, Mitchell and Williams bring in players who average 30 years of age and seven previous seasons of NFL competition. All four have been starters in postseason play.
"The experience factor was a big deal from my perspective," Coslet said. "Now we're going to have a solid group of guys with that little bit of extra maturity. It's going to make a big difference in our veteran leadership, and all these guys can play."
Barndt and Booker have been penciled in as starters on the defensive line, Barndt at RT and Booker at LE.
"Barndt has a reputation for being a hard-nosed, never-say die guy," Coslet said. "Booker has been a very productive starter. They won't play every down, but added to the guys we already have, it gives us the depth to keep everybody fresh by rotating guys during the game. The good defenses do that now, and you need enough quality players that you can do it without a significant drop in the talent level."
Williams, a former Bengals first-round draft pick, rejoins the team after starting 60 games the past four seasons for Seattle. A veteran of 120 career NFL starts, he is slated to take over the starting free safety job, allowing talented second-year player Cory Hall to move from free safety to strong safety. Williams will serve as a mentor for the entire secondary.
"It's good to be back in Cincinnati," Williams said. "I want to help this team get to the playoffs. We got there last year in Seattle, and once you do, it's contagious. You want to get back. I think I bring some of that experience, some leadership. I think that's why the Bengals brought me back."
The re-signing of Jones and McGee will give the offense continuity as second-year prospect Akili Smith takes over as starting quarterback. McGee has started 111 straight games as Cincinnati's tight end, while the powerful Jones took over last season as the starting left tackle.
"This will be the first time in my career as a head coach that I have my offensive line and tight end returning intact," Coslet said. "We were only 40 total yards off the NFL rushing lead last season (finishing 6th overall in a tight race), and believe me, the reason for that was not all (RB) Corey Dillon. Corey will be the first to tell you that the six guys busting their butts in front of him, along with (FB) Clif Groce, made all the difference in the world."