INDIANAPOLIS _ Two of the Bengals' top decision-makers met the media for the first time this offseason Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine and director of player personnel Duke Tobin and head coach Zac Taylor spoke of a different world beckoning a franchise that has become an NFL power over the past two seasons.
Last Opening Day, the Bengals started 10 free agents acquired in the previous three years, the same stretch their quarterback went from overall No. 1 pick to the Pro Bowl. The back-to-back AFC North titles and consecutive conference championship game appearance have ushered in an offseason of more maintenance than additions.
"Roster building is cyclical. We're heading into a phase of our roster building that is going to be more focused internally than externally," Tobin said. "It doesn't mean we won't be looking for opportunities externally, but we won't be trying to build our team from the external UFAs (unrestricted free agents). We're going to be trying to maintain our team with the guys who have proven they belong and can effectively win for the Cincinnati Bengals. While we always look at free agency, it might be a little different mindset."
With the explosive tandem of quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins now eligible for contract extensions and four starters from the NFL's sixth best scoring defense headed to free agency, the mindset is to keep close to the same team that has made Taylor the NFL's winningest active postseason head coach with at least seven play-off appearances.
"We have that big nucleus of what our team has been about, and that's just what we've got to navigate now," said Taylor, whose .714 post-season winning percentage bests Bill Belichick's .705. "We've got a lot of great players that are deserving of money - young and old - and we'll sort through how all that works out."
No matter how it works out, they feel like the team that lost a chance to return to the Super Bowl in the last minute in Kansas City in the AFC title re-match just 30 brief days ago is good enough.
"We're a good enough team to win it all. You have to have the break at the right point. And we didn't get those, not against Kansas City this year. But we feel confident we can get back," Tobin said. "We felt this team really came together, probably a little better team overall than the team last year because we were a little more mature in our processes and some of our players had a little more experience in big game situations. And we've got guys with big game experience coming back next year. So our expectations are super high."
So are the expectations when it comes to extending the contract of Burrow, arguably the most popular Bengal ever. But on a day Tobin quoted The Office's Kevin Malone ("I make no predictions"), he and Taylor talked more generalities than specifics.
"We're all sitting here what If'-ing," Tobin said.
Other than shooting down the psychedelic Higgins trade rumors, the ones Taylor says he laughed off.
"Whenever you see the rumors flying around out there it's nonsense," said Taylor of his two-time 1,000-yard receiver. "I do get to call the plays and it's fun having weapons out there and you don't really want to give those up."
On paper, with two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase looking at gargantuan money next year, the thinking is to move Higgins for a ton of value. But for the Bengals, who like having two No. 1s, that is spit-balling.
"Tee is an exceptional football player. I envision him being a part of what we're doing going forward for a long time. That's the hope. We want our guys, especially our guys who come in, to prove that they can help us win in a big way," Tobin said. "I'm not in the business of making other teams better. I'm in the business of making the Cincinnati Bengals better. That's not on my mind. They want a receiver, go find your own. In my opinion, Tee Higgins is a good piece for the Cincinnati Bengals. So the trade stuff is a little ridiculous right now."
What is not ridiculous is they'd love to get Burrow's monstrous deal done "sooner rather than later." And they say they have an idea what it is going to look like while indicating they could get other things done first in the hopes they can get an extension that allows them to keep enough of the nucleus to become the first AFC North team to win three straight division titles.
"We're not going to rush the process," said Tobin, who believes Burrow not only sees the whole field, but also the entire business model.
"I think Joe understands better than most people. That's what makes him a great player," Tobin said. "Joe sees the big picture. Not only after he takes the snap from the center but when he's walking around the locker room and going to practice. Working out in the offseason. Joe sees the big picture. That's what makes him great.
"Our quarterback, we go as he goes. It's our job to facilitate his success. He's proven that he can get us there. He's proven that he's a championship caliber quarterback. But you know, it's not a one-person game and we have to be ready to put some pieces around him that can facilitate his success … It's important to Joe and we'll work to try and get it accomplished. There are some things we can control with the first-and second-year (salary) cap numbers and eventually the dollars have to count. And we want to be responsible on how we count those dollars so we don't get into issues as we go along in the out years. I just can't predict when it's going to get done but we're aware of the range it's going to be."
Other topics Tobin and Taylor addressed Tuesday:
_Pushed on the issue of keeping both Higgins and Chase, Tobin made it clear they'll try and haven't thought beyond that.
"We'll talk to him, perhaps as the offseason goes on, to see if there's something we can come to an agreement on or not, he's eligible for that," Tobin said. "It's not a necessity. It's something that can be done, and we'll see. It sounds like you have thought a lot more about this than I have, I don't overthink it. He's a good player for the Cincinnati Bengals and I intend to keep him that way."
_On fitting running back Joe Mixon's big contract into a salary structure dwarfed by the quarterback and receivers.
"I can't predict what other deals will get done or how much money we'll need," Tobin/Malone said. "There might be a chance to re-negotiate some people on our team, there might be a chance to extend some people on our team. Again, there's a lot of moving pieces to this. I think the blanket statement I can make is when you have a good player who is productive you do what you can to keep them on your football team."
_On the necessity of keeping one of the two free-agent safeties, Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell.
"We aren't going to freeze out options with any of them," Tobin said. 'It will be dependent on other deals we are able to get done as the offseason goes on and what the market is for those guys. Can everybody fit in at the top value that they want? No. Maybe some guys don't get that value and want to come back, we'll see. You just can't predict that right now."
_With punter Drue Chrisman under intense scrutiny after the Bengals allowed the Chiefs to return a punt 29 yards in the last minute with 30 seconds left in the AFC title game, Taylor said there's an open competition for punter and he didn't rule out drafting one.
"I think it's good to have competition. I think that part is hard to predict," Taylor said of the draft. "We just see where the draft goes and where the value lies."